Pre-Game

Gameday: Magic @ Raptors, April 8

The first end of the final back-to-back of the season.

The Toronto Raptors have accomplished pretty much all there is to accomplish in the regular season. Friday saw them lock up the division and the one-seed while setting a franchise record for wins and wins at home, and the only outcome left that could reasonably matter to them is determining home-court advantage in a potential NBA Finals series with the Golden State Warriors (the Raptors are a half-game up). For most intents and purposes, their last three games are about getting to the postseason healthy and in stride.

The visiting Orlando Magic likewise don’t have a ton to play for, and in fact have some negative incentives at play as the lottery order gets sorted out in these final days. For Orlando, the last few games are about seeing what’s there with a few younger pieces, maybe working our old friend back into the fold after months on the shelf, and if they win a game – they just took two from similarly win-averse competition – so be it.

The Magic are plucky, and Toronto has had some difficulty putting them away cleanly in the past, so nothing’s given here. It is, admittedly, a little hard to get up for a game with such low stakes, coming off of such an historic night, and with Raptors 905 tipping off a championship game sometime in the second quarter of this one. Still, basketball is basketball, and the Raptors have a chance to continue building some good vibes ahead of a much stiffer test next weekend.

The game tips off at 6 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Zach Oliver of Orlando Pinstriped Post, and he was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: The Raptors and Magic have made a pair of trades (kind of) in the last year or so. The first saw Terrence Ross and a pick flipped for Serge Ibaka, the second saw Jeff Weltman flipped for a pick. Obviously, it’s a little early to tell how a first-round pick and a team president are going to turn out, and Ross has unfortunately missed most of the season injured (sigh), but how do you feel about those moves with a bit of time behind them now? Is there faith in the Magic fanbase with what Weltman will look to do long-term?

Zach Oliver: I think the Serge Ibaka and Terrence Ross deal last year was the best case scenario for the Magic. Clearly there was discontent with Ibaka in Orlando, and he wasn’t going to stay in free agency. They took a big swing in acquiring him originally from Oklahoma City, and it didn’t work out. Obviously with Ross missing much of the season with a knee injury, it’s hard to fully gauge how the trade has been for the Magic.

That being said, I think it was best for them to go and get something rather than lose Ibaka for nothing in the summer. I do think Ross has some long-term value in Orlando as well, and is the type of player you want around, so that’s a win for the Magic.

As for the Weltman aspect, I think it’s a little early, but I do think there is some faith. There is also a lot of discontent within the fanbase because of the elongated struggles the team has gone through, so there will be a portion of the fanbase that isn’t happy with, what is likely, another rebuild. I think Weltman, and general manager John Hammond, are the right people for the job in the long run, and will begin to get things pointed in the right direction.

Blake Murphy: Michael Pina had a great chat with Jonathan Isaac over at Vice the other day, and it’s hard not to get excited about his long-term potential given what he’s shown of late (including in the last meeting between these sides). What have you liked from Isaac this year, and what’s the biggest area you’re hoping he comes back improved upon for 2018-19?

Zach Oliver: He’s a competitor. He isn’t going to back down from a challenge, and wants to put the work in to continue to grow. Defensively he’s already so far along that it’s quite impressive. He’s, arguably, the best defender the team has already, and is only going to continue to get better. Offensively he needs to take a step forward, but I think that will come. He’s a little inconsistent as a shooter, and needs to be stronger. His frame is very thin right now, and he’s going to need to see some big improvement there if he wants to reach his full potential on both ends of the floor.

Blake Murphy: Orlando may finish with the fourth-worst record in the league. Have you had time to sort of establish a pecking order for who you hope they end up with in the draft? Is it just one guy (Doncic Hive!)? Is there a certain cut-off point where, if X number of guys are off the board, the bad season will not have been worth it?

Zach Oliver: I don’t think I have a real pecking order yet. Do I have guys I like? Absolutely, but I think having a real order will come once we know exactly where the team will be picking in the draft.

That being said, I like a lot of the guys at the top. The issue that I see the Magic, potentially, having, is with the roster as it currently is. Obviously there will be turnover from the roster, basically the entire roster is guys that Weltman and Hammond did not pick, or sign themselves. With Isaac and, assuming they re-sign him, Aaron Gordon already on the roster, the Magic are going to be in a position where taking a player like Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter or even Jaren Jackson Jr, wouldn’t work. I think that gives a slight edge to the likes of Deandre Ayton, Mo Bamba, Colin Sexton and Luka Doncic.

