Marc Daniels: Magic-Lakers...And What Could Have Been

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers

The sold out signs are already up at the box office at the Amway Center and scalpers will be working the streets. If you want to see tonight's showdown between LeBron and the champion Lakers and the Magic, you will need to pay a pretty penny. The secondary market shows a get in price around $400. It will be a who's who courtside as the Magic have had ticket requests from sports stars and entertainers for this game. Bucs quarterback Tom Brady and Gronk are expected to be in the front row and the red carpet feel for tonight only adds to the main attraction.

The Lakers have been on a roll as they seek to repeat as title holders. James is playing at an MVP level and they roll into Orlando winners of their last 12 and sit atop the western conference standings. James shows no signs of easing up as the regular season winds down. His minutes per game are up and his performance on the court has been as impressive as any other season. Anthony Davis is even better than he was last season and has been unstoppable inside the paint while shooting a career best outside the three-point line.

But this has become more than just another regular season game between the dominant Lakers and rising Magic. Former Magic coach Frank Vogel added some spice to tonight's matchup when he recently was asked about his time in Orlando. Vogel said "I enjoyed coaching and living there, but this is LA and the Lakers and it's just a different town. They respect the game a little more here and their priorities are little different."

That quote seemed to stir the pot in Orlando even though Vogel would later add that he meant no knock on the Magic and that he was comparing the past history of the Lakers to the Magic and a fan base that might be more engaged. That didn't seem to calm the social media buzz and seemed to enrage Magic fans who believe their team is better off with the rough and tough image of Steve Clifford.

Clifford, a candidate for NBA Coach of the Year, wanted no part of the media's bait when asked about Vogel's recent comments. Clifford only added: "I love my team and how they go to work every night and love our fans who make that building a tough place to play for visiting teams."

All of that adds to tonight's matchup. While the Lakers are heavy favorites to come out of the west, the Magic are in a battle for the fourth seed in the east- which would give the team home court advantage in the first round. The Magic have been a force at home this season and winners of 10 of their last 11 at home.

One of the biggest reasons for the Magic run this season has been the play of Jonathan Isaac. The fourth-year forward has raised his game from promising and potential to all-star and face of the franchise. Isaac has become one of the best defenders in the game and might find himself on LeBron tonight, depending on matchups. But James has become an offensive force in Steve Clifford's game plan. After averaging 11.9 points per game in 2019-20, Isaac is now scoring more than 22 points a game and pulling down 8.3 rebounds. 

Isaac's growth is attributed to many factors, but the play of Markelle Fultz is perhaps the biggest. Fultz has not only stabilized the point guard position, but he has become one of the better on-court generals in the east. Fultz is averaging career highs in points, assists and steals and shooting career bests in three-point shooting and free throws. 

The growth of Isaac and Fultz have allowed the Magic to shift their focus to those two young stars which has forced teams to decide who to focus on defensively and that has benefitted Nik Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier. While points are down for all three, their efficiency is higher than any previous season. 

The Magic have depth for the first time in years and their second unit of Michael Carter-Williams, Chuma Okeke, Mo Bamba, Cole Anthony and Terrance Ross have become a trusted group. The growth of Bamba has put him in the race for Most Improved in the league and Okeke and Anthony have shown they can play meaningful minutes and be trusted from game to game.

So tonight becomes a measuring stick of sorts. The Lakers are expected to compete for a title, the Magic may not be there yet. But Orlando is playoff-bound and fighting for a home court position for the first round. This team has shown they can play with anyone of late and even the top three in the east have founds themselves in battles against a hot Magic team.

Throw in the recent comments by a former Magic coach and add a packed arena and tonight is one of those games Magic fans love to be a part of. The buzz on the streets outside the arena will be off the chart. Tip off may be 7p but long before noon there will be an atmosphere outside that building. The season does not come down to this one game, but tonight has all the makings of a championship environment........................................

..............................Oh, wait. never mind. Everything you just read was just a dream. It's what we hoped a game like this would be. It's what we want a game like tonight to be. Perhaps someday we will get back there. But for now, just a dream........Tonight, the Lakers- without LeBron James- with Frank Vogel, who said nothing bad about the Magic, are in town to take on the Magic with Ty Corbin filling in for Steve Clifford(who is out because of COVID protocols) are playing without Isaac, Fultz, Vuc, Gordon, Fournier and Ross in a game no one will be buzzing about. Oh, well....someday...maybe.

Final thought: The first ever Magic-Lakers game was December 10, 1989 at the old Orlando Arena. The expansion Magic won that game 108-103. The first-year team improved to 8-11 and the Lakers fell to 14-5. Terry Catledge was one of three Magic players to score 20 or more. He went for 26 points and added 12 rebounds. James Worthy led the Lakers with 31 and Magic Johnson added 14 points and had 8 assists.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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