TORONTO — Aaron Gordon is no longer some kind of show pony; no longer the guy whose claim to fame was simply that he helped pull the NBA’s slam dunk competition off life support at the 2016 All-Star Game here, then disappeared into the Everglades to never be seen again.
Gordon lost to Zach LaVine that day at what was then called the Air Canada Centre after two tie-breaking dunks, including one that saw Gordon leap over the Orlando Magic’s mascot – Stuff the Magic Dragon — who was spinning around and holding the ball in the air for Gordon, who passed the ball under his legs as he rose for his dunk.
There was magic in the air that Saturday night – come on, give me that pun – but it was a completely different atmosphere on this particular Saturday afternoon.
"Different thing this time is it wasn’t just me out there," Gordon said with a smile after the Magic pulled out a 104-101 win over the Toronto Raptors in the first game of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals series. "I like it a lot better this way."
It was Gordon’s post-season debut. And he’ll have fond memories: a game-high 10 rebounds, 10 points and a feature role as the game wound down.
There was a quiet confidence about this Magic group going into this series, in no small measure because since Jan. 31 they were the most efficient defensive team in the NBA. The Raptors were busy with load management for most of that time while the Magic were trying to make the playoffs.
The teams split the season series 2-2, and the games were marked by below-season average performances by two of the most crucial Raptors players: Kawhi Leonard, who was supposed to prevent nights like this from happening and averaged 18 points and 42.6 per cent shooting in three games against the Magic, and Pascal Siakam, a leading candidate for the NBA’s most improved player who shot a miserable 34.2 per cent and averaged 8.8 points in four games.
Leonard’s season averages were 26.6 points and 49.6 per-cent; Siakam’s 16.9 and 54.9.
On Saturday, it was Gordon who was charged with shutting down Leonard while Jonathan Isaac was tasked with being the primary point of emphasis against Siakam.
Siakam went off in Game 1 with 24 points. Leonard had a team-high 25, including seven in the fourth quarter. So there is some videotape to be studied, acknowledged Gordon.
"I wasn’t physical enough at the beginning of the game," Gordon said, as Leonard hit for 11 first-quarter points. "I wasn’t navigating well enough on the screens. I tried to be a little more physical and make it more difficult for him."
It worked: Leonard was 0-for-5 in the second quarter when the Magic sowed the seeds of their win.
Gordon and Isaac were passengers offensively for much of the game, but they hit corner threes in the final four and a half minutes that pulled the Magic to within one and, in Isaac’s case, gave them a one-point lead at 97-96.
Isaac, fresh out of the NBA’s concussion protocol, finished minus-10 in just under 40 minutes; Gordon was plus-four in 33:43, and it was Gordon who got his hand up when Marc Gasol miss fired on a three-point attempt with the score tied at 101-101 and 27 seconds left. D.J. Augustin then drilled the winner.
"I knew it was going to (Gasol), even though Kawhi wanted to make it look like it was going to Danny Green," said Gordon of Gasol’s air-ball. "Contest (the shot)… don’t foul… win game."
"We are a resilient group," Gordon added. "We kept fighting, and down the stretch made a lot of big plays. D.J. was the head of the spear tonight, but there’s time for everybody else to get into rhythm. We just need to play the kind of basketball where everybody’s going to get the ball."
Fittingly, as the game wound down it seemed as if Leonard and Gordon spent every second in each other’s pocket. It was Gordon’s pressure on Leonard and subsequent steal that sent Evan Fournier off on a running dunk to give the Magic a 94-92 lead. Gordon was also all over Leonard on a made jumper and was called for a foul when Leonard charged out of the corner.
This was no show pony, just happy-to-be-here thing. Leonard hit a tough jumper over Gordon, who did all he could without fouling. Then, Gordon was called for a foul as Leonard attacked the rim out of the corner. Gordon did his job with a couple fouls to spare, playing Leonard tough and even climbing on his back on his third foul, an and-one that gave the Raptors a 71-67 edge. Within seconds in the third quarter, he stole the ball from Green… and had it picked right off by Siakam as he set up in the Raptors end.
Somebody suggested to Gordon that this win might open some eyes. Indeed, in his post-game comments, his teammate Augustin had little difficulty playing the "nobody gave us a chance," card.
"I’m not sure. Kind of irrelevant, you know," Gordon said, shrugging. "We feel like we can play with anybody. We’ve been making plays all year long."
Nothing tricky about that. No hocus-pocus. No assistance from a mascot needed. Gordon smiled and laughed when he was reminded about that dunk competition and took a second to think about how far he’s come.
"I believed I had the talent," said Gordon, who led or tied the team in scoring in 17 games during the regular season and had 19 double doubles. "Where I was lacking somewhat was in my decision-making. But then the game started slowing down for me, you know? That’s what happens with experience. Now, I’m just taking advantage of it."