As for a cutoff point, I don’t think so. I think this has the potential to be a 5-6 player draft, and I don’t see a real scenario where the Magic end up outside of the top six. And even if they do, they’ll still get a very good player, maybe just not one that could, potentially, be an All-Star.

Blake Murphy: My refusal to leave Mario Hezonja island all these years is finally paying off. The Magic bailed a little too early, it seems, and Hezonja will be a free agent this summer as a result. What has Hezonja done to break through the last few months, or how have the Magic gotten more out of him? Do you still have faith in him becoming A Piece?

Zach Oliver: I think the biggest thing for Mario this season has just been getting consistent playing time. Once he finally broke through and was getting the time, his play began to increase and be much better. There’s still some inconsistency, and the flaws in his game are still pretty clear, but I do think he’s taken a step forward, and began to solidify himself as a rotational player in the league.

I don’t think he has a future in Orlando, however. Once his option was declined, it was pretty clear that he was on his way out. Of course, the team will likely try and see if they can salvage something, but I don’t see him being a piece for the Magic anymore after this season.

Blake Murphy: Khem Birch, another solid Canadian, has been a nice find for the Magic. Does he factor in longer-term for them at all after the year he’s had?

Zach Oliver: Birch is interesting. He’s brought forth a lot of good things this season when he’s been given time. His energy, and play on the defensive side of the ball are infectious, and I think he could have a place on the team in the long-term.

A lot will likely depend on how the team handles Nikola Vucevic, and Bismack Biyombo this summer. If they move one, or even both, I think Birch has a real chance of being here for a long time. It will also depend on the direction they go in the draft, but ultimately, I think Birch is the kind of guy you want to try to hang onto, unless someone else has seen his potential, and puts him out of the Magic’s price range.

Raptors updates
Toronto comes in with a clean bill of health here. The big question is whether they opt to rest anyone – this is the first night of a back-to-back in the midst of a season-closing six-game, nine-day stretch. The Raptors have done a solid job of keeping workloads down all season and could probably trust that their primary players won’t have to play a full workload here (like Friday, when nobody played 30 minutes), so they may deem a full rest day unnecessary. Dwane Casey also downplayed the idea, preferring to maintain rhythm heading into the postseason. Possibly also working against the idea of rest: It’s the last home game of the season, billed as Fanapalooza (or something like that).

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, , Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller

Magic updates
Orlando will look at least a little different than they did the last time these two sides met. The biggest note is that Jonathan Isaac, who gave the Raptors a lot of problems, is out. He’s dealing with a left ankle sprain, joining Jonathan Simmons (wrist contusion) and Evan Fournier (MCL sprain) on the shelf. Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon are also on the injury report – due to back tightness and calf soreness, respectively – but both of those players are considered probably.

Also listed as probable is our old pal Terrence Ross, who could be making bis return from a sprained MCL and right tibial plateau fracture. Ross has been out since Nov. 29, with the injury limiting him to 22 games on the season and forcing him to miss all three of the earlier games against Toronto. Which is a shame, because he’ll clearly be up for it – Ross and Bismack Biyombo interacting with their former teammates before and after Raptors-Magic games has been one of the most fun B-stories whenever they play. Ross has only played against the Raptors once in his career, dropping 17 points in a Magic loss after the trade last year. It’s perhaps unfair to expect a big game in his first night back after months on the shelf. That said, I’m expecting a Gerald Henderson award for him.

PG: D.J. Augustin, Shelvin Mack
SG: Wesley Iwundu, (Terrence Ross), Arron Afflalo, Rodney Purvis
SF: Mario Hezonja, Jamel Artis
PF: (Aaron Gordon), Khem Birch
C: (Nikola Vucevic), Bismack Biyombo, Marreese Speights
OUT: Jonathan Simmons, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Isaac
TBD: Terrence Ross, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic
Lakeland: None

The line
The Raptors are 13.5-point favorites and the over-under is presently off the board (it was strangely difficult to find a line for this game this morning).

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