It kind of feels like there’s not a lot to talk about with the Orlando Magic in town for a 7:30 tip-off on TSN2.
That’s not because the Magic aren’t interesting. Quite the contrary, in fact, as they’re one of the league’s most intriguing rosters (especially if rookie Aaron Gordon were still healthy). Rather, it’s because the Raptors have already played the Magic twice, first rolling them by 13 in the second game of the season and then requiring a major fourth=quarter comeback to edge them by four.
There were two big notes from those games worth exploring ahead of their third meeting of the season.
The first is that Channing Frye was an issue. Bigs who can pop out to the 3-point line have caused the Raptors some trouble so far this season, and Frye scored 19 points with five triples in the closer game (he had 11 points and two triples in the first). A guard-Frye pick-and-pop (or pick-and-and-stand in some cases) asks the Raptors bigs to do something contrary to their standard coverage (a little more on that in a piece on rebounding this afternoon). Look at how easy Frye gets some of these looks in November:
Evan Fournier also torched the Raptors, which…come on, guys. Fournier’s a nice player and the backup guards will probably have trouble containing him, but a Landry Fields or Terrence Ross should be able to help slow him down.
The other point of note from the first two games is that Victor Oladipo didn’t play. There’s no bigger fan of rookie Elfrid Payton than me – he’s not shooting well, but few rookie point guards do, and there’s a ton else to like – but Oladipo is a much tougher challenge. In 17 games since his return from a busted grill, the sophomore is averaging 15.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists with efficiency metrics that are a shade above average. The team’s actually played worse with him than without in a small sample, but I don’t think that’s indicative of how they’re a tougher team to play when he’s on the floor. He’s improved as a driving distributor and should give Kyle Lowry headaches with his aggressive on-ball defense.
In theory, Oladipo’s return should have meant fewer minutes for Willie Green, but nope, there he is with Ben Gordon, inexplicably averaging a combined 30 minutes a night in December. Like…what the hell? They have Oladipo, Payton, and Fournier for the guard spots and they need to let Payton and Oladipo learn to play together some (they’ve played 155 minutes together to disastrous results, but it’s a necessary learning process). I know the team lacks shooting and Green and Gordon alleviate that some, but if I were rooting for a rebuilding team and had to watch those two clowns for 15 minutes each every game, I’d be more than a little annoyed.
Who should be playing is Nikola Vucevic, who returned from a back injury over the weekend. Vucci Mane is always worth a close look, if for no other reason than because he stands as the most likely point of comparison when Jonas Valanciunas hits free agency next summer. Have a look at their Year 3 numbers (Vucevic received a four-year, $53-million extension entering his fourth season this summer):
If Valanciunas can show himself a little more reliable late in games (which would increase his minutes), he can make a pretty compelling case this summer that he’s deserving of Vucevic’s deal or better. For the purposes of this game, the two behemoths have met seven times in their careers, with Valanciunas rebounding much better on a per-minute basis but Vucevic safely out-performing the Lithuanian as a scorer.
Even on the second night of a back-to-back, the Raptors find themselves as eight-point favorites in this one. I’m writing this sentence at halftime of Raptors-Knicks, so it’s certainly possible something could happen from this point forward to change the line, but that’s where it stands. It feels maybe a point or two high considering the Raptors haven’t played consistently well over the last two weeks (this Knicks game has been a grind so far), and given the travel situation. Orlando is also 10-16, not quite the pushover record their reputation may suggest. All things considered, it’s absolutely a game the Raptors should win, I just wouldn’t be confident calling for a relative blowout.