The Orlando Magic are in roughly the same spot their current postseason opponents were, a year ago. In April of 2023, the Cleveland Cavaliers went into a series against the New York Knicks with only one starter, Donovan Mitchell, boasting real playoff experience. And it showed. The Knicks bullied them, out-rebounding them by nearly ten every game in a “gentleman’s” sweep. It was a grueling lesson in intensity.

This past Saturday afternoon, Cleveland looked like they’d learned it, and that Orlando was now their student on the subject. Shell-shocked by a rabid crowd that’s seen a good heaping of NBA Finals action in their city, the Magic shot 33 percent from the field, got out-rebounded by 14, and turned the ball over 17 times in a 97-83 loss. As many skeptics predicted, their defense remained impressive in the second season, but their offense has been flummoxed by this next level of stakes and game-planning.

If the series continues similarly, Magic fans have an easy route to hope: the team is still young, and this lashing is a standard rite-of-passage in their bildungsroman, a crucible that the Cavs went through a year ago, and that over in the West, the Minnesota Timberwolves may have vanquished as well. The headline for their 25-point spanking has been Anthony Edwards’ superlative performance—33 points, including a hot stretch in the third quarter that put the game away early—but Edwards was born notably ready for these fires. It’s Karl-Anthony Towns who’s had to flop, fall, and stagger around gracelessly in the Spring for a few years.

For at least this one postseason content, that all seemed to be behind him. It was a comparatively quiet 19-point performance, but Towns was efficient, and remains a pick-and-roll partner dynamic enough to take Edwards’ offensive threat to another level. If the Wolves stay this poised, they shouldn’t have terrible difficulty against an under-sized Phoenix Suns team that’s invested almost all of its financial resources into the salaries of perimeter bucket-getters, and gets brutalized in the paint. The tragedy of the commons, here, is that they and the Magic can’t just work out a trade right now to better balance both teams’ strengths.

That’s of course not how it works. Aside from some strategic fiddling, the window for tinkering has closed. You’ve got to have everything figured out for right now. As the Boston Celtics do. Huge, strong, skilled, versatile, healthy, and united in purpose, they extinguished the Miami Heat easily on Sunday afternoon, looking immune to Erik Spoelstra’s dark zone-defense sorcery. They’ve got more pressure on them than any other team these playoffs, but with their 64 regular-season wins, they stomped their way past the possibility of feeling those expectations for now, and perhaps until the conference finals; all their greatest foes are on the other side of the bracket.

Like the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers. The Knicks won the first battle between the teams, gradually asserting their edge with depth and physicality. It wasn’t easy, though. Philly offered the first real challenge to the bottomless interior-scoring imagination of Jalen Brunson that we’ve seen in months, forcing him into one of his least efficient games in years. Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey did all they could as scorers, too, but the Sixers lacked real balance, and it’s hard to see how they can overcome this rabid hustle cult four times over the next six games.

Easier to envision another Denver Nuggets conquest over the Los Angeles Lakers. In the way that they do, Denver treaded water until they became a yacht down the finishing stretch of the game, driven by Nikola Jokic. That he’s now blossoming into a pitch-perfect ad star seems related to how cruisingly the two-time (soon to be three-time) MVP guides his team to victory. 

In the other half of the Western Conference field, the Los Angeles Clippers exhibited similar ease, even without Kawhi Leonard. Like the Cavaliers, they struggled for several weeks in the final third of the season, but also like Cleveland, they gave us good reason to suspect that their difficulties were more circumstantially motivational than systematically entrenched as they dispatched the Dallas Mavericks, 109-97, giving pause to the many media members who suspected that Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving had figured out something too momentous for L.A. to solve.

The theme continued as the Milwaukee Bucks, after months of scrutiny for their inconsistent and uninspired play, clobbered the Indiana Pacers 109-94. It’s possible that all the issues raised about them are moot; that they are, at the end of the day, just an old and well-seasoned team that’s been saving up their competitive juices. Damian Lillard delivered the early knockout punch with 35 points in the first half, and Giannis Antetokounmpo was not missed, for now. Should the Bucks be able to move past Indiana without him, and should he be able to return to the floor after that, they will be in optimal shape against Philadelphia or New York, and in a position to make good on the long and simmering hype about their matchup with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The weekend concluded with its sole nerve-inducing game, as the Zion-less New Orleans Pelicans nearly soured the Oklahoma City Thunder’s ballyhooed return to the postseason. Even without their best player, the Pelicans are a rangy and well-connected group of long men; except for Jose Alvarado, who more than makes up for it with ingenuity. The Thunder narrowly avoided a sour upset at their hands, but may have a harder time than a No. 1 seed typically does over the remainder of the series. Unless what we saw was an exorcism of jitterbugs, and OKC instead comfortably does what they’re supposed to do. It’s hard to say—about this, or any of the series. False starts are standard in the first round, and most of the story has yet to take shape.