Orlando Magic have come far, Boston Celtics showed them they have far to go

The Orlando Magic hoped their trip to Boston this weekend would be more proof they were ready to play with the best teams in the league. They left understanding they still have a lot of work to do to climb the Eastern Conference standings.
Paolo Banchero had another big scoring performance for the Orlando Magic. But the Boston Celtics continued to prove to be too much and too experienced for a young Magic team.
Paolo Banchero had another big scoring performance for the Orlando Magic. But the Boston Celtics continued to prove to be too much and too experienced for a young Magic team. / Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

97. 38. Magic Celtics Final 12.17.23. 114. 18. Final

Paolo Banchero learned a key lesson from Friday's game against the Boston Celtics. After a poor-shooting and high-turnover game where he was struggling to break through the Celtics' tough defense, he was determined from the start to make a statement and help his team make a statement.

Banchero scored 19 of his 36 points in the opening quarter, helping Orlando stake an early lead once again. He was aggressive going to the basket and he got to his spots with ease to get into his rhythm jumpers. The Celtics had no way to stop him as everyone will have no way to stop him as he continues to evolve.

But that was not the story of the game. Banchero found little help offensively and the Magic found little relief to break through.

Slowly the Celtics started to constrict the space around the Magic. Boston switched and kept Orlando from getting to the paint, preventing shots on the interior and forcing Orlando to stay on the perimeter. The team settled for 3-pointers. And while the Magic were more focused defensively, it was inevitable.

The Celtics figured out how to get shots and break through the Magic's defense. Especially with Orlando struggling to score. The Magic got down by double digits after a 34-19 second quarter in the Celtics' favor. They fought back to get it within four, but it was a matter of time.

Orlando had one way to attack and Boston had several. Welcome to playing big-time basketball.

The Magic have come a long way this season. They have established themselves as a solid defensive team and a team capable of winning against anyone. Orlando can see that it is a playoff team and among one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.

The next level is breaking through to the championship trio of the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. No one considers the Magic part of that group. And the only way to get through to that group is by winning games against them and, more importantly, winning the playoffs.

Everyone's eyes are on the playoffs and how this team will play in April. Everything at this point is a preparation for what the team will see in the postseason. Everything is a lesson to get ready for those moments.

The Celtics provided plenty of those lessons throughout the weekend and in the 114-97 win at TD Garden on Sunday.

"They felt exactly what it means to be a high-level basketball team," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Sunday's game. " I think our guys registered that. By no means is it a moral victory. It's more along the lines of: How do we take the learning from this and get better moving forward? How physical you can be within a game. How you have to defend the right way. How you have to share the basketball and when you are open, you have to be confident to step in and take your shot."

The Magic did not necessarily play poorly through Sunday's game. But the Celtics also were never really challenged either.

Boston struggled at times with its shooting, but the team hit big shots at critical moments to stifle any Orlando run. More importantly, the Celtics were able to close the door on the paint for the Magic.

Boston was the better team all weekend. And a veteran team teaching a young Magic team a lot of hard lessons.

"We've got work to do," Paolo Banchero said after Sunday's game. "That's a championship-caliber team. They have got championship aspirations. They've been there. They are in the Eastern Conference Finals pretty much every year or right there in the mix for it. If we want to get there, that's the team we've got to compete for it and we've got to beat."

It was about the details that Mosley talks about all the time. It was about doing the little things that determine wins.

Like taking a quick shot that led to a long rebound and a fast-break chance for the Celtics. Or it was about driving to the lane and expecting a foul call and not getting it and that brief moment looking at the ref expecting the call. It was about grabbing a critical offensive rebound and preventing a second-chance opportunity.

The Magic are usually pretty good at these things.

They are usually good at playing deliberately and keeping the ball moving. But they had only 18 assists on 34 field goals. That is a lot of isolation basketball, something uncharacteristic for this team.

Orlando usually lives in the paint. But Boston outscored Orlando 44-34 in the paint. That is good paint defense from the Magic (the Celtics shot 22 for 42 in the paint). But the Magic's offense lives on those paint touches and points.

Just like Orlando lives at the foul line. The Magic managed only 24 free throws. Banchero had six in his 36-point effort (making four). A lot of those free throws came late.

More importantly, when the Magic were struggling to score through a 6-for-22 shooting performance in the second quarter, they had only six free throw attempts and four points in the paint (on 2-for-7 shooting). This was simply not the way the Magic must attack and score.

The Celtics, in other words, forced the Magic out of their preferred style and into their preferred style. They have the star power to constantly seek matchup advantages and make tough shots. They have the players who not only can finish -- Brown scored 17 of his 31 in the fourth quarter to put the game fully out of reach -- but thrive at finishing.

This is something this Magic team has to learn. It is something they have yet to experience, let alone do. And Boston used that experience to its advantage.

Orlando can take some solace that it played better in Sunday's game than it did on Friday. After a season-high 21.3 percent turnover rate, the Magic turned it over just nine times for six Celtics points. After struggling with late rotations and fouls on Friday, Boston took just eight free throw attempts in the games.

Maybe the loss really did come down to making or missing shots and the Magic's inability to break through a tough Celtics defense.

But Boston is not a team that lives in a world of moral victories. The Magic are not a team that wants to live there either.

"This is not a moral victory," Mosley said after Sunday's loss. "Just saying we competed and we're growing, those are great things and that's the truth. The reality is these guys are not happy about not getting the game. They feel like we're at a good level of basketball and we can compete with some of the best teams. Knowing that, it stings a little more. But we have to learn from this.

This was a big game and series. Celtics players admitted as much throughout the weekend. The Magic have earned a modicum of respect. But it was a bigger challenge for Orlando. Boston was supposed to win and assert its dominance.

The Magic are still learning how to play at this playoff and championship level that the Celtics can naturally reach back toward and find.

Next. home on the road 12.17.23. Orlando Magic facing challenge of taking home play on the road. dark

In the end, the Magic know they will have to face a challenge like this one again very soon. The Celtics taught them that while the Magic have come a long way this season, there is still a whole lot more to learn and grow before another potential meeting in April when the games count for something.