By: Tiffany Tripp
The Boston Celtics have been the favorite for Eastern Conference champion for the last couple months, both in Vegas and in most media rankings; while the Orlando Magic’s Vegas odds for that outcome was set at 66/1 this summer. There’s no need to jump to conclusions based on last night’s meeting of the two teams, but it certainly didn’t look like there’s as much of a chasm between them as betting odds suggest. In fact, the Magic didn’t seem at all rattled or unprepared to be playing a team who is viewed by most as a juggernaut.
Boston was never able to take the lead in the game and trailed by as much as 13 points in the third quarter, but bridged most of the gap fairly quickly, bringing the Magic’s lead down to five. We’ve frequently seen Brad Stevens led Celtics teams do this. Even with there being no lead changes (and only one tie), it was anyone’s ball game down to the last second. Jonathan Isaac (18 pts, 12 reb, 8-12 FG) came up clutch with a big shot in the final minute, and showed Magic fans all game long that they have a lot to be excited about when it comes to his development.
One of two missed three-pointers in the final seconds would’ve sent the game into overtime had it gone in, but even a Celtics homer like myself can’t dwell on an “if only” for too long after a loss. This Magic team held my team’s ironclad starters to just 60 points, which is impressive in and of itself.
We need to talk about Nikola Vucevic. No really, we all need to be talking about Nikola Vucevic. My friend, Stephen Cameron, wrote an article recently outlining why Vooch is crucial to the Magic’s success, and boy was he right. This guy is not only doing it all out there, he looks good doing it (Vooch if you’re reading this, call me… [kidding]). The seven-footer is averaging 5 assists per game so far this season, and has shot 83% from three. That’s not a typo. The big guy can stretch the floor. The sensible thing is to not overreact to a four-game sample size, but that’s not nearly as much fun.
Nik, as I now affectionately call him as a newly minted stan, has had some crazy impressive stat lines these past four games. Last night he put up 24 points in 32 minutes, grabbed 12 rebounds, 3 steals, and shot 11 for 18 from the field. The fun part of my brain says we can get right to work speculating wildly about what Nik might be capable of this season, but I don’t want to make analytics twitter twitch too badly. It’s safe to say, though, that he will be extremely entertaining to watch at the very least.
Aaron Gordon is one of the favorites for the Most Improved Player award this year, and I’d go so far as to say a possible Eastern Conference all-star candidate. Again, we only have a few games to base this on, but he seems to be more efficient and more committed defensively. If Gordon can maintain the increased efficiency and impressive rebounding, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him as an all-star and/or MIP winner in the near future. On top of all that, did you see my guy do the honey dip dunk in Uncle Drew?? DAMN. A man who can do that is a force to be reckoned with, and I have a feeling the day of reckoning is drawing near.
The Magic currently have a winning record—because we’re only four games into the season and most teams do, but mark my words: they will be a nuisance who sneaks in and steals wins from contenders and mid-tier teams. Come April, when teams are in a dog fight for the 4th-8th seeds, fans will look back on that time they lost to Orlando and realize it set them back in the standings. Then we’ll all collectively do this:
With the competition in the Eastern Conference arguably (definitely) being less steep than the West, who knows what could happen in the playoffs? We could see young studs like Bamba and Isaac make huge strides as the season progresses, and the Magic could give teams like the Sixers and the Pacers some trouble in playoff seeding. Either way, they’re coming for your team’s wins. Watch out.
Tiffany Tripp is a contributor, and the social media and graphics director, at The Up&Under.