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