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The Orlando Magic’s X-factors in the postseason

Who or what could unexpectedly shine in an unlikely Orlando victory?

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Playoff basketball is an interesting beast. Turning every matchup into a best-of-even series is a move intended to allow the best team to move forward; theoretically it gives an outfit with superior skill the opportunity to rise to the top over a much greater sample size than the luck inherent in a single game. Any side might be able to pull off a single fluke win, but stumbling into four out of seven? Good luck.

The Basketball Gods, however, are not a linear equation. And when it comes to playoff basketball they are frequently willing to let agents of chaos thrive.

You don’t have to search too hard to find examples of lower seeds and underdogs upsetting more fancied opponents. New Orleans over Portland in 2018. Golden State over Dallas in 2007. Famously, Denver over Seattle (in five) in 1994. Hell, in 1999 the eighth-seeded Knicks waltzed all the way to the NBA Finals, even after their franchise center, Patrick Ewing, went down with an injury. There’s also, of course, the time LeBron and the Cavaliers toppled the seemingly unstoppable 73 win Warriors in the 2016 Finals. As Kevin Garnett reminded us, when it comes to playoff basketball anything is possible.

So what gives? What’s the point of the regular season if the teams that separate themselves and win the most games go home early? Well, the playoffs put teams under a microscope, forcing all contenders-to-be to face their greatest weaknesses, which will undoubtedly be targeted by their opposition. That which only bends in the regular season could be made to break once the games take on greater significance.

It’s about reading, reacting and responding under extreme pressure. It’s about matchups, adjustments and X-factors. The Magic seemingly don’t match up particularly well with the star-studded Raptors, and the relatively thin nature of their rotation makes adjustments hard to find. That leaves us with the last consideration, X-factors. Who or what could unexpectedly shine in an unlikely Orlando victory? And can we find enough of them to turn this series on its head?

Four wins. Four potential X-factors. Let’s do this.

X-Factor 1: Aaron Gordon shows his two-way value

NBA: Orlando Magic at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into this match up Aaron Gordon might be the single most important player on Orlando’s roster. More than ever, the team will need him to be the two-way contributor they envisioned first when they drafted him out of the University of Arizona, and again when they re-signed him to a four-year, $80 million contract. For the Magic to win they’ll need his presence to be felt at both ends of the court.

We’ve seen Gordon have huge offensive explosions before, perhaps most memorably in a pair of 40-point games last season. But these came on the back of some pretty unsustainable three-point shooting numbers, and aren’t really reflective of the involvement coach Steve Clifford will be asking of him. The relatively equal opportunity nature of Orlando’s offense means he doesn’t have to be the primary playmaker or number one option, a fact which actually plays to his strengths.

Instead the Magic will need Gordon to be energetic, decisive and opportunistic on offense, reading the play and taking advantage of what the opposition allows at any given point. His performance in the final regular season game against the Hornets is illustrative of how he can be at his most impactful by playing this way. After ineffectively forcing the issue early, AG eventually settled into the rhythm of the game, finding buckets on quick reaction drives, flex cuts to the paint, and athletic putbacks. He largely limited isolation plays to identified mismatches, even busting out some bully ball in the post when faced with a smaller defender. These are all ways he can meaningfully leverage the advantage of his athleticism.

Making his two-way task an even more difficult proposition is the fact that he’ll spend a large chunk of the series matched up with one of the game’s preeminent two-way beasts, Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors wing hasn’t exactly reached the lofty heights basketball punditry usually expects of him this season, primarily because of load management and the kinks anyone experiences when returning from a sizeable layoff. Still, he’s been excellent, posting numbers that would certainly put him on an All-NBA team had he played more games. Plus, as we know, he’s proven himself to be a monstrous playoff performer.

All of this is to say that Gordon really has his work cut out for him if he’s to emerge as a defensive difference-maker in this series. The Magic will need him to slow Leonard down, forcing him away from the pick-and-roll while funneling him towards more advantageous help defense. He’ll want to keep him off the charity stripe, which requires not overplaying his drives and mid-range pumps while also challenging strongly enough to make these tough shots. It’s also imperative that he not lose him in transition or on breakdowns. It’s a balancing act that is going to require constant focus and energy whenever Leonard is on the court.

In terms of the head-to-head duel it’s highly unlikely that Gordon will take the honors over Leonard across the entirety of the series. But if he can win small stretches and play him to a draw at other times, it will feel like a victory for the Magic. Offensively it’s about energetic, high-percentage plays. Defensively, he’ll be working to simply slow down a superstar. If he can consistently do both he might just be the X-factor that Orlando needs.

X-Factor 2: Jonathan Isaac makes an impact on offense

NBA: Orlando Magic at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

If Gordon is the obvious nomination, Jonathan Isaac could be the genuine surprise-in-waiting. We already know that the Magic’s second-half surge coincided with his improved play, and if they’re going to improbably keep this thing rolling beyond the first round, they’ll need strong contributions from their second-year forward.

Isaac really benefited from two things post-All Star break: stronger shooting numbers from deep and increased confidence. This pair of factors also played into each other, as successful conversions stripped away the hesitancy of his shot, allowing him to launch attempts in rhythm and with defenders a further half-beat behind in their rotations and closeouts. The confidence gained by seeing these shots fall also undoubtedly impacted other facets of his game, encouraging him to more assertively make decisions with the ball in hand and to drive to the hoop when presented the chance. He became a quicker and more effective decision maker and his game prospered.

