Magic fans have been waiting seven long years to see this:
The Orlando Magic, who have spent the last seven years in a seemingly perpetual rebuild, have clinched a playoff spot. With their 116-108 win on the road over the Boston Celtics, Orlando brought an end to a playoff drought that was the third longest in the league.
Earlier in the day, the Magic didn’t get the help they needed to clinch a playoff berth when the Hornets defeated the Pistons to keep their hopes alive. That put the pressure on the Magic to win in Boston to seal the deal on their own and prevent what could possibly be a play-in game against the Hornets on Wednesday in the season finale.
With the Magic in control of their playoff destiny, needing just a win to punch their ticket, they took matters into their own hands.
Fueled once again by what has been a league-best defense since their turnaround began on January 31, the Magic upset the fourth-seeded Celtics, sweeping the season-series 3-0.
But it sure didn’t come easy.
After the Magic committed three turnovers on five possessions in the first quarter, helping the Celtics take an 17-14 lead, Steve Clifford called a timeout. The Magic answered with an 8-0 run, capped by thees by Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross to take a 22-17 lead. Vucevic scored 13 first quarter points on 6-for-8 shooting and D.J. Augustin had seven assists for the Magic in the opening quarter. The Magic, who went without a free throw in the first (this would change in a big way), shot 50 percent from the field in the quarter compared to 45.8 percent for the Celtics as the two tied at 27 after one.
The Magic struggled with their shooting and ball protection for a majority of the second quarter. The Celtics capitalized, taking a 50-37 lead on a three by Kyrie Irving with 4:32 remaining in the half. The Magic then closed the quarter on an 11-2 run, highlighted by a corner three by Jonathan Isaac with 1:09 left to cut the deficit to 52-46. Aaron Gordon’s layup with seconds remaining sent the Magic into the break down just 52-48, which was fortunate considering Orlando had 10 first half turnovers and shot only 40 percent from the field.
Vooch had 19 points on 9-for-13 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds in the first half. Augustin had nine first-half assists, one off his season-high. Outside of Vucevic, the rest of the Magic shot a combined 30 percent from the field. Gordon Hayward and Al Horford each had 10 points to lead the Celtics, to shot 47.8 percent in the half.
With threes by Augustin and Fournier to open the third, the Magic extended their run to 17-2 to take a 54-52 lead.
The Magic, who were more active defensively in the third, later got back-to-back threes by Fournier and Isaac to increase their lead to 64-60 with 7:31 remaining. A lead then changed hands six times before the Magic staged an 8-1 run, capped by a Michael Carter-Williams steal that led to a Wes Iwundu dunk in transition to open their biggest lead of the game at 76-70 with 2:22 remaining in the third.
The Magic, after shooting over 50 percent in the third and outscoring the Celtics 35-26, took an 83-78 lead into the fourth quarter.
Ross, as he has done so many times this season, took over in the fourth. He scored every point in an 11-0 Magic run in a 2:07 span. The Human Torch hit all three free throws after being fouled on a three-point attempt for the third time of the night, and then hit a pair of threes that gave the Magic a 94-80 win with 9:53 remaining.
A three-point play by Fournier later put the Magic in front 99-85 with 8:21 to go. But that would be Orlando’s final points for quite some time (pretty much coinciding with Steve Clifford oddly deciding to insert the seldom-used Jarell Martin into the game at such a crucial juncture, though we later learned Jonathan Isaac wouldn’t return to the game after suffering a hit to the jaw).
The Celtics went on a 13-0 run, capped by an Irving three that cut the Magic lead down to one with 4:50 remaining. Ross answered with a three, but the Celtics kept coming, tying the game at 106 on another three by Irving with 2:50 to go.
With the momentum shifting, and crowd going crazy, the Magic answered in a way that a playoff-caliber team would. Fournier drove the lane and threw down a two-handed dunk that put the Magic back in front 108-106 with two minutes left. Gordon followed with a layup of a feed from Vucevic to make it a two-possession game.
Michael Carter-Williams, an addition who has been instrumental in the Magic’s playoff push, once again grabbed critical rebounds in the game’s final minute, and hit four crucial free throws to help seal the victory and the organization’s first playoff berth in the post-Dwight Howard era.
Fittingly, the Magic were led by their All-Star, Vucevic, who had 25 points and 12 rebounds. But as has been the case all season, others stepped up when needed.
Ross, who better have earned some Sixth Man of the Years votes from the national media after his playoff-clinching heroics, finished with 26 points (5 of 9 from three). Augustin finished with 11 points and a season-high 13 assists, one off of his career-high. Fournier scored 17 of his 24 points in the second half. Gordon, after a quiet offensive first half, added 14 points and seven rebounds.
The Magic, who shot 45.6 percent in the win, made all 22 of their free throw attempts and turned the ball over just four times in the second half. Efficient shooting from Vucevic, ball movement, Ross igniting, and stellar defense have been the secret to the Magic’s unexpected success all season, and on Sunday, it culminated with a spot in the postseason.
The focus for the Magic now shifts to seeding as they battle for position with the Nets and Pistons. Orlando, sitting in the seventh seed at 41-40, concludes the regular season on Wednesday as the playoff-bound Magic head to Charlotte.
Enjoy this, Magic fans. No fanbase deserves a playoff berth more.