The Toronto Raptors beat the Orlando Magic 117-104 on Wednesday. It was…not as great as that sounds, another example of an effort somewhere south of the Raptors’ best still being good enough quite often. Anyone who did a quick check of the box score late may have disagreed, because the final score and lines wrap things up fairly neatly. The Raptors shot reasonably well, had over 30 assists again, got quality lines from the stars, and got a big boost from three of the Second Unit Saints. They won by 13, and their stars played reasonable minutes. Big-picture, it was fine. Watching start-to-finish was far less pleasurable, with the Raptors dragging their feet for most of the night. They’re good enough to do that, though it is sometimes irritating.
The first quarter contained some very pretty offensive basketball. Those looking for a defensive showdown should be warned against watching those 12 minutes, which saw the Raptors score 1.74 points per-possession and still only take a five-point lead out of the frame. Everyone was involved early, with seven different Raptors scoring at least five points, the team dishing 11 assists on 16 field goals, and the 3-point shooting of Kyle Lowry and C.J. Miles being supplemented by threes from OG Anunoby and Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas ran into early foul trouble, which would have been concerning against Nikola Vucevic had Jakob Poeltl not come in and helped kick-start an 8-0 run. He’d later make a pair of tough finishes on the dive and kick a Fred VanVleet dump-off out to Miles for a pretty three. Pretty Miles threes were par for the course, as another on an inbound play maintained the two-for-one opportunity and got him an open look.
The defense just wasn’t there in support. Evan Fournier was free for threes as much as Miles, Shelvin Mack somewhat inexplicably got into the teeth of the defense, and a few apparent miscommunications (or over-eager switches) saw Aaron Gordon attacking a lot of mismatches early on. The difference between the sides, of course, is that the Raptors have the talent to more reliably expect their shot-making to stay at that kind of a level. All due respect to Mario Hezonja, who’s been red-hot of late, but the Magic bench is not the Raptors bench. They did turn in a good second quarter, though, besting the vaunted all-bench Raptors group by five over five minutes despite some strong Delon Wright play. Toronto’s offense was just a little too imprecise, while the defense wasn’t quite making the Magic feel them the way it normally would.
It was a little odd, seeing the bench on a bad team win a lengthy stretch, especially when Bismack Biyombo extended it with a game-tying dunk out of a Raptors’ timeout. Dwane Casey maintained a loose leash, once again staggering the return of starters to get a peak at the three-point guard lineup, and VanVleet and Poeltl each responded by drawing contact inside, the latter finishing up a really strong half with a great contest before making way for Valanciunas again. Serge Ibaka became the 10th Raptor to score immediately upon returning, though the return of the starting unit was short-lived due to an injury to Anunoby. Norman Powell got a look as a result, DeMar DeRozan picked up a frustration technical shortly after, and Ibaka brought a momentary spark with a block at the rim that was a part of four consecutive stops to end the half.
That was about the best sustained defensive stretch the team had early, to damn with faint praise. So while the Raptors’ never really slowed down on offense – they shot 63 percent overall, 62 percent on threes, and had 20 assists to seven turnovers – a complete inability to slow Orlando led to a 69-63 halftime score. That’s an unacceptable defensive performance even with the shot-making variance caveat, a 128.8 defensive rating against a below-average offense.
The third quarter saw some regression both ways, or “adjustments” if you prefer to be kind. Some of that was imprecision, like Lowry missing free throws or DeRozan and Ibaka missing a connection for a turnover. It took over two minutes for the Raptors to get on the board, allowing Orlando to pull off a 9-2 run and take their first lead since midway through the first. That pretty dispiriting stretch saw no change to the lineup out of a timeout, but the Raptors at least ran a pet out-of-timeout play to free Lowry for a three, setting up more of the same offense-only back-and-forth. It devolved for stretches – centers missing threes! – though not in the favor of either side until the Raptors’ bench mercifully showed up. VanVleet ripped a ball from Fournier late in the shot clock, fed Siakam in transition, and he dumped it off to DeRozan, that single play momentarily reminding the Raptors they were running out of time for their usual pull-away.
An 8-0 run could have given the Raptors control entering the fourth, had the Raptors not gone off the rails in the final minute, with Lowry essentially handing the Magic a lifeline in the form of two bad turnovers to cause a 6-0 counter-run. That this hasn’t happened all that made it feel a little unfamiliar, especially since it’s been so long since it happened against a bad team. The Raptors used to have a bit of a rep for letting lesser teams hang around, but this was out of character. Blame the guy with clunky sandals in the sight line of the Raptors’ shooters, I guess.
In any case, the Raptors eventually figured it out. Orlando hung around until about five minutes into the fourth, when it was still a one-point game and the bench finally found the gear that neither unit had stumbled onto yet. VanVleet drilled a three, Miles came up with an offensive rebound for a dunk, a VanVleet steal made it’s way to Poeltl and then Wright for a dunk, and the stars had a lead when they returned. Those were the only starters Casey opted to go back to, closing with VanVleet, Lowry, DeRozan, and the backup bigs, and that group promptly put to rest any concerns. In fact, an alley-oop from Lowry to Siakam in the closing seconds momentarily put the Raptors ahead by 14, which would have made them the most dominant team in the history of NBA Februaries. Sadly, Hezonja added a free-throw to leave the Raptors a fraction of a point in margin behind the 1989-90 Phoenix Suns.
This was anything but a good representation of how good the Raptors have been during that stretch, even with a 117-104 final. On the one hand, they sleep-walked (slept-walked?) through three quarters and still beat a team by double-digits, which certainly says something about how good they are and how easy it is for them to casually shift into gear for the few minutes it takes to put away lesser teams. On the other, the Magic – the Magic! – hung around for 40 minutes and scored 108.1 points per-100 possessions. It’s a very weird thing to say, but it almost seems like the Raptors might need a run of challenges to sharpen them up after a month of bludgeoning teams and two or three months of a softer schedule where they’ve only occasionally had to play complete games. Again, it’s great that their margin for error is so large. They’re really good. It’s just probably also true that upcoming games with Washington, Houston, Indiana and the like will be helpful and instructive.
And hey, on the bright side, the Raptors had an offensive rating of 200 and a defensive rating of 0 in their eight seconds of “clutch time” in this one.