Don’t pretend that you’re surprised.
Welcome to the NBA playoffs, Raptors, who were seemingly caught flat-footed by the Magic’s dogged intensity in Game 1. Even though most of the Magic’s players have never been to the postseason, the Magic have been in playoff mode for the last six weeks — pushing, prodding, playing with an edge and fighting for their postseason lives.
They carried that fight north of the border on Saturday and hit the Great White North like a stifling southern heat wave. Raptors fans sang “O Canada” before the game, but afterward the look on their faces said, “Oh no!”
This playoff series just got real interesting because the Magic, as we all know, are playing with house money while the Raptors are playing for the future of their franchise. The fact is all the pressure is now on the Raptors, who revamped their entire team after getting swept by the Cavaliers in the playoffs last season. Even though they had the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference last year, they rolled the dice and fired the NBA’s Coach of the Year — Dwane Casey — and traded beloved star DeMar DeRozan for Leonard.
For years, the Raptors’ playoff struggles were defined by the under-performance of a pair of stars, the exact relationship of those struggles a little muddied. Kyle Lowry still drove team performance in terms of plus-minus and other on-off metrics. DeMar DeRozan, meanwhile, proved a large negative despite his obvious importance. While Lowry seemed the lesser cause — and his performance the last two-and-a-half postseasons should have corrected his reputation more than it has — at times he struggled to fill the scoring void created by DeRozan’s struggles.
This isn’t meant as a referendum on the DeRozan-Lowry partnership or narrative after Lowry turned in a historic zero-point performance in Saturday’s 104-101 Game 1 loss to Orlando. (Lowry became just the 10th player to go scoreless in a playoff game in which he took at least six 3-point attempts and the first to do so with free-throw attempts.) Those are debates that require a larger sample — of Lowry without DeRozan, of DeRozan without Lowry — and ones that might not change anyone’s mind even if evidence mounted one way or the other.
Initially, the DeRozan-for-Kawhi-Leonard swap and the change behind the bench bet on the Raptors being able to fix themselves by changing two of the three pillars of their core. Leonard could be a suped-up DeRozan, one who carries a similar offensive load with greater efficiency, incredible defence and far more playoff utility. Nick Nurse would be an upgrade with some of the micro-decisions Dwane Casey ostensibly struggled with. Lowry could continue to be Lowry, aging a year further but a year wiser and savvy enough to fill in the gaps around a new star counterpart. The trade deadline acquisition of Marc Gasol makes everything on offence a little easier for everyone, spreading around playmaking duties.
There was magic in the air that Saturday night – come on, give me that pun – but it was a completely different atmosphere on this particular Saturday afternoon.
“Different thing this time is it wasn’t just me out there,” Gordon said with a smile after the Magic pulled out a 104-101 win over the Toronto Raptors in the first game of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals series. “I like it a lot better this way.”
It was Gordon’s post-season debut. And he’ll have fond memories: a game-high 10 rebounds, 10 points and a feature role as the game wound down.
There was a quiet confidence about this Magic group going into this series, in no small measure because since Jan. 31 they were the most efficient defensive team in the NBA. The Raptors were busy with load management for most of that time while the Magic were trying to make the playoffs.
The teams split the season series 2-2, and the games were marked by below-season average performances by two of the most crucial Raptors players: Kawhi Leonard, who was supposed to prevent nights like this from happening and averaged 18 points and 42.6 per cent shooting in three games against the Magic, and Pascal Siakam, a leading candidate for the NBA’s most improved player who shot a miserable 34.2 per cent and averaged 8.8 points in four games.
What no one predicted was how much of an offensive factor former Raptor D.J. Augustin would be.
Not only did Augustin lead the Magic in scoring in this one with 25 points, but also provided the dagger that stole home court from the Raptors with a three-pointer from 28 feet with just 3.4 seconds left in the game.
A communication breakdown on the play saw Kawhi Leonard switch off on to the screener but by all accounts did not communicate the switch to Marc Gasol, who stayed down with the screener allowing Augustin plenty of room to get the shot off.
“There was a mistake made on that play,” Gasol said. “We mis-communicated and he made a good shot. That’s what happened.”
Augustin did most of his damage in the first half with 19 points. In the second Danny Green and eventually Leonard were switched on to the Magic hot hand, limiting him to six, including the eventual game-winner.
Leonard, who had a Raptors high 25 points, one more than Pascal Siakam, had a chance to send the game into overtime with a last-second heave from deep but the shot never had a chance.
That left Augustin unguarded at the very top of the arc and, boy, he couldn’t have drilled that three much more crisply. The net barely moved. Orlando’s bench erupted, Toronto’s deflated, and in front of the Raptors basket, both Gasol and Leonard stood there stunned, looking at each other with arms out wide.
“There was a mistake made on that play,” Gasol said afterwards. “We miscommunicated, and [Augustin] made a good shot. That’s what happened.”
What should have happened is Leonard going over the top of the screen, sticking with Augustin as best he could. Meanwhile, Gasol was meant to help if needed, and possibly even switch if the screen was firmer, while staying close enough to the basket to recover and get in Vucevic’s way if Augustin got him the ball.
