(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Orlando Magic
Analysis: The Magic are just happy to be here. As long as Kawhi Leonard doesn’t rest at all, Toronto shouldn’t have much trouble.
Prediction: Raptors in 4
And yet Nurse has come out the other side with a nodding endorsement from his point guard, who has tested wills like he tests defences.
“I think just his demeanour,” Lowry said when asked what has impressed him about Nurse in his first year as an NBA head coach after five years as Dwane Casey’s assistant. “He’s kind of been like, ‘Hey, we’ll come in, get our work in, go about our business.’ Get in, get out, do this, figure it out as we go. I think that’s been the difference. I think he’s been very solid on knowing what he’s capable of doing and what we’re capable of doing as a team and not forcing anything.”
Nurse came to training camp in Burnaby, B.C. playing D.J. – he debuted with ‘September’ by Earth Wind & Fire – and handing out dollar-store wrestling belts to the winners of various in-house competitions, bringing out his millionaire campers’ inner 12-year-old.
He declared before he coached his first NBA game that wins, losses and seeding – the currency of the regular season – didn’t matter. From his first moments in a job where the details and pace and grinding routine can swallow men whole, he preached big picture and process.
It all sounded great, but as Mike Tyson said when he was in his terrifying prime “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Draft position: No. 15, Indiana, 2011
How he was acquired: In a blockbuster trade in July 2018, coming to Toronto with Danny Green while DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl and a 2019 first-round pick were shipped to San Antonio.
2018-19 stats: 60 GP, 26.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 3.3 APG,
Career playoff games: 87
Salary this season: $23,114,067
Status next season: $21,329,752 (player option)
Need to know: Had a 25.8 player efficiency rating this season, best ever in franchise history topping Chris Bosh and Vince Carter (25.0). The stat is a measure of a player’s per-minute productivity summing up a player’s positive accomplishments while subtracting the negative. The league average is 15 … According to Micah Adams of Perform Media, Leonard is third all-time in win shares per 48 in the post-season behind only Michael Jordan and LeBron James (minimum 1,500 minutes). DeRozan is ranked No. 391 … Leonard and Jimmy Butler are the only two active NBA active players with more steals than fouls in their careers (minimum 21 games).
“He’s had a difficult year, but in the past 10-12 days, I feel like he was in a really good space,” Nurse said. “He was starting to move around a little better, feel a little better about himself. I think he was really looking forward to putting his chopped-up regular season behind him and getting a fresh start with the playoffs. But now he won’t get that chance.”
Anunoby is such a unique blend of strength, length and offensive touch that finding a plug-and-play replacement for him is impossible.
His absence could open up minutes for a guy like Patrick McCaw, but McCaw is out until at least next week with a thumb injury and likely won’t be available for the first two games.
But no one on the roster, and that includes McCaw can give the team the defensive presence that Anunoby provides and against a long and rangy team like Orlando, the Raptors first-round opponent, that is going to be missed.
“This is a team with a lot of size, and OG is one of our size and length guys, so obviously we’re gonna miss him,” Nurse said. “This would have been a great team for him to be out there for. So we’ve got to figure out what we’re gonna do.”
The Raptors and Magic open up their Eastern Conference quarterfinal beginning Saturday at Scotiabank Arena with a 5 p.m. tip.
“My first thought is what a bad break for him, just bizarre timing, and it doesn’t even happen on the basketball court,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s had a difficult year, but in the past 10-12 days, I feel like he was in a really good space.”
Anunoby’s father died last fall, and Anunoby has battled numerous ailments over the course of the season, missing time to an injured wrist and concussion-like symptoms.
“He was starting to move around a little better, feel a little better about himself,” Nurse said. “I think he was really looking forward to putting his chopped-up regular season behind him and getting a fresh start with the playoffs. But now he won’t get that chance.”
The Raptors, the East’s second seed, begin their first-round playoff series on Saturday in Toronto against the Orlando Magic (5 p.m. ET, ESPN). Orlando features one of the biggest units in the NBA, and the Raptors anticipated Anunoby’s size and physicality would be beneficial to their defensive schemes.
“He’s just kind of a Swiss [Army] knife,” Raptors center Marc Gasol said. “He can give you a lot of stuff defensively, offensively. He’s a really unique player.”
Throw away the 2-2 season-series record, the well-documented Game 1 struggles when spring arrives and the various strengths and weaknesses when breaking down the matchup, the first between the teams since Dwight Howard dominated the paint in Orlando.