Across February, March and April, Isaac connected on his three-point attempts at rates of 38%, 36% and 33%, respectively. The only other time he approached these numbers was in the month of November, when he connected on 7 of just 20 total attempts (35%). Across his final 29 games he actually launched from distance 139 times, meaning that he improved his accuracy while also dramatically increasing the number of attempts. These are the type of gains that suggest a level of sustainability.

If the Magic are going to find a way to win they can’t have Isaac be a non-factor in the boxscore. He’s not going to lead the team in scoring, but he will have to continue to shoot the deep ball (particularly from the corners) and make a healthy clip to force the defense to think twice about leaving him wide open. He’ll need to hustle on the break and continue to seek out chances for offensive rebounds. He’ll need to keep making a good percentage of his free throw attempts.

Isaac is always going to be a disruptive defensive presence, and despite a tough match up featuring heavy doses of the vastly improved Pascal Siakam and the bona fide stardom of Leonard this will continue to be the case. Remember, our very own Mike Cali gave him the nickname of ‘The Pascal Siakam Eraser’ for a reason (he was held to just 8.8 points per game on 34% shooting against Orlando, by far his worst figures against any opponent). But if the Magic can get the same type of offensive contributions that emphatically punctuated his compelling late season surge the likelihood of an upset will be greatly increased.

The expectation has always been that Isaac should be a defensive difference maker. Instead in this series it’s on offense where he could emerge as a true X-factor.

X-Factor 3: Nikola Vucevic, All-Star pick-and-roll defender

NBA: Orlando Magic at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

There are some who are very slow to believe this, but over the last couple of seasons Nikola Vucevic has turned himself into a serviceable defender. He has improved both his positioning and his footwork. If we’re being totally honest, he also seems to exert more effort on these assignments these days. He’s not a finger-wagging shot-blocker and never will be, but the days of him being an ugly liability at this end of the court are largely over.

There is one area, however, where he continues to struggle. As a pick-and-roll defender Vucevic isn’t quite nimble enough to do all that is asked of him in this role, and over the course of a potential seven-game series it’s the type of deficiency that could be be ruthlessly exploited by a capable opponent. With players like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet and, of course, Leonard, the Raptors qualify as such.

The biggest challenge Vucevic faces when being asked to defend in this manner is his ability to stymie the ball handler and then recover quickly enough to cut off his man’s roll. A slow rotation can create oodles of space for the opposition to move into, a scenario the various weapons on Toronto’s roster will relish and surely take advantage of. Toronto’s bigs are willing and (sometimes) able shooters from deep, so Orlando should expect to see those screens set high, where Vooch has the most trouble recovering from.

Some of this is solely Vucevic’s responsibility. He has to be alert, engaged, and active throughout. He needs to bump and show with extended arms to shut down passing lanes, all while not losing track of his man and knowing when to recover. Some of it, though, is on the back court and wing players, who need to aggressively fight through screens and limit the time their big man has to spend alone on an island. They need to clean the glass when Toronto’s centers stretch him away from the rim.

2019 was the year that Nikola Vucevic was recognized as an All-Star. But what Orlando will now be hoping is that they can look back and recognize how his pick-and-roll defense was an unlikely X-factor in this series.

X-Factor 4: Steve Clifford works the clipboard

NBA: Orlando Magic at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball discussion so often focuses on the on-court action that one could be forgiven for forgetting that the coaching staff have a sizeable impact on the outcome of games as well. For Orlando’s newly minted Coach of the Month, Steve Clifford, it’s a tall task facing him in his return to the postseason.

He’s got a little more experience than the majority of the players on the roster, having guided Charlotte to the playoffs twice previously. Both matchups came against the Heat; the first trip resulted in a sweep at the hands of a rampaging LeBron, while the second extended to a seventh game before some Dwyane Wade heroics sent the Hornets home. Both instances saw Clifford working with a relatively talent-poor and obviously overmatched roster, a fact that speaks to the effectiveness of his work in getting them there in the first place.

It’s the job of the coaching staff to determine strategy, identify weaknesses that can be probed, and adjust game-to-game and possession-to-possession in a way that gives the team the best chance of success. It remains to be seen how much tinkering can be done to Orlando’s already thin lineups and limited rotations, but if there are buttons to be pressed that might serve as a leveler it will be Clifford’s job to find them.

To this point Clifford has had the right answers, even if it took some time to figure out a few of them. It’s been touched on previously, but the staggering of minutes to provide extra scoring punch to bench-heavy units has helped, as has the settling of back up positions. He has also empowered Vucevic as the fulcrum of the team’s offense, while also coaxing improved passing and playmaking out of Gordon and Evan Fournier. Defensive schemes have helped to hide some of the limitations of the personnel, while there’s plenty to be said for the cultural change and tone he established.

In the playoffs there won’t be the luxury of time to solve any pressing problems. Adjustments need to be proactive and immediate, otherwise you run the risk of being too late in your application. The Magic will need their coach to act early and decisively, carving out any inch of advantage that can be found. How will he handle an MVP-caliber scorer? What can he do to provide defensive support for players like Vucevic and DJ Augustin? Is there a point of attack to prioritize, or a plan when the jumpshots stop falling?

It’s already been an impressive coaching performance, particularly in the back half of the season, to get this Magic team into the playoffs. Let’s hope that coach Clifford’s Xs and Os can serve as an X-factor in Orlando’s favor a few more times yet.

It’s been a long wait, but playoff basketball is about to once again be a reality for the Magic. The team are underdogs, undoubtedly, but the NBA has a long history of upsets and unexpected outcomes. Soon enough we’ll know what the Basketball Gods have in store, and whether or not this series’ X-factors will shine in Orlando’s favor.