Final Score: Magic 101, Raptors 112
There were some familiar faces last night at the ACC. The Orlando Magic made their second trip to Toronto of the season to play the Raptors, who were playing their final home game of the regular season. Making his long-awaited return from a knee injury that has kept him out for most of his time in Orlando so far, Terrence Ross surprised Magic and Raptor fans with a late-season return against Toronto. While it was a slow return to the say the least, it was an encouraging sign to see Terry out there. Looking at T. Ross and Bismack Biyombo made me realize how far this franchise has come. From what we thought was as high as we could go just a couple of years ago with both of those guys, good drafting, and innovative coaching has led to a re-defined ceiling, and finally some true post-season hope for a franchise that still hasn’t made the NBA Finals.
And in their final regular season game at home this year, the Raptors delivered. With DeMar and Jonas resting for the night, Dwane Casey opted to substitute Bebe Nogeuira and Norm Powell into the starting lineup. Bebe left the game in the first quarter on account of hamstring tightness (that wasn’t the only injury of the night for Toronto), but Norm made an impact. Granted the Raptors were playing the Magic, but there seemed to be a certain confidence in everyone’s step.
The Raptors shot a combined 50% from the field, and 42% from 3. It started with CJ Miles, who started off the game on fire and looking for his shot. After hitting his first 3’s, you could just tell it was going to be one of those nights despite all of the terrible shooting nights we’ve seen from his recently. From OG (who had a career nigh with 21 points) to Serge Ibaka (who had 13 and 8 on 6/11 shooting) to Norm Powell (who scored what seemed like a season high 13 points) – last night’s game was a resounding bounce back game for these key rotation pieces who have had their low points at various times in recent memory. They had a pep in their step, and took confident shots off of good ball movement. It was exactly what the Doctor ordered for the Raptors, who are trying to recapture and sustain their mid-season mojo heading into the post-season, which is set to begin in just 5 days.
Aside from just the shooting accuracy , the Raptors dished out 28 assists on their 39 fields goals and showed a clear desire to want to move the ball and share the load offensively. No DeMar in the lineup meant the bench mob had to distribute the scoring load and handle it by committee, and the scoring certainly came in bunches. The Raps poured it on in the second half outscoring the Magic by 4 points in each of the final two frames, and things were quickly over after that. Despite the early conclusion to the game though, Raptors fans remained in the arena until the final buzzer sounded for a huge standing ovation. The Raptors capped off their best regular season home record in franchise history with their 34th win at the ACC, and added to what has already been the clear regular season peak for this franchise.
Not that it’s particularly worrisome, but last night’s game did come at a cost. Both Bebe (with the hamstring) and Fred VanVleet (sore lower back) exited mid-game (though Coach Casey did confirm after the game that Fred could have returned to the game if he had to). It’s going to be critical for the Raptors to get adequate rest for both guys coming down the stretch so it’s probably safe to presume that both will be out of the lineup tomorrow against Detroit and possibly Miami on Wednesday as well. One of the downsides of the Raptors’ supreme bench so far has been a slight over-reliance on Fred, who has all of a sudden become one of the key members of closing lineups and one of the most consistent players on the team.
As Toronto entered the most crucial three-game stretch of the season after losses against the Cavs and Celtics added some intrigue to the race for the first seed in the Eastern Conference, the tables are starting to turn again. The Raptors capped off their third straight win over that stretch (with an average margin of victory 16) and seem to be hitting their stride defensively as well (holding their past 3 opponents to a defensive rating of 85.5). That should be great news for fans who we panicking just under a week ago when the sky seemed to be falling. Nonetheless, the playoffs are now under a week a away and loom large over the Raptors who are looking to capitalize on their franchise-high seeding and translate it into landmark post-season success.
The Raps won’t have time to stare at the standings for too long however, as they head into Detroit for the season’s final back-to-back against the Pistons. A weeknight in Detroit means it’ll effectively be a home game, and with DeMar and JV back in the lineup, it’ll be important for the Raptors to keep their winning ways going as the regular season draws to a close. The Eastern Conference bracket remains as fluid as ever and guessing first and second round opponents continues to be difficult, so for the Raptors – focusing on their own health, rest, and rhythm at this point is all that matters.