It’s been a long time coming. When they take the court this Friday against their primary foe for the seventh seed, the Brooklyn Nets, it will have been almost five months since we last watched a legitimate Orlando Magic basketball game.
In the time since we’ve witnessed team practices, half-speed scrimmages, an unexpected JI return, an AG diss track, Jordan fever, the emergence of Mo ‘Muscles’ Bamba, and even incredibly the drafting of Peter Pan to Central Florida. 2020 … it’s been wild.
Now, amidst a continuing period of global uncertainty, some routines and familiarity will slowly return alongside the NBA’s resumption of play. We’ve got twenty-two teams jockeying for the final sixteen playoff positions, with eight games on the slate for each before the scheduled start of the first round, August 17. And although the Magic likely feel pretty confident in their playoff odds — the depleted Wizards would have to gain ground on Orlando just to force a play-in tournament — they remain a side with plenty of questions still to be answered across the remaining contests of the 2019/20 season.
What exactly do the Magic have to prove? In this series, we will unpack some of the biggest storylines the team faces when the ball is once again tipped. Part I examined whether the Magic’s pre-hiatus offense was legit. Part II focused on if their defense is a strength. Part III compares this season’s Magic squad to last year’s.
The Magic must prove that....
The team is better now than they were last season
Undoubtedly the most significant thing that the team has to prove is that this current version is better than the 2019 model that went out in five games last April.
Coming into the season the Magic would have been projecting improvement, based largely on the further development of young players, the injection of important new talent, and the consolidation of their late-season gains. Even with the injury interruptions, this is a side that would and should have been expecting to be demonstrably better at winning basketball games than any post-rebuild iteration.
As it stands, it is incredibly unlikely that the Magic will be able to match last year’s regular season finish of above .500; instead, the mark of improvement must be found elsewhere.
With only eight contests against a reduced but more competitive field before the real business starts, it means those (pin)stripes must be earned in the cauldron of the playoffs.
Make no mistake, last year the Raptors had their way with the Central Floridians. Orlando may have been able to steal Game One on the back of an Augustin dagger, but from that point on they were comprehensively outplayed in every facet of the game. The going got tough, the Raptors got real, and the Magic got gone. Their final four losses came by a combined 75 points, with only one contest after the opener decided by a margin less than 19. Push came to shove and Orlando went home.
There is absolutely no shame in losing a first round series to the eventual champs, particularly as an unfancied seventh seed. However, the gulf in competitiveness became so apparent once Toronto awoke that any tension experienced by Magic fans was obscenely optimistic at best; by half-time of the second game an air of inevitability had descended on the matchup.
To be able to chalk this season up as a win, Orlando must deliver a better postseason showing than they did last year.
A series win would still be incredibly unlikely, nor should it be the standard that the team is held to.
They must, however, demonstrate greater competitiveness night to night, and potentially push this thing to six or even seven games. They must be able to offer strong defensive resistance, generate offense when the opponent clamps down, and keep things competitive until the final minutes.
The Magic must show tangible improvement in terms of both the on-court product and the results.
Plus, you never know — play to their collective potential and Orlando may even get the chance to cause a Kawhi-less boilover against the same foes that packed their bags in 2019.
After an unexpected and lengthy break there is much that is unknown about the games to come.
For the Magic, it’s evident that they’ve got plenty to prove, both to themselves and the league at large. Let’s hope they’re up to the challenge.