It’s no secret that the Raptors haven’t needed to try very hard to win their last several game. Simply attending their last three contests against the Bulls, Knicks, and Bulls was a guarantee of victory. As a natural, if negative, result, the Raptors haven’t offered championship-caliber effort of late. It happens, because they’re people, but it’s not a good thing. To that end, it is a good thing that the Orlando Magic came to town to face the Raptors. The Magic forced the Raptors to play hard, and Toronto eventually responded, winning 121-109 with 12 minutes of garbage time to end the game.
“I’m glad this team’s in town because they’re gonna play their butts off,” said Nick Nurse before the game. “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? Not taking away anything from anybody. But we’ve been pretty comfortable here, and I wouldn’t mind maybe a little bit more stress.”
Despite the final score, Nurse got his desired stress and then some to start the game. Toronto’s effort was nonexistent, as Orlando’s desperation outclassed Toronto’s malaise by several orders of magnitude.
The Raptors’ defence was static, leaving its center on an island to defend Orlando’s frequent pick-and-rolls. As a result, Orlando’s offence was practically unstoppable. Both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka seemed too slow to wall off Vucevic and the ball-handler. Vucevic dished a trio of assists in the first quarter, as his paint touches spelled death to Toronto’s perimeter rotations.
Toronto only kept their heads above water because of the shooting of Danny Green. He shot 6-for-7 in the first quarter, with four made 3s. Almost all of his shots were rhythm triples, coming off of paint touches or stylish baseline inbounds plays. Without Green’s 16 points in the quarter, Toronto would have fallen into a deep hole.
But in an unlikely twist of fate for Toronto’s season, it was the Raptors’ bench that spurred the changing of the tides. Early in the second quarter, Toronto ran a Lowry-VanVleet-Powell-Siakam-Ibaka lineup. That is a legitimate bench lineup, with two starters in Lowry and Siakam, that could see real time in the playoffs. Though they finished a modest +2 in the game, their execution spliced the genes of the entire contest.
Toronto’s success was mainly due to Fred VanVleet and Ibaka’s newfound chemistry. They were brilliant together, creating high efficiency shots in the two-man game. Ibaka made a 3 popping out of the pick-and-roll, assisted by VanVleet. But so too did VanVleet make a 3, repositioning after a Lowry-Ibaka pick-and-roll, and Ibaka found him on the short roll. The chemistry between two high-minute bench players will be incredibly important in the playoffs, as both will see huge minutes off the bench.
Even if Toronto scored, something had to be done to slow Orlando. The solution was to defend Orlando’s two-man actions with all five defenders. Gasol was no longer left to fend by himself alone. His defence was terrific for the remainder of the game, as he stayed a step ahead of Orlando’s actions. Gasol held Vucevic to 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting, and the Spaniard led Toronto with a game-high +24 in the game. His defence was enabled by his teammates; when Lowry started stunting into passing lanes, recovering, and rotating, that’s when Orlando’s shooters started missing triples.
“Team defence,” said Gasol of the catalyst for the defensive shift. “We got more into the ball, that allowed me to be a little more aggressive, closer to (the ball), get back. We did a great job. I mean, the guards did a great job pulling back. When necessary, we switched some of it. That killed the pop and made them roll.”
Offensively, activity and energy were the keys to Toronto’s game. It was static attacks that got Toronto into trouble in the first quarter. Pascal Siakam struggled to attack Jonathan Isaac in isolation, as Isaac stripped Siakam twice on two early face-up drives. Aaron Gordon protected the rim well, recovering to meet Gasol at the rim after being beaten. That’s what a good defence can do; Orlando could turn gimme Toronto shots into challenged attempts, and Toronto struggled to crack that riddle early. Orlando’s defence is long and athletic, and very few Toronto attackers can create advantages against Orlando’s thicket of arms without at least a few passes coming first. Kawhi Leonard and Siakam especially struggled to score.
But with Toronto’s defence manufacturing stops, they could waltz around Orlando’s intimidating defence like it was the Maginot Line. When the starters returned to the game to finish the second quarter, Toronto took a lead that it wouldn’t relinquish.
The second and third quarters saw the Raptors transform into a threshing machine. The defence was manic yet precise, attacking Orlando at every turn, and forcing ball-handlers backwards. Orlando didn’t score for almost six consecutive minutes of gameplay in the late second quarter. Three consecutive Orlando possessions during that stretch ended with turnovers, and almost every possession saw at least one deflection. When Orlando’s shooters could hurl the ball towards the rim, the shots were wayward by several feet.
“It was really good there for two quarters, man,” said Nurse. “It was suffocating. It was tough on them.”
In the third, Orlando did accomplish a 7-0 run that saw Isaac take flight for an alley-oop in transition. The arena expected a timeout from Nurse, but he trusted his players to right the ship on their own. Needing a basket to stem the flow, Toronto turned to their pre-eminent post-up scorer, Danny Green. He finished with the unlikely lefty hook, and he nailed a triple in transition on the following possession. Because of Green’s heroics, it was Orlando who ended up calling the timeout instead of Toronto.
I asked Nurse after the game about Green’s post play being their go-to offensive set to stem the tide. I meant it as a joke, but Nurse took it seriously. Green in the post is a go-to tool, especially when good teams hide a guard on him.
“It was kind of strange,” admitted Nurse. “We had Danny on D.J. Augustin, which was kind of strange, and they had D.J. Augustin on him. I guess the point guards didn’t want to guard each other tonight. (Green) made a nice move (in the post). He had a heck of a game. It seemed like every timeout for a while it was ‘try to get Danny the ball off the rebound.’ That’s kind of fun.”
Green was a blazing ball of fire all game. When Toronto was as decisive as a sleeping kitten in the first, it was Green’s hot shooting that kept them afloat. When Toronto had Orlando on the ropes both in the second and the third, it was Green’s hot shooting that delivered the fatal blows. He finished with 29 points on 11-of-15 shooting and 7-of-10 from deep.
Energy, and a blazing deity iteration of Danny Green, was all Toronto needed to top the Magic. They haven’t needed energy recently, facing teams trotting out G-League rosters in sacrifice towards Zion Williamson. But Orlando is a good team, and beating them requires activity. Toronto won despite Leonard and Siakam combining for 21 points on 7-of-21 shooting; elite defence (and, I should repeat, Danny Green) can overcome bad offence from your stars. Orlando has thrashed Toronto twice this season, and they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the league in past months. Toronto still put the wood on them. Maybe Toronto finally revved their engines, welcoming a challenge after a few weeks of jogging through the motions. Maybe Toronto wanted to send a message to a potential first-round opponent. But the Raptors once again hit their ceiling, and it allowed them to demolish a very good Magic team that is fighting for their playoff lives. This Raptors team is looking more and more like they’re ready for playoff basketball.