The Toronto Raptors finally snapped their five-game losing streak with a spirited, defense-first effort against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. The Bucks aren’t exactly playing like world-beaters, but they’re a top-10 offense, and the Raptors locked them up to improve their defensive efficiency on the season to 15th. They’ve become roughly average on defense again, despite how shaky they sometimes look on that end of the floor, and they’ve been a top-10 outfit at that end of the floor over the last six games. Signs of encouragement!
In more good news for the Raptors, they get a chance to build some momentum Sunday as the sputtering Orlando Magic visit. Bismack Biyombo’s return to the Air Canada Centre will be the big story, but the more important wrinkle for Toronto is that they have a weakened opponent they should be able to take care of and continue to find their groove against. Not only did the Raptors destroy the Magic in December, Orlando’s slide even further since, going 2-10 over their last 12, falling to 29th in team offense, and sliding further from average on the defensive end.
No team is an easy out, of course, a lesson the Raptors have learned a few times lately. But this is a clear opportunity to put a couple of victories together, continue the recent show of defensive cohesiveness
The game tips off at 6 p m. on TSN 4/5 and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: When we last talked, I asked about Bismack Biyombo’s on- and off-court fit with the Magic so far. The samples were small, but it looked like maybe things weren’t going all that well from a basketball perspective, even if Biyombo had made himself a fan favorite quite quickly. How have things been coming along in that regard?
Philip Rossman-Reich: It has been really hard to figure out Bismack Biyombo. They put him in the starting lineup for a while and it had mixed results, but the team’s defense actually was very bad. The pairing of Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka has ended up horrible on that end. The Magic have almost completely stopped using that duo. That has put Biyombo on the floor with a lot of second units. And the Magic’s depth is not as good as everyone thought. He has struggled to establish himself in those second units and his energy and effort have been dulled. It is safe to say, while everyone likes Biyombo personally, there is a growing sentiment the Magic far overpaid for his services.
Blake Murphy: The Magic are nearly dead last in offensive efficiency. There’s just so little shooting here that it seems to cramp up space for what is still a respectably talented group of offensive talent. Evan Fournier is fun when playing, Serge Ibaka’s playing much better, and I still believe in Aaron Gordon. What do the Magic need to be doing differently to turn the offense into at least the sum of its parts?
Philip Rossman-Reich: First things first, they need to get healthy. Evan Fournier has been out for several weeks now with a heel injury that does not seem to be getting better. He is closer to a return but is still day to day. Jodie Meeks is out until at least the All-Star Break with a dislocated thumb. So two of the Magic’s best shooters are out right there. That has further cramped the space. This Magic team is just weird. They have to move the ball and move to create space and yet they do not seem able to do it consistently. Some of it has to do with their defense also being really bad. They are unable to get stops and get out in transition. They have to find a way to get the ball into the paint and work inside out. That is tougher to do with so many bodies in the paint to begin with. They may win a game where they hit shots early, thus loosening the defense, but that long drought is always around the corner.
Blake Murphy: Elfrid Payton seems to really be taking his play to another level of late. Here in Payton’s third season, what do you see his upside as? Even with the wonky shot, we’ve learned better than to give up on point guards early, and there’s a lot to like here.
Philip Rossman-Reich: Elfrid Payton is still a bit of a mystery. But he is truly the engine for the Magic. When he is able to get downhill and attack the basket and score, the Magic take on a whole new attitude and aggression. That is where they are at their best. Slowing down Payton is the first step to slow down the Magic — among other first steps. It is still hard to get a handle on what he can become. He is not quite Rajon Rondo as everyone imagined and his defense can still be a problem. In fact, consistency is still a general problem for him. He has played well for the last three weeks and is the best point guard option, but it is still hard to figure him out.
Blake Murphy: Once again revisiting a question from last time, what are the chances the Magic look to move Serge Ibaka in the next month? It would make sense to try to recoup some of the assets they lost in trading for him, and Rob Hennigan has said the team will be active, but keeping his Bird rights may have value to Orlando, too. If he quietly gets shopped, is there a Toronto package that would make sense to you?
