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Magic vs. Raptors, Game 1 preview: Playoff basketball starts now

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Back in the postseason mix for the first time since 2012, the Magic face a huge hurdle north of the border

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

For the first time since 2012, the Orlando Magic will play an 83rd game.

Back in the playoff bracket after busting what was the league’s third longest postseason drought, they’ll head north for what promises to be an incredibly tough match-up against one of the heavyweights of the Eastern Conference, the Raptors of Toronto.

The Magic have been one of this season’s feel-good stories, riding a second half surge buoyed by one of the league’s best defenses and a surprisingly competent offense. Their 42-40 record accounts for a mammoth 17-win improvement over last season, as well as a sizeable over in relation to what many of the preseason predictions had them pegged for.

Nikola Vucevic earned a well-deserved All-Star birth. Terrence Ross will rightly be in the Sixth Man of the Year discussion. Steve Clifford has proven himself to be Orlando’s best coaching hire in quite some time. For the veterans who endured the interminable losing of the rebuild -- Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, most notably -- it has ultimately been a redemptive season.

And yet, it all counts for nothing in the context of this series. The slate has been wiped clean.

If the Magic want to be more than a fleeting footnote on this NBA season they’ll need to do what many have already written off as an impossibility. They’ll need to beat a stronger, deeper, and more skilled basketball team four times out of seven. The climbing of that mountain starts tonight.

The Raptors are going to take some stopping. They have a genuine MVP-level, two-way superstar in Kawhi Leonard on the wing, and they’ve partnered him with one of the league’s top-tier point guards, Kyle Lowry. Both are capable of dominating their own individual match-ups, with Lowry in particular being a killer out of the pick-and-roll.

You can add to this duo the ascending Pascal Siakam, the playoff tested Marc Gasol and Danny Green, and the revitalized Serge Ibaka. The bench also goes deep, with competent contributors like Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin and Norman Powell. They can mix-and-match a number of different play styles as the game dictates, while the general length, adaptability and switchability of the roster is a defensive nightmare for any opponent.

Still, the Magic will fight for the chance they have, however slim. There are a handful of likely suspects who could catch fire at the right time, allowing the team to steal the game down the stretch if they can keep it close enough. There are some potential X-factors lurking in the lineup that could swing the result. There’s a chance that Vucevic thoroughly dominates his match-up inside. Coach Clifford might have an unexpected trick or two up his sleeve that turns the contest.

When it comes to sports, stranger things have happened than the Magic winning game one of this series. And let’s not forget that the Raptors, with their well-documented struggles in the postseason, are 2-13 all-time in Game 1’s. Let’s see if the Magic can now make the farfetched a reality.

As always, be sure to join us in the game thread and dive into the discussion!