The Orlando Magic were not happy with how their 2020 season went and took an important first step in outlasting the Miami Heat in game one.
The Orlando Magic had big dreams for their 2020 season. Very big dreams.
It was not just that some media believed this team was poised to take the next step and become one of the up-and-coming teams in the league, competing for home-court advantage. It was that this team and this group, having finally burst through to make the playoffs, believed it was at the start of something.
The group, having finally broken the malaise of perpetual rebuilding, believed they were finally poised to do something in this league.
They never really got the chance to get going. Injuries derailed the team from the beginning of the year all the way until the end of the season.
But that was not an excuse. Even when the team had the chance to create some rhythm, the Magic never really took off.
There were precious few marquee wins — just five wins against teams with winning records — and the expectedly the Magic finished at the bottom of the playoff ladder.
The team accomplished its basic goal of making the postseason, but it certainly had an empty feeling about it.
The Magic have that goal of getting back to the playoffs again. But with something of a second chance and virtually the same roster returning, the Magic clearly have a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
Few people are predicting they will return to the playoffs for a third straight year. There are calls for the team to break itself up and start over. Or the team is just outright overlooked. Its accomplishments (as meager as they are) dismissed.
If this opening game against had something of a revenge tour feel to it, that edge is certainly welcome. And against the reigning Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat, Orlando seemed like it had something to prove.
In a gritty game against the Heat that was both ragged as the first game following a shortened preseason and intense as it should be between two division rivals, the Magic stood tall with a 113-107 victory.
They were the ones willing to drive into the paint and muscle their way to the basket — as both Aaron Gordon and Markelle Fultz did in critical late baskets. They were the ones who were digging out rebounds and getting stops, making the plays that become necessary to win.
At every turn when it seemed like the Heat were preparing to pull away and take charge, the Magic found the shot or stop to regain control. Neither team was able to take full control throughout the game. It was going to come down to a few key plays.
"“That was our best stretch of defensively play,” coach Steve Clifford said after Wednesday’s game. “For our team, we need to be balanced like everyone else does. It’s going to start with defending every night. And tonight was a good start to that.”"
The clutch problem
The Orlando Magic struggled to make these plays in games last year. Orlando gave up leads late against the Pheonix Suns and Sacramento Kings most notably. Star power seemed to unravel this team in these big moments.
Last year, the Magic had just five wins against teams with records better than .500 and went 14-20 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes last year, 21st in the league in clutch record.
Orlando did not have many of these moments last year after making a living out of come-from-behind moments in the 2019 season. The Magic were one of the best fourth-quarter teams in the league during that playoff run.
And Orlando had a chance to fold in this one.
The team went through a four-minute stretch without scoring, allowing the Heat to retake control of the game and give them the momentum seemingly to pull away.
Orlando did not let that happen to this team.
"“That was the game,” Evan Fournier said after Wednesday’s game. “We were struggling, we weren’t playing good ball. Even defensively, we were a little too loose. The fact we came together and let our frustration out, we moved on. That was the game. We came out and executed. We were more locked in on defense. And honestly, the fans got into it. To hear a little bit of fans to get going, it felt good.”"
This was the sign of a team trying to take a step up. It was something the team did not do last year.
Neither were two other areas Steve Clifford pointed out as areas the team struggled with.
Orlando had the third-worst net rating in the league in the first quarter, getting outscored by 7.1 points per 100 possessions. That is always a difficult hole to climb out of. As Clifford often points out, a lot of games are actually decided by who holds the lead and who has to chase after the first quarter.
He also pointed out how important it will be for the Magic to defend the Amway Center better, after going 16-15 in the Amway Center last year.
Taken together, those are all signs of a team that is not checking off the boxes that lead to deep playoff success. The better teams take the lead early, take care of business at home and are able to beat other playoff teams. Certainly, that last thing is something teams have to do once the playoffs begin.
The building blocks
If the Orlando Magic were looking for signs that their focus, intensity, urgency and desire were greater. They saw them even in the ragged way teams are starting this year.
"“I think it means a lot coming out for the first game, you want to come out and win,” Markelle Fultz said after Wednesday’s game. “Especially being on your home court. You want to protect home court. It shows all the work we put in and all that we learned and what we’re capable of. I think for everybody it shows what we can do when we are locked in and play well together. It’s motivation. We’re going to keep building off of that and try to do that the whole game.”"
Ultimately though, this is just one building block. A base to a bigger project that will be ongoing during the course of this 72-game season.
There is still a lot of work to do.
As much poise as the team showed, they still had plenty to clean up defensively. They are not going to be able to win games on effort alone. There is some precision the team needs to build.
And this is still just one game. The Magic beat the Heat last year, after all, as one of those five wins against winning teams. Nobody is resting on their laurels.
The Orlando Magic won their season opener last year, but felt a bit hollow with how they played, having to gut it out against a Cleveland Cavaliers team destined to miss the playoffs.
There are plenty of challenges still ahead.
"“Obviously it was a good win and we played against a good team,” Nikola Vucevic said after Wednesday’s game. “Things change quickly in the NBA. We just have to stay humble, build on this wing, try to get better each game and not overreact to it. Obviously, it is better to start the year with a win than a loss.”"
That is something to build on at the very least. A hint that this season could be something different. Or at least, that it will not be as disappointing and sometimes frustrating as last year was.
This night, Orlando saw the intensity, energy and precision they have to play with. They showed they can reach that level.
It seems Orlando is eager to take advantage of the opportunity now that it has come. It seems the Magic are eager to prove this group can do more than they did last year.