There wasn’t a right and wrong play to make, per se. It’s up to Gasol and Leonard to know how each other are going to react and make a coordinated decision on which player to stick with. Ultimately, they each believed the other had Augustin. Just one of those million little things.
“We were in our coverage. And our coverage was to get over the top of the screen and have Marc be up and help on that and stay home,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “I just saw the highlight quick coming through on TV, I haven’t watched the game film. But it looked like Kawhi thought it was a switch and went under to hold up Vucevic, and Marc was still in the up position but not the switch position, so it gave him the room to get it off.”
But part of what also helped Augustin and the rest of the Magic along was that the Raptors couldn’t really figure out how to approach Orlando’s style of play until the third quarter began. Simply put, they couldn’t keep up on either side of the floor. On defense, this was shown in the form passes that weren’t even that lazy getting intercepted by a racing defender. On offense, slow close-outs on speedy shooters showed just how lost the Raptors were. Meanwhile, Orlando knew exactly how to take on Toronto, and that discrepancy led to the 15-point run the Magic had to end the first half (it also carried over into Orlando shooting 48.3 percent from behind the arc).
There’s also an argument that some form of Game 1 jitters maybe got to the Raptors. It’s often difficult to ignore the home environment when you’re the home team, and that environment often includes nerves based on years of disappointment—Toronto is now 2-14 all-time in Game 1’s. Sure, the Raptors have a new superstar, and plenty of other new faces, but if fans do nothing but emit nervous energy, it’ll eventually catch on to those players at home, regardless of how long they’ve been on the team. Don’t believe me? Just look at the similarities between losses: Kyle Lowry was abysmal (0 points on 0-for-7 shooting), the “other star” wasn’t good enough, and the defense fall apart when it mattered most.
Lowry did not have his best game. Not even close. He went scoreless on 0-of-7 shooting, all but one of those attempts coming from outside. A couple of those looks fall, and the tenor of the game is entirely different. There was a passiveness to his game akin to what he displayed during the middle portion of the regular season.
His offensive shortcomings make it really easy to bust out the LOL PLAYOFF LOWRY jokes, and how could you possibly blame anyone for doing so. Jokes are good and fun.
But so is Kyle Lowry, even when his stroke betrays him. In a game where the Raptors lost by 3, and every other starter was a minus on the night, Lowry was a +11. The health of Toronto’s kill-you-from-all-angles offense is directly tied to Lowry — his vision, his gravity and generosity with the ball. His seven boards and eight assists weren’t hollow.
“He had some really good looks that he’s gonna normally knock down,” said Nick Nurse after the game in the voice of Dwane “Make or Miss, Doug” Casey.
“He was still impacting the game greatly. I thought he was a positive factor in the game which is why we went with him and I’m sure he’ll bounce back and play a little better in the next game.”
Far more blame probably belongs on the shoulders of the non-Lowry lineups that couldn’t string together any prolonged runs of good two-way play. Fred VanVleet hit a pair of huge triples a minute after subbing in late in the first quarter; he was a drag on the operation for much of his remaining 25-ish minutes of floor time, finishing as a -16.
Kawhi Leonard was clutch once again for the Raptors.
With Toronto down 99-96 with less than two minutes remaining in regulation, Leonard helped them retake the lead by scoring five quick points. He first drained a tough step back 3-pointer, followed by a baseline jumper to put the Raptors up 101-99.
Unfortunately for Leonard, it wasn’t quite enough. D.J. Augustin was equally as clutch, responding with five quick points himself in the final minute to put the Magic ahead, and Leonard missed a 3-pointer with 3.4 seconds left that would’ve sent the game into overtime.
Leonard was ready too. He came out gunning in the early moments of the Raptors’ opening game of their first-round series with the Orlando Magic on Saturday.
He attacked. He dunked. He found the soft spots in the Magic’s bend-not-break defensive configuration and knocked down shots. He had 11 points in the first nine minutes of the game without a miss.
It’s been two years since the 2014 Finals MVP tasted post-season play, and he was thirsty for it.
He wants to help the Raptors get to the promised land, he says, and Game 1 is a big step, his play was indicating.
He stumbled a bit in the second quarter – as did every Raptor that took the floor as the Magic almost ran away and hid – but he found his stride quickly after that.
He finished with a Raptors-best 25 points on 18 shots while grabbing six rebounds. He was 3-of-5 from deep. When the taut, back-and-forth contest was on the line he was at his best – a triple with 1:35 left in the fourth quarter tied the game and his baseline fadeaway over Orlando’s Aaron Gordon with 62 seconds left put Toronto up by a bucket.
The crowd at Scotiabank Arena was going wild. This is what they were here to see.
It was Leonard’s time to shine. This is why you trade a franchise icon in DeMar DeRozan, for one of the best playoff performers of his generation.
