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Magic vs. Raptors, Game 3 preview: The return of the Orlando Magic’s home-court advantage

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Playoff basketball, and a true advantage, returns to Orlando for the first time since 2012

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As playoff basketball returns to Orlando for the first time since 2012, the Magic now have a home-court advantage in more ways that one.

In what has become a best-of-five series against the Raptors, with three of the next four games scheduled for Orlando, the Magic are no longer the team in need of a road victory to win the series. After playing in hostile territory north of the border, they return to the friendly confines of Amway Arena, where they have won nine consecutive games and 13 of their last 14 overall.

Over the last seven years of what had been a seemingly never-ending rebuild for the Magic, playing at home didn’t necessarily equate to a home-court advantage. During that stretch, the team rarely gave the crowd reason to be excited, or to even show up.

That has changed over the last few months. As the Magic won meaningful games during their playoff push, the crowd responded with an energy and atmosphere that gave the home team a true advantage.

Steve Clifford first acknowledged the Orlando crowd’s impact on March 22 after the Magic’c come-from-behind overtime victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

“Tonight they got the first taste of what the Orlando fanbase can do for a team,” Clifford said. “It used to be like that every night.”

I’m old enough to remember when playing in the O-rena was essentially a guaranteed win for the Magic. That was back when they went 76-6 at home over a two-season stretch (39-2 during the 1994-1995 season, 37-4 during the 1995-1996 season).

Clifford was an assistant coach for the Magic when they posted home records of 32-9 in the 2007-2008 season and 34-7 in the 2008-2009 season. On April 5, after the Magic’s dominant 149-113 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in the regular season finale, Clifford said the crowd reminded him of those glory days.

“This is more like how it used to be to me,” Clifford said. “It’s loud. It becomes a difficult place to play....It’s always going to be the same no matter what city you’re in. If you deserve it. In a place like this, we have great fans. We have to play well, and we have to play meaningful games, and then they can aid us a great deal. Just like they did tonight.”

When the Magic take the court on Friday night, the atmosphere will be as electric, and the fans as loud, as it was during the NBA Finals runs of Shaq and Penny and Dwight and Hedo.

The arena has hosted five playoff games since the arena opened in 2010 - with the Magic going 2-3. When the Magic last took the court for the a playoff game in Orlando, it was Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson Ryan Anderson, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis who were on the court for the opening tip. That was on May 5, 2012.

Now - 2,539 days later - playoff basketball returns to Orlando.

For the Magic to extend their home winning streak and take a 2-1 series lead over the Raptors, they will have to find a solution for their struggling offense. Key to that will be finding a way to get Nikola Vucevic to return to All-Star form. Over the first two games, Vucevic has been muscled out of position by Marc Gasol and swarmed with aggressive double teams. As a result, he has looked a shell of his All-Star self, averaging just 8.5 points on 28.6 percent shooting (6-for-21, including 1-for-4 from three). In the first two games of the series, he has made nearly as many turnovers (five) as he has assists (six) and field goals made (six).

Vucevic must be the aggressor in his match-up with Gasol in Game 3 and find ways to establish position down low and use his footwork and agility to his advantage. If his teammates begin to move the ball, cut, and start shooting better from the perimeter, it would certainly alleviate the defensive pressure on Vooch and open the court, giving him more space to operate.

The Magic as a team are shooting just 38.6 percent from the field and have committed 28 turnovers. D.J. Augustin (52.6 percent), Aaron Gordon (50 percent) and Michael Carter-Williams (47.1 percent) are the only Magic regulars shooting better than 37 percent in the series.

The struggles of Evan Fournier (36.7 percent) and Jonathan Isaac (33.3 percent, including 1-for-10 from three) have largely been overshadowed/ignored because of Vucevic’s alarming drop in production. It’s time for both to start making shots to draw defenders away from the paint.

We are yet to see the Magic at their best in this series, and still, they return to Orlando with a 1-1 split. They return home to an arena where they haven’t lost since February. And, after years of suffering, the Amway Center crowd will be behind them like never before.

“It’s going to be rocking loud,” Gordon told reporters. “It’s going to be louder than it’s been in seven years. So it’s going to be beautiful just to have the whole city of Orlando behind us and in there. You know, we feed off the crowd. We like that energy. And it’s going to be a beautiful thing.”