Maybe now the Magic will be taken se­ri­ously

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - Mike Bianchi Sen­tinel Columnist

TORONTO – A ques­tion for the NBA es­tab­lish­ment:

Do you be­lieve in Magic now? Do you be­lieve in Steve Clif­ford de­serv­ing some Coach of the Year ac­co­lades now?

Do you be­lieve in point guard D.J. Au­gustin, who was said to be a glar­ing weak­ness on the Magic ros­ter com­ing into the sea­son?

Do you be­lieve in this un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated, over­looked team that no­body gave a snow­ball’s chance in Key Largo of com­pet­ing in the play­offs against su­per­star Kawhi Leonard and the sec­ond-seeded Toronto Rap­tors? Magic 104, Toronto Rap­tors 101.

In the Magic’s first play­off ap­pear­ance after six long los­ing sea­sons, this un­flap­pable team

came into a rowdy, rau­cous Sco­tia­bank Arena on Satur­day and sent a sell­out crowd of nearly 20,000 fans home shak­ing their heads and curs­ing their luck after Au­gustin’s gamewin­ning 3-pointer with 4.2 sec­onds left.

“We’re not a team that’s go­ing to give up no mat­ter what,” said Au­gustin, the small­est player on the floor who came up big­gest — hit­ting 9-of-13 shots to lead the Magic with 25 points. “We’ve been doubted this whole sea­son; even be­fore the sea­son started. No­body ex­pected us to be here in the play­offs and no­body ex­pected us to win tonight. We’ve al­ways be­lieved in each other. We’re a team that’s go­ing to fight and never give up.”

Wel­come to the NBA play­offs, Toronto. The Magic have been in play­off mode for the last six weeks, pushing, prod­ding, play­ing with an edge and fight­ing for their post­sea­son lives. They car­ried that fight into The Great White North on Satur­day and served the Rap­tors a help­ing of south­ern cook­ing. Rap­tors fans sang “O Canada” be­fore the game, but after­ward the look on their faces said, “Oh no!”

This play­off se­ries just got real in­ter­est­ing be­cause the Magic, as we all know, are play­ing with house money while the Rap­tors are play­ing for the fu­ture of their fran­chise. The fact is all the pres­sure is now on the Rap­tors, who re­vamped their en­tire team after get­ting swept by the Cava­liers in the play­offs last sea­son. Even though they had the best reg­u­lar-sea­son record in the East­ern Con­fer­ence last year, they rolled the dice and fired the NBA’s Coach of the Year — Dwane Casey — and traded beloved star DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.

What does that mean? It means that it’s manda­tory for Rap­tors to do bet­ter in the play­offs than they did last year. In other words, they sim­ply can­not af­ford to stub their toe in the post­sea­son or team gen­eral man­ager Ma­sai Ujiri would be the laugh­ing stock of the league.

Ujiri is des­per­ately try­ing to con­vince Leonard that the Rap­tors are a fran­chise wor­thy of re-sign­ing him when he be­comes a free agent in July. Leonard, an enig­matic su­per­star, has given no­body any clue as to where he wants to end up, but it’s pretty clear it won’t be the Rap­tors if they lose to the Magic in the first round of the play­offs.

This is why the Magic are the Rap­tors’ worst night­mare. Even though Or­lando is a sev­enth seed, the Magic are play­ing like one of the best teams in the league dur­ing the past 32 games.

Who says the Magic can’t win this se­ries?

Prob­a­bly the same peo­ple who said the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets didn’t be­long on the same ice as the Tampa Bay Light­ning dur­ing the first round of the Stan­ley Cup play­offs. The Light­ning, the best team in the NHL dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, are now down 0-2 in the se­ries and are on life sup­port.

It’s the post­sea­son where any­thing can hap­pen, es­pe­cially when you con­sider the Magic rolled into the play­offs with a 22-9 record since Jan. 31 — the fourth-best record in the league dur­ing that span.

But, of course, the Magic have been off radar for so long that no­body has been pay­ing at­ten­tion to their late-sea­son run.

What does it tell you when the other NBA coaches named their league Coach of the Year (Mil­wau­kee’s Mike Bu­den­holzer) on Satur­day and Magic coach Clif­ford didn’t get a sin­gle vote. Eight coaches from across the league got votes and Clif­ford didn’t get a sin­gle vote. Are you kid­ding me? You’d think he’d get ONE vote. You’d think the other coaches in the league would rec­og­nize the job Clif­ford has done in tak­ing the losingest fran­chise in the NBA over the last six sea­sons and turn­ing them into a play­off team in one sea­son.

Au­gustin epit­o­mizes the re­birth of this Magic team un­der Clif­ford. The thought com­ing into this sea­son was that Au­gustin would be a glar­ing weak­ness and re­ally was no bet­ter than a backup point guard in the league. On Satur­day, he al­most sin­gle­hand­edly kept the Magic in the game, scor­ing 19 points in the first half alone to lead the Magic to a 57-49 half­time lead. What in the name of Allen Iver­son has hap­pened to Au­gustin? A 31-year-old on his eighth NBA team, this NBA gypsy turned into an as­sas­sin on Satur­day.

He hit big shot after big shot after big shot. The Rap­tors put their two best de­fend­ers on him — Leonard and Danny Green — and he still could not be stopped. He com­pletely out­played Rap­tors all-star point guard Kyle Lowry, who went 0-of-7 from the floor and fin­ished with zero points.

Any­body who thought Clif­ford’s team would fold up once the play­offs started sim­ply hasn’t been pay­ing at­ten­tion. As Clif­ford him­self says, “We’ve been play­ing play­off bas­ket­ball all sea­son.” By that he means, the Magic’s style — the No. 1 de­fen­sive team and the No. 1 de­fen­sive re­bound­ing team in the league over the last 30 games — is con­ducive to play­off bas­ket­ball.

“The game will slow down a lit­tle bit in the play­offs and for our team that re­ally fits what we need to do,” Clif­ford said. So far, so good. “We’re not just happy to be in the play­offs,” Au­gustin said. “We’re here to make some noise.”

On Satur­day the Magic made so much noise, it echoed off Lake On­tario and re­ver­ber­ated through­out the Great White North.

JOE BUR­BANK/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Or­lando Magic guard D.J. Au­gustin (#14) gets doused with wa­ter by team­mates after hit­ting the win­ning shot in Game 1 of the play­offs.

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