For the Magic, the playoffs represent the team’s first post-season appearance since 2012.
Orlando hasn’t won a post-season series since 2010 and its chances are pretty daunting.
“Obviously it won’t be easy,” all-star centre Nikola Vucevic told reporters. “Toronto is going to take it a step forward. Obviously they have guys who have a lot of experience in the playoffs, who have played in big games, meaningful games. But I believe that we know what it takes It won’t be easy.”
Orlando has been in playoff mode for the past few months, the team finding its rhythm and chemistry at the right moment.
For guys such as Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, Orlando’s two primary scorers, this will be their first foray into the playoffs.
Steve Clifford, who was hired by former Raptors executive Jeff Weltman last May, has done a wonderful job in his first season with the Magic.
Two – How the Magic operate
They are fourth-best at forcing teams into the mid-range behind Utah, Golden State and Detroit. Kawhi Leonard must make them pay while Marc Gasol must use the space afforded to him to create. Kyle Lowry should also have healthy opportunities to be a scorer.
The Magic will drop the big in pick-and-rolls while switching in any PnR outside of that. They feel very comfortable sticking Aaron Gordon, Wesley Iwundu and Jonathan Isaac on anyone. They will exaggerate their help in the paint and dare you to make the skip pass.
They allow the fourth fewest shot attempts at the rim and are about league average in field goal percentage allowed at the rim. Second-best in effective field goal percentage allowed, sixth in allowing corner threes, and teams shot second-worst 33 per cent on corner threes against them. The Raptors shot 47 per cent on corner threes after the trade deadline, so something has to give. They’re about league average in non-corner threes allowed, first in non-corner three percentage allowed at 31.8 per cent. The Raptors shot 37 per cent after adding Gasol.
The Raptors have been chasing D.J. Augustin off the line, who has been shooting right around 40 per cent from three for the last few years. They might need to test him and see if he can do so in the playoffs. When the Raptors go around the screen, Augustin does a good job of being patient with his dribble and staying parallel with the roller to find Vucevic at the right time. Gasol has regularly been dropping in pick-and-roll coverage, so they can look to exploit that.
But finally, mercifully, we’ve arrived at the moment of truth — or, at least, the first in a series of moments that will reveal the ultimate basketball truth about the most promising collection of talent Toronto’s NBA franchise has ever accumulated. The post-season is upon us. The Raptors begin their best-of-seven first-round series against the Orlando Magic on Saturday afternoon at home. Now comes the time, as Leonard has said, to actually, seriously “lace ’em up.”
“It’s a new season,” Danny Green, one of the fruits of that July trade, said Friday. “Everything that’s happened up until this point (is irrelevant).”
Along with the ever-evolving soap opera in Golden State, where the Warriors will try to win their fourth championship in five seasons, Leonard’s return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017 is perhaps the league’s most intriguing storyline. When last he was engaged in a post-season game, after all, Leonard was leading an eyebrow-raising domination of the dynastic eventual champions.
Playing in Game 1 of the Western Conference final, Leonard had scored 26 points in 24 minutes of playing time. His Spurs led the Warriors by 23 points. Then bad luck intervened. Leonard, who had come into the series nursing a tender left ankle, reinjured the same ankle when he came down from a jump shot atop the foot of Warriors forward Zaza Pachulia. In that instant, Leonard’s playoffs were done (and so were the Spurs, who watched the Warriors come back to win Game 1 and sweep the series en route to the title).
But Leonard’s run of poor health was only beginning; he’d be limited to nine games the following season on account of a mysterious leg injury that ultimately marked the demise of his relationship with the Spurs and his shipment to Toronto for this impending-free-agent season.
asol has six postseasons under his belt, and has been the NBA’s defensive player of the year. Leonard has won that award twice, and been to the NBA finals twice with Green and the Spurs. They were runners-up to the Miami Heat in 2013, before returning the next year to conquer that same team and hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. They’ve been signed to help lead the Raptors there for the first time in team history.
“When the games are played, we are hoping that experience will help us a huge amount, in keeping this team locked in,” Green said. “For some of us it’s a fresh start, and for some of us it’s other motivations, or other tools, that may help hopefully drive them to come in with more anger, more attitude, more discipline because of the experience they have. We use the same experience – from the past and other organizations – so it’s no different.”