Philip Rossman-Reich: At this point, I think a Serge Ibaka trade is inevitable. The Magic are fading out of the Playoff picture fast. They are 5.5 games out, but still have to climb over so many teams. There seems to be fewer chances to retain Ibaka. And Ibaka’s play has been consistent but sometimes uninspiring. He has not been the transformative figure the Magic hoped. Toronto is one of the teams I believe will chase after Ibaka and I think they have the kind of assets the Magic want in return. A deal centered around Terrence Ross — with other assets, perhaps Patrick Patterson, Jakob Poeltl and/or Jared Sullinger — is a very real possibility. As the Magic move forward, I see them trying to go young again and targeting players on their second contracts. The Magic have to recoup some assets for him and cannot let him walk away for nothing.
DeMar DeRozan’s status is unclear coming out of Saturday’s practice, but it’s probably best to assume he’s out until we hear otherwise. He was doing some light work before Friday’s game, but given the opponent and a busy week ahead, the team will surely take it cautious with their All-Star’s ankle. And Norman Powell has been filling in really well, firing up 52 (!) field-goal attempts in the last three games to take on DeRozan’s shooting – and scoring – load. It also once again means a little more pressure on Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, and Cory Joseph, and perhaps a continued 10th-man role for Fred VanVleet.
As for the big-man rotation, it’s started to settle at least a little bit, but there are still game-to-game questions. It seems likely that Patrick Patterson will remain the starter at power forward for the foreseeable future, which is the right call. The starting lineup with him there continues to perform well, even with Patterson himself still working his way back to top form. Who could have possibly guessed Patterson as a starter made sense, and that Dwane Casey would eventually find his way to that conclusion? Shocking, I know.
Anyway, there still remains a question of where Jared Sullinger fits – he drew a DNP-CD on Friday – and the Magic, in some iterations, seem like a better matchup for him than the Bucks. Whether he gets some run against dual-big lineups or continues to work his way back to game shape in practice remains to be seen, but it’s worth being patient here and remembering that most didn’t expect Sullinger back until the All-Star break, so this current acclimation time is still a little ahead of the perceived schedule. I’m trying to be positive, you know? Plus, if he was willing to go to the D-League, that’s a pretty huge signal about his desire to get back up to speed.
One minor note – I’m writing this Saturday, and I’d expect all three 905ers to be recalled for this game. The 905 are set to hit the road, but they don’t play until Tuesday. Caboclo should hit the road with them, and Wright may, too, but Sullinger will almost surely be back with the team.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet, (Delon Wright)
SG: Norman Powell, Terrence Ross
SF: DeMarre Carroll, (Bruno Caboclo)
PF: Patrick Patterson, Jared Sullinger, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl
TBD: DeMar DeRozan
ASSIGNED: Delon Wright, Bruno Caboclo
The Magic are without Jodie Meeks, their best shooter, which has hurt spacing. Even more detrimental to the offense has been the absence of their most dynamic player and top scorer, Evan Fournier, who was able to practice Saturday and is hopeful to play Sunday. His status won’t be updated until closer to game time in all likelihood, but that would be a big shot in the arm for the Magic and a good challenge for Powell defensively.
C.J. Wilcox is also dealing with knee tendinitis, though he’s played little, anyway, and Stephen Zimmerman is in the D-League.
Everything else should be by the book for the Magic, which, as Philip pointed out, means little of the Biyombo-Ibaka duo, which has been outscored by eight points per-100 possessions. Not that Biyombo-Vucevic, at -5.7 PPC, has been all that better. Raptors fans probably won’t be surprised to hear that Biyombo’s best play (qualitatively, anyway) has come as the lone natural big, with either Aaron Gordon, Damjan Rudez, or Jeff Green at the four. It’s probably not Biyombo’s fault, but the offensive issues he contributes to are exacerbated when there’s no shooting around his rolls to the rim. But Biz remains the greatest human alive, so the Magic still have that.
PG: Elfrid Payton, D.J. Augustin
SG: (Evan Fournier), C.J. Watson, Anthony Brown
SF: Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, Mario Hezonja
PF: Serge Ibaka, Damjan Rudez
C: Nikola Vucevic, Bismack Biyombo
Assigned: Stephen Zimmerman
TBD: Evan Fournier
Out: Jodie Meeks, C.J. Wilcox
The line is off the board as of this writing. Will update in the pre-game news and notes.