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Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic would be a first-round playoff headache

Right now, the Orlando Magic (39-40) are the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, and if they can make the playoffs, they will be a headache for whatever team they face in the first round.

The Magic are one of the youngest teams in the NBA, and that’s their identity. With Aaron Gordon (23), Evan Fournier (26), Terrence Ross (28), Jonathan Isaac (21), and Mohamed Bamba (20), when healthy, playing substantial minutes, the Magic have one of the most exciting and athletic teams in the sport. Their best player, center Nikola Vucevic, is only 28.

Gordon is one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He’s as athletic as any forward in the sport, can run the floor, hit the boards, serves as a go-to scoring option in the team’s rotation, and is an underrated passer (Gordon is averaging a career-high 3.7 assists per game this season).

Fournier likes to hoist up outside jumpers, and while they don’t always fall, he finds ways to get the ball in the cup. Whether it be shooting off the dribble, attacking the rack, or finding the open man, the Frenchman is a well-rounded offensive player.

Like Fournier, Ross is a reliable scorer, but contributes in different ways offensively. While he can stick the outside jump shot, Ross is more of a physical specimen than Fournier, as he gets to the rim with ease, flies above the rim, is one of the team’s best defenders, and is averaging a career-high 14.6 points per game.

After a rookie season riddled by inconsistency and injures, Isaac has shown glimpses of his star potential. He’s athletic and showcasing the ability to do so by hitting the boards, playing with aggression, and competing at a high level defensively.

The Magic have utilized Bamba, when he has played, as their backup center, and he has been productively efficient in the role. Averaging 6.2 points, five rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game in just 16.3 minutes a night, he has made his presence felt on both ends and, in time, could be the team’s starting center. For the time being, Vucevic is giving the Magic no reason to make such a switch.

Vucevic has always been classified as one of the most underrated players in the NBA, and this season he’s having arguably the best of his career, but it has fallen under the radar; what a surprise. Averaging a career-high in points (20.7), rebounds (12.0), and assists (3.8) while also tallying 1.1 blocks per game, he has been one of the most productive big men in the league.

Whether it be his ability to play in the post, finish inside, play out on the perimeter, or hit the boards at a high rate, Vucevic has been the most irreplaceable figure in the Magic’s 2018-19 campaign.

Veteran point guard D.J. Augustin has also done an exceptional job complementing the team’s youth, averaging 11.6 points and 5.2 assists per game while shooting a career-high 46.9 percent from the field, as well as 42.0 percent from beyond the arc as head coach Steve Clifford’s floor general.

Incredibly enough, despite their young legs and proven scorers, the Magic went into Thursday night 25th in the NBA in points per game (106.5) and 21st in field goal percentage (45.1). That’s a result of their youth still coming into its own offensively, but they also went into Thursday night fifth in fewest turnovers (13.2).

Meanwhile, Clifford has his team executing at a high level on the other end of the floor. The Magic went into Thursday night fifth in opponent points per game (106.4). That’s a result of the contributions from Gordon, Isaac, and Ross, as well as the underrated defensive play from Vucevic inside.

All in all, the Magic have a young team on the rise that may make the playoffs, but one that’s going to be a near-.500 team. They’ve been hovering around the bottom of the weak East and the .500 mark for a reason. They’re, as a whole, inexperienced, needing multiple years of growth and perhaps a few free agent signings away from posing a threat to the top of the conference. With that said, what happens in terms of regular season standings in the 2019-20 season and beyond means nothing if the Magic can get into the big dance.

The six, seven, and eight seeds in the East are being fought for between five teams: the Magic, Detroit Pistons, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, and Charlotte Hornets. The teams they will face in the first round — for the three teams that make the playoffs — will likely be the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, the Bucks, Raptors, and 76ers are clearly better than the teams vying for the bottom three seeds in the conference, but aren’t there ways those top-seeded teams can implode in the first round?

The Bucks are currently without guard Malcolm Brogdon, a vital piece to head coach Mike Budenholzer’s rotation, and they haven’t played the same since he suffered his foot injury. Added onto missing their two-way wing, the Bucks have never escaped the first round in the Giannis Antetokounmpo era, and until they finally get over that hump, the critics will scream on.

Like the Bucks, the Raptors have continually hit a wall in the playoffs, except theirs is in the second round. Even though LeBron James, who was with the Cleveland Cavaliers for four years before signing with the Los Angeles Lakers in the offseason, is now in the West and Nick Nurse is calling the shots on the sidelines, the Raptors still have a hurdle to surmount. Plus, they have Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol playing for hefty contracts this offseason; a lot is on the line for both the organization and its players.

The 76ers crumbled in the second round of the playoffs last season against a Boston Celtics team that was without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Since his arrival in Philadelphia, Jimmy Butler’s chemistry in the team’s rotation, more specifically with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and how he will fare in the playoffs has come into question. Butler is also a free agent after this season.

There are scenarios where the Magic can take advantage of the pressure on their first-round opponent. Now, is it a certainty that those teams won’t overcome their mental hurdles and/or demons of years past? No, but if the Magic get out to an early lead and build confidence, it will get interesting. For a team under pressure, or one whose roster is made up of mostly veterans, what’s the last thing they want to see if things go south? A young team with nothing to lose; the Magic are exactly that.

No one felt the Magic had a chance of making the playoffs outside of maybe those in their locker room and the team faithful. They’re a mature and well-rounded defensive team, which isn’t typical of a young team. It’s a daunting task being an eight seed in the NBA playoffs, but, at the end of the day, it’s just a seeding: It doesn’t define what your team can do in a seven-game series.

Hey, the eight seed has done the unthinkable before. In 2012, the Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Chicago Bulls in six games, although former NBA Most Valuable Player Award recipient Derrick Rose tearing his ACL in Game 1 of the series had a negative affect both on and off the floor for the Bulls. At the same time, many felt the Bulls were still better than the 76ers without Rose, but Philly ultimately advanced to the second round. The New York Knicks knocked off the Miami Heat in 1999 thanks to a buzzer-beating jump shot from Allan Houston to win Game 5, and they later went to the NBA Finals.

Opponents can’t go to Disney World or Universal Studios when they travel to Orlando to face the Magic because they’re just the type of team that could pull off a first-round upset.