Gasol’s Grizzlies tangled with the Spurs in the postseason, and he has vivid memories of how effective Leonard can be in the playoffs, especially defensively.
“He can screw up a lot of things,” said Gasol, then launching into a lengthy and technical description of the ways Leonard disrupts playoff opponents. “But it’s a team effort. We’re all going to have to be locked in defensively. That’s something we can rely on, this team. I think everybody’s mindset on this team, defensively, is on the same page. I think it’s one of our biggest strengths for sure.”
Adding these veterans – along with the improvement of third-year player Pascal Siakam – has had an unburdening effect on Kyle Lowry that Toronto coach Nick Nurse predicts will crystallize in these playoffs.
Ibaka didn’t seem to like the answer. At the beginning of the segment, he asked if Kawhi had spent time in Toronto in the summer. Kawhi said no.
“Summer is nice,” Ibaka told him. “It’s beautiful, man. Like if you were here in the summer, I don’t think you would say I am going to leave to go to L.A.”
“I’m going to give it a chance this summer,” Kawhi finally said.
Ibaka’s show was the biggest talking point ahead of the opening-round playoff series between the Raptors, the No. 2 seed, and the Orlando Magic, the No. 7 seed, which kicks off in Toronto on Saturday at 5 p.m.
Kawhi’s message has been that the 82-game regular season was just practice. “Playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up,” he said.
Now it becomes real, and Raptors fans are excited for the chance to see the best of Kawhi, who played only 60 games under the team’s load management system to keep him fresh.
But this isn’t just Kawhi’s team. It’s Kyle Lowry’s team. It’s Marc Gasol’s team. It’s Danny Green’s team. It’s Pascal Siakam’s team. Over the course of the season, each one has played a lead role at various times in getting the Raptors to their 58-24 record.
1. What’s Raps’ main asset heading into the playoffs?
The Raptors have a lot going for them heading into these playoffs. They are rested and, outside of the completely uncontrollable appendectomy OG Anunoby underwent Friday, mostly healthy. They have skill at every position and depth behind that skill. But their greatest asset of all is probably their versatility. The ability to guard just about anyone on the floor and switch at a moment’s notice is a luxury most teams just don’t have. From point guard Kyle Lowry who we’ve seen hold his own against centres in the post to Pascal Siakam who can chase down the quickest of guards and stay in front of them, the Raptors are a tough team to find punishable matchups against. Kawhi Leonard is the ultimate Swiss Army knife. able to go on to just about any hot shooter and lock him down. Danny Green was asked if he saw any similarities to this Raptors team and some of those great Spurs teams he was a part of and it was the versatility of both groups that he settled on. “I see the similarities in versatility where most guys can play 1-through-4, 1-through-5 and switch, guard, and pass and see the floor. In San Antonio, we had those passing bigs that can move and switch out and play great basketball. So I think in that sense, it was very similar.”
Magic 113, Raptors 98 | Feb. 24 in Toronto
Terrence Ross says playing against his former team isn’t as significant as many might imagine.
Those watching the Magic guard play against the Raptors at Scotiabank Arena might suggest otherwise based on his intense purpose of play.
The back-up shooting guard scored 28 points against the team that gave him his NBA start six seasons ago and he led all scorers as Orlando rolled to a 113-98 victory, the Magic’s sixth win in seven games.
Asked if there was extra incentive to face the Raptors, Ross balked at the assumption.
“It means you’ve got another basketball game that you’ve gotta go play. I can’t think about it like that anymore. They’re [just] another team,” Ross said.
Ross made 9-of-21 floor shots (43 percent) and he also hit 3-of-8 3-pointers, down from his usual consistency from behind the arc of 39 percent. Nonetheless, he was the key component in the Magic victory.
Most impressive were his nine rebounds, a mark that was second on the team only to center Nikola Vucevic’s 12 boards.
Nikola Vucevic earned a well-deserved All-Star birth. Terrence Ross will rightly be in the Sixth Man of the Year discussion. Steve Clifford has proven himself to be Orlando’s best coaching hire in quite some time. For the veterans who endured the interminable losing of the rebuild — Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, most notably — it has ultimately been a redemptive season.
And yet, it all counts for nothing in the context of this series. The slate has been wiped clean.
If the Magic want to be more than a fleeting footnote on this NBA season they’ll need to do what many have already written off as an impossibility. They’ll need to beat a stronger, deeper, and more skilled basketball team four times out of seven. The climbing of that mountain starts tonight.
