Some things never change. Even if they’re supposed to. This year, the Toronto Raptors are different. They employ Kawhi Leonard, who at his best is one of the seven or eight best players in the world. He was close to at his best against the Orlando Magic, scoring 25 points along with six rebounds and three assists. Leonard is joined in Toronto by fellow NBA champion and marksman Danny Green. Another new Raptor, Marc Gasol, battled for years deep into the meat grinder of the Western Conference playoffs. If you told a Raptors fan of 2016 that the team would employ Leonard, Green, and Gasol, that fan would imagine the team would be entirely different. The Raptors entered the playoffs as the second best team in the NBA, picked by most analysts to obliterate the Orlando Magic in the first round. Everything is different. This team is not the same as the one that lost 10 straight playoff games to the Cleveland Cavaliers over three years.
Yet somehow the Raptors are facing yet another 0-1 playoff series deficit, their 14th such deficit in 16 franchise playoff appearances. Leonard, Gasol, and Green are not Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani, and Anthony Parker. Yet some things never change.
To be sure, the Raptors had plenty of fluke go against them in this one. Orlando shot 48.3 percent from deep, better even than they shot from inside the arc. Players like Aaron Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams transformed into knockdown shooters. Still, the Magic played well. They have been one of the league’s best teams since February, and this game was no different. Their defence was bothersome to Toronto, and they received contributions from surprising places.
More importantly, Kyle Lowry scored zero points. It’s the only time that has happened in the playoffs in his entire career. He otherwise played fairly well – and even finished with eight assists and a team-high +11 net rating – but his inability to score was a stain on his performance. It can’t be overlooked. Lowry, however, isn’t worried.
“I shot some shots. I got to the basket. I created,” said Lowry. “Maybe (I should) just be a little bit more aggressive. It’s like I said before, it’s been a different year with our team and sometimes I haven’t been aggressive enough, but there’s a game two coming up. We’ll be fine.”
To further add to the Raptors’ unlikely performance, they shot 1-for-10 on corner 3s, a range from which they shot 42.3 percent on the year. The majority of their shots from the region were wide-open attempts for good shooters, as Siakam (three), Gasol (two), Green (two), and Powell (two) all missed some they’d want back. Those are the looks that Toronto works hard to create.
“We missed a lot of open shots, a lot of them went in and out,” said Siakam after the game. “Just, we wish we had a couple of those. But that’s the game. We understand that.”
The problem for Toronto was that they let the poor shooting seep into the rest of their play. Especially in the second quarter, as Orlando went on a 15-0 run in the span of two-and-a-half minutes. I can’t find any records for that type of stat, but a 15-0 run in under three minutes would have to make a run at the title of misery. The paddling came about as Toronto was stonewalled at the rim by Orlando’s length, missed on some open triples, and made several defensive mistakes. For one example, they went under on a DJ Augustin screen – foreshadowing – to allow an open triple for the league’s third-best volume pull-up shooter. All the missing got to Toronto.
“You have to keep the things constant that you can keep constant,” said Nurse after the game. “And I thought maybe we had a little bit of a disjointed defensive segment there midway through the second quarter because we were maybe living in our offence a little bit. Just gotta address it, show ’em, talk to ’em about it, hit it head on a little bit and understand that defence and rebounding has gotta be there no matter what our offence or our shooting are doing.”
To their credit, the recent additions to the Raptors pulled them out of the hole later in the second quarter. Gasol hit a straightaway triple, at which the crowd breathed a sigh of relief. Green hit a patented up-and-under 3, which saw him pump-fake and wait out his defender’s challenge before launching to beat the halftime buzzer.
Leonard would make his impact in the second half. Early in the third, he hit a pull-up jumper, created a Siakam layup on the drive, and nailed a pull-up triple in the span of a few minutes. He clawed Toronto back into the lead. Later, in the fourth quarter, when Orlando took the lead back, Leonard again proved his quality. Down three points, Leonard calmly stepped into another pull-up triple to tie the game. He isolated against Gordon on the next possession and nailed a baseline jumper with a minute remaining to give Toronto a two-point lead.
Kawhi Leonard is unlike anybody the Toronto Raptors have ever employed. He is good enough, alone, to guide the Raptors through the peaks and troughs of the emotional tolls of playoff basketball. If not for Leonard, the Raptors probably would not have been able to fight back into the game after the second quarter collapse. Leonard knows not of Toronto’s playoff struggles.
“What hump?” he responded after April 12’s practice when asked about Toronto’s inability to get over the hump. “I mean, this team’s been to the conference finals as well.”
Despite Leonard’s heroics, missed corner 3s and DJ Augustin doomed the Raptors to remain the Raptors. Augustin finished with 25 points on only 13 shot attempts. He had six assists to only one turnover. He was the game’s best player. No play, however, came close in importance to his stepback jumper to end the game.
Augustin attacked out of the pick-and-roll for a layup to tie the game after Leonard’s miracles. Gasol missed a wide-open corner 3. Augustin came back, and in another pick-and-roll, launched a game-winning triple over a confused Raptors coverage. How Toronto defended the Augustin-Vucevic pick-and-roll was my pick for the turning point of the series, and just before tipoff I spilled 1800 words on the tactical nuances of Toronto’s regular season coverage. Sometimes it feels bad to be right.
So the Raptors are once again in a hole after the first game of a series. Feels familiar? The new Raptors may be more traditional than you thought. Lowry’s shot is missing. The team somehow found a way to lose a game that they led with under a minute remaining. Yet everything is fine. Sure, the Raptors lost one game to an excellent Magic team. Few people predicted a sweep. Nobody seemed rattled after the game, with everyone who spoke to media projecting an air of confidence. Leonard, Green, and Gasol remain Raptors. Everything is different. Except so far, it isn’t.