Raptors News

Pre-game news and notes: the return of Kawhi Leonard

After three professional wins, but yawn-inducing games. against Chicago, New York, Chicago, Toronto will finally play a proper NBA team in the Orlando Magic. Toronto Head Coach Nick Nurse is happy about that.

“I’m glad this team’s in town because they’re gonna play their butts off. I’m not so sure we’ve had a team play their backsides off here in a couple few games. It’s been just a little bit too easy, right?,” said Nurse pre-game. “But we’ve been pretty comfortable here, and I wouldn’t mind maybe a little bit more stress.”

A win tonight would clinch Toronto the Atlantic Division title for the second consecutive year, so the Raptors have something to play for. Banners are banners! Orlando is currently sitting in ninth place in the East, but they’re only 0.5 games out of eight and 1.5 games out of sixth. So they, too, have cause to try to win a basketball game, unlike most of Toronto’s recent fodder. Orlando has been such a good team recently that that this should be the best remaining game of Toronto’s regular season.

The Magic lead Toronto 2-1 in the season series. As with practically every regular season series this year for Toronto, there are caveats to the numbers. Namely, two of the games featured two of Delon Wright, CJ Miles, and Lorenzo Brown as key rotation figures. Both Magic wins have been blowouts, with only large lessons to draw from the numbers. Their offensive identity revolves entirely around all-star and offensive fulcrum Nikola Vucevic. For his position, he’s an elite passer, screen-setting, offensive rebounder, shooter, and finisher; Toronto will be hard-pressed to slow him. In general, Vucevic has dominated no matter the defender. In three games against Toronto, he has averaged 22.3 points, 16.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and a positive 15.3 plus-minus. He’s shot 33-for-54 from the field, good for a 64.1 effective field goal percentage. He’s been a problem, as Nurse acknowledged pre-game.

Orlando is a good team. They’ve won seven of their last eight, and they have boasted the league’s fifth-best plus-minus since February 1. They know who they are on both sides of the ball, and they’ve been in the midst of a terrific stretch to make the playoffs. There is value in reaching the playoffs for teams like the Magic, even if they get swept by Toronto or Milwaukee once they get there. (Orlando has been so good, though, that that probably won’t happen.)

In many ways, Orlando approximates the strengths of playoff teams Toronto could see a month from now. With Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon starting at the 3-4, they have elite length on the defensive end and can strangle passing and driving lanes. Their defence can resemble the Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers in some specific ways. When Orlando wants to get truly nasty, Canadian Khem Birch can replace Vucevic, as Birch has been one of the league’s best rim protectors this season.

Orlando isn’t one-dimensional. Evan Fournier is a big wing scorer, although Toronto has a variety of tools to slow Fournier. Probably Orlando’s more threatening option at the position is Terrence Ross, who Toronto fans remember well as a microwave scorer who’s never met a triple he hasn’t loved. Ross is taking over 50 percent of his shots from deep, while connecting on a solid 38 percent. He’s gotten up double-digit triple attempts in four of his last six, and the team is far better when he’s on the court. He’s registered only five games since the start of February with a negative plus-minus; look for Toronto to throw elite screen navigators like Fred VanVleet or Danny Green on Ross when he’s on the court.

On Toronto’s side, they’re still focussing much more on demeanour, health, and execution than wins or losses.

“I’ve tried to not put a whole lot of emphasis, I guess is the right word, on the results of these games,” said Nurse pre-game. “It’s a strange feel to these games. Try to really concentrate on us, again just polish up our defensive packages, hope we move the ball. Right. You know, and hope these guys are feeling good about who they are as individual players, but who they are as a team, and keep kind of making that the focus.”

Toronto is starting to watch the schedule, but it’s about equal odds between Orlando, Miami, and Brooklyn right now to finish seventh and play the Raptors in the first round. I’m sure Toronto has a coach preparing for each one, but this game will give Toronto some first-hand reps against a potential playoff opponent. They could opt to play straight up, and not tip their hand, or they could try some weird things on defence, double Vucevic from odd angles, and altogether see how the Magic react to some of Toronto’s potential counters. We’ll chat more in this space after the game about whether Toronto tipped their hand in any way.

Toronto Updates

OG Anunoby (concussion-like symptoms) is out, and Patrick McCaw (thumb) is out. Pascal Siakam (back) was available against the Bulls, but he didn’t play to rest. He will be back in this one.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam
C:  Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher

Orlando Updates

Isaiah Briscoe (knee), Mo Bamba (leg), Markelle Fultz (shoulder), and Timofey Mozgov (knee) are all out.

PG: DJ Augustin, Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams, Troy Caupain
SG: Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross
SF: Jonathan Isaac, Wesley Iwundu
PF: Aaron Gordon, Jarell Martin, Amile Jefferson
C: Nikola Vucevic, Khem Birch

Assorted

  • Serge Ibaka had maybe the only funny April Fool’s joke I’ve seen today.
  • A lot of the talk pre-game at the Scotiabank Center was about Chris Boucher. He won the G-League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award. Nick Nurse was lobbying for him to win the Most Improved Player award as well pre-game.
    • Nurse isn’t sure how he’ll develop going forward, position-wise: “You’re just not quite sure what he’s gonna do or what he’s gonna look like or whatever in an NBA game. He’s a centre down there, for sure, he’s a definite rolling, shot-blocking, pick-and-pop five. And he just doesn’t look like a centre here. I always get a little bit hesitant to throw him out there against some of these real big physical guys. The one thing you can just say about him is he’s just not afraid.”
    • “We’d love him to get a little bigger and stronger. But if he doesn’t, we’ve still gotta figure out what we can do with him. I would think the next step is to get him a skillset where he could move to the four a little bit, where he could handle the ball and play DHO and be a little bit more versatile off the dribble and things like that, because that’s what his size probably dictates he should be, is a four.”

The Line

  • Toronto is -7, which is a reasonable line. It might be a touch to favourable to Toronto, but I have no real arguments. The over-under is 215.

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