The Raptors are going to take some stopping. They have a genuine MVP-level, two-way superstar in Kawhi Leonard on the wing, and they’ve partnered him with one of the league’s top-tier point guards, Kyle Lowry. Both are capable of dominating their own individual match-ups, with Lowry in particular being a killer out of the pick-and-roll.
You can add to this duo the ascending Pascal Siakam, the playoff tested Marc Gasol and Danny Green, and the revitalized Serge Ibaka. The bench also goes deep, with competent contributors like Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin and Norman Powell. They can mix-and-match a number of different play styles as the game dictates, while the general length, adaptability and switchability of the roster is a defensive nightmare for any opponent.
Still, the Magic will fight for the chance they have, however slim. There are a handful of likely suspects who could catch fire at the right time, allowing the team to steal the game down the stretch if they can keep it close enough. There are some potential X-factors lurking in the lineup that could swing the result. There’s a chance that Vucevic thoroughly dominates his match-up inside. Coach Clifford might have an unexpected trick or two up his sleeve that turns the contest.
Orlando: Terrence Ross, Wes Iwundu, Khem Birch, Michael Carter-Williams
Toronto: Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, Norm Powell
Toronto’s bench production has been spotty this season and that’s a concern, in large part because OG Anunoby has been lost for an indefinite period after having an emergency appendectomy on Thursday. The number of injuries and lineup changes is a bit of an explanation but there’s been too much inconsistency. But VanVleet is as healthy as he has been all year and Powell has been playing well of late. They’ll have to keep that up.
Ross, the one-time Raptors forward, is thriving in his role as designated scorer off the bench for Orlando. Raptors coach Nick Nurse lauded Ross for his ability to hit tough shots while being well-covered and you can be certain Ross will be out to beat up his former teammates. Montreal’s Birch is an athletic, young big man but there’s not a lot of playoff experience in the group.
ith their win, the Magic demonstrated how much they have grown this season.
And they also showed why their upcoming playoff series against the second-seeded Toronto Raptors might — just might — be closer than it seems on paper. Few, if any, experts will give the Magic much of a chance to win the series, and understandably so. But Wednesday demonstrated again that it is foolhardy to discount Orlando so easily.
“We know we can play with anyone, really,” swingman Evan Fournier said. “I mean we’ve had some really, really good wins this season. Now it’s a matter of are we going to be consistent enough for 48 minutes in seven games to win? We know we can be good. Now we just have to show it.”
…The task of guarding Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard likely will fall to Gordon. On Dec. 28, in a 115-91 victory over Toronto at Amway Center, Gordon helped hold Leonard to an inefficient 21 points on 7-of-19 shooting.
“We’ve got a lot of pieces on this team, and we’ve got guys that can do a lot of different things and are very talented and skilled,” Gordon said. “But we need J.I. and Vooch if we want to win.”
Gordon probably will enter the playoff series with a chip on his shoulder, eager to prove he is an elite defender.
As the Magic prepare for Saturday’s Game 1 showdown with the Raptors, they have certainly watched the tape of all these games as they try to discover tendencies and tricks that might unlock their path to success.
“You can learn something from each of them,” coach Steve Clifford said. “They are different because they have Gasol now. Players don’t change. Their strengths are their strengths. They were all good to watch.”
The Raptors indeed provide a formidable test. They have the fifth-best offense and defense in the league this season. Since the All-Star Break, their effective field goal percentage shot up from 53.4 percent to 56.6 percent after the break. Their offense improved and their defense got better.
That was all on display in that final game. The Magic shot 46.2 percent in the game while turning the ball over 13 times. That will be a key factor in the series too. Orlando will have to limit those turnovers and limit transition opportunities to keep Toronto off the board.
That was the biggest lesson to come from that last game. Orlando will have to limit turnovers and limit mistakes to prevent transition opportunities to have a chance to win in this series.
The Raptors are simply a balanced team that is tough to beat. Everyone recognizes the challenge ahead.
Gordon said the team could take a lot from re-watching those games. But this is a new series and season. The team will have to be better than they were in all those four games. It will take a calm and poised effort.
Jonathan Isaac said it was watching for the small things. Those are what really matter in the playoffs. The team is studying how to take away an opponent’s strengths and it is the little things that determine outcomes.