|Raptors open playoffs vs. Magic with Finals on their mind|
The Orlando Magic have one definition of ending a postseason drought. The Toronto Raptors will look to begin crafting their own definition of the term Saturday afternoon, when they host the Magic in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
The Raptors (58-24) finished second in the Eastern Conference, the fourth straight season in which they earned a top-four seed. The Magic (42-40) are the seventh seed after riding a red-hot second half to their first playoff berth since the 2009-10.
The Magic, whose postseason drought was the second-longest in the NBA behind only the Sacramento Kings (2006), appeared headed for another spring on the sidelines after a 126-117 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 29. That defeat dropped Orlando to 20-31, five games behind the Charlotte Hornets for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
But the Magic ended the season on a 22-9 tear. Among Eastern Conference teams, only the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks have won more games (24) since Jan. 30. Orlando, which enters the playoffs on a four-game winning streak, finished the season with 16 more wins than last season, the biggest improvement in the NBA.
"I feel like we've done it the right way," first-year Magic head coach Steve Clifford said after Orlando clinched a playoff berth by beating the Boston Celtics, 116-108, on Sunday night. "We've played our best in these last 30 games and we've made good progress all year.
"To have the right care factor and to withstand some stretches that were difficult - and they stayed with it and kept getting better - it was obviously a big-time (accomplishment)."
The Raptors have long grown accustomed to reaching the playoffs. Toronto's streak of six straight playoff appearances is the longest in the Eastern Conference and ranks behind only the San Antonio Spurs (22 years-, the Golden State Warriors (seven) and the Houston Rockets (seven). The Spurs have the longest active streak in the four major North American pro sports leagues.
But the Raptors have grown restless with early exits from the postseason. Toronto has yet to reach the NBA Finals and has gotten to the conference finals just once in its current run, when it fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games in 2016.
The Raptors appeared positioned to finally break through last season, when they won a franchise-record 59 games and earned the no. 1 seed in the East. But Toronto was swept in the semifinals by the Cavaliers.
Head coach Dwane Casey was fired following a seven-season run and replaced by Nick Nurse, who spent more than 20 years coaching at small schools and in minor leagues both in America and overseas before becoming Casey's assistant in 2013.
Nurse's task is clear: Get the Raptors to the NBA Finals. Toronto finished two games behind the Bucks in the race for the best record in the East
"I know it's my first shot in the NBA, but I've been in a lot of playoff series," Nurse told Sportsnet in Toronto earlier this week. "And I feel good about being able to read the game and then feel what the next one might be like and the one after that against the same team.
"It doesn't get any better than this as a coach."
The Raptors will be without reserve forward OG Anunoby, who underwent an emergency appendectomy Thursday night. He is expected to miss at least two weeks. Magic forward Jonathan Issac (concussion) and center Nikola Vucevic (illness) are both expected to play Saturday after missing the regular season finale Wednesday.
The Raptors and Magic split four regular season meetings, with both teams going 1-1 on their home floors. Toronto earned a 93-91 win in Florida on Nov. 20 before notching a 121-109 victory at home on Apr. 1. Orlando cruised to a 116-87 victory at home on Dec. 28 and recorded a 113-98 win at Toronto on Feb. 24.
--Field Level Media