With Kawhi Leonard sitting once again for load management on Sunday afternoon, the hottest team in the league in the month of February rolled into town and delivered a resounding defeat to the Toronto Raptors.
The Orlando Magic have been on an impressive role of late, finding their stride on the defensive end where they’ve been the best team in the league in February, and their ability to rotate and recover caused plenty of problems for a lethargic Raptors offense in this game. The Raptors struggled for much of the game to create good looks at the basket, and found themselves forcing tough shots for long stretches as the Raptors, who never held a lead in the game, had trouble creating momentum.
Former Raptor Terrence Ross and first-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic led the way for Orlando, with them exploiting the Raptors’ centers tendency to hold back in coverage to create good looks off screens and generate a lot of their offensive through simple action, with Ross having a game-high 28 in the game.
For the Raptors, there were certainly positives in this one as well, including a third quarter stretch where they ran the majority of the offense through Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol who showed some growing chemistry to create a lot of easy looks for each other and the players around them, but the bench largely struggled on the night, and every time the Raptors gave more rest to their starters, the Magic seemed to generate another run. Norman Powell and Jeremy Lin, struggled with the length of Orlando and had trouble once they got past the initial defender creating good shots in the paint and finishing at the basket, leading to a lot of lost offensive possessions, while Orlando never seemed to slow down in this game.
While this is just one game, and without the Raptors’ best player, and the Magic have been largely doing this to everyone recently as they’ve been on an impressive run to try to make the playoffs, the Raptors’ problems in this game felt familiar. The simple actions that generated their third quarter run to tie the game were there in the first quarter as well for Toronto, but they looked like they weren’t sure how to use Gasol to create those looks in those early minutes, and they often seemed to be forcing harder offense than they had to. The value of a center like Marc Gasol is in the ability to generate good looks either through the space he creates off screens, or through using his ability to pass out of the high post to punish a defense, and Toronto seemed to spend a lot of his early minutes just not looking for those things as they integrate their big trade deadline acquisition.
There are 21 games left in the season, so there is time for Toronto to figure out these things, but with Fred VanVleet set to miss more time and Kawhi Leonard undoubtedly not going to be playing in all of the remaining games, either, that number might be deceiving in terms of how much time the Raptors have to develop the necessary chemistry to find their ceiling in the playoffs, and Sunday’s game was another example of how far they have left to go.
The Raptors still look like the likely second seed in the East at this point in the season, and the streaking Magic might end up the seventh seed if they keep their momentum going, so this could end up a first round preview, and if so, Toronto needs to be in a better place to match Orlando’s energy when the postseason does arrive.