But that was the peak moment. The plucky Magic wouldn’t quit. D.J. Augustin, the journeyman point guard who had a short stint with the Raptors in 2013-14, scored on a lay-up to tie the game and then dropped a bomb from deep with 3.4 seconds left to win it.
Leonard had a chance to force overtime, but couldn’t get his fading 27-footer to fall, and that was it. The Raptors were Game 1 losers again, this time 104-100 to the No. 7 seed Magic.
Augustin hung 25 points on a top-five defense, even after standout stopper Danny Green hounded him following a halftime matchup adjustment. The veteran point guard was 9-of-13 from the field, handed out six assists and turned it over just once. And in addition to hitting that dagger three, he also tied the score with a tough layup on Toronto’s previous possession.
Lowry and the Raptors lost the game, sure. But Augustin and the Magic also won it. It’s easy to forget that second part.
But how Orlando won is part of the reason Toronto shouldn’t get too concerned.
The Magic shot 35.6 percent from deep on the season, which ranked 11th in the league. Pretty good, but not anything spectacular. On Saturday, Orlando nailed 48.3 percent of its treys (14-of-29). No team should be expected to hit nearly half its triples at a sustained clip, and its doubly fair to be skeptical of the Magic’s shooting on a night when Michael Carter-Williams buried two of those long-distance shots. MCW, though an important addition at backup point late in the year, hadn’t hit more than two three-pointers in a game, regular season or otherwise, since 2014.
In 28 games with Houston and Orlando this year, MCW shot 26.3 percent from deep on extremely low volume. Treys from him are not something the Magic can count on.
Kyle Lowry, who took a hard knee to the groin from former Raptor Terrence Ross early in the game, had a horrible offensive night, scoring zero points on 0-for-7 shooting.
“I think (Lowry) had some really good looks that he’s gonna normally knock down,” said coach Nick Nurse. “We need to get him involved a little bit offensively and we need some points from him. . . (But) I look down and I see he was a plus-12 in the plus-minus and he had zero points, so he was still impacting the game greatly. I’m sure he’ll bounce back and play a little bit better next game.”
Nikola Vucevic and Jonathan Isaac had 11 points apiece, while Aaron Gordon added 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Magic, who were 42-40 in the regular season, and are making their first playoff appearance since 2012.
Playoff expectations are sky-high this season. After the Raptors had been sent packing from the playoffs by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third consecutive season, team president Masai Ujiri rebuilt with an eye at a championship appearance, acquiring Leonard and Green, and then adding Gasol at the trade deadline.
The Raptors are by far the more experienced team, their 320 playoff games by the starters before Saturday numbering almost 10 times that of Orlando’s.
But the Magic, who’ve been one of league’s hottest teams since the all-star break, matching Toronto’s conference-best 22-9 record over the final 31 games of the season, clearly didn’t get the memo.
“Our goal was to make the playoffs but not just make it,” Augustin said. “We want to make noise and win a series or two. We feel like we can, we believe in ourselves.”
So, is Lowry worried about the latest setback? It didn’t seem that way. He was upbeat when he met with the media after the game.
“I got some looks and missed them. That’s about it. It’s nothing in me. I just missed some shots,” Lowry said. He wasn’t necessarily wrong, a bunch of the three-point attempts looked to be half-way down before bouncing out, but it still feels bizarre. He’s one of the best outside shooters on the planet. This regular season might have been a down year (35% from three), but the previous two were stellar (41% and 40%). He’s capable of a lot more.
A wise NBA lifer from another team warned recently that the worst thing Toronto could do was rest Lowry down the stretch. “He’s always terrible right when he comes back after being rested,” was the claim.
Lowry did not play on Tuesday at Minnesota, so he hadn’t played since Sunday afternoon, nearly a full week.
Kawhi Leonard hinted at that being part of the reason for the off-night and the Raptors had better hope he’s right.
“He had some good looks; they just didn’t fall,” Leonard said.
“He’s going to get in a rhythm. He’s been sitting for the past five days, so I think next game will be better.” If you’re wondering, Lowry has shot 45-for-114 (40%) and 10-for-45 (22%) on three-pointers in Game 2s. Toronto has gone 5-4 in those games.
A lot has changed in Canada, but Lowry is still the point guard. He’s historically disappointed in the playoffs, but really outdid himself on Saturday night. Lowry had eight assists, seven rebounds and absolutely zero points in a one-possession game. Lowry missed all seven shots he took, including six threes and two free throws.
He’s been really bad in playoff Game 1s.
Last year, against the Wizards, he scored just 11 points with five turnovers
In a 2017 Game 1 loss to the Bucks, he scored four points on 11 shots
In 2016, he scored 11 points on nine shots again with six turnovers in a loss to the Pacers
In 2015, he scored seven points on 10 shots in a loss to the Wizards
Now he’s added to his list.
For a fleeting few moments Saturday, Kawhi Leonard looked like the exorcist the Toronto Raptors brought in to help them cast off years of postseason torment.
But a frenzied fourth quarter that featured some vintage Leonard, timely shotmaking from a feisty young Orlando Magic squad and a couple of late miscues, produced a 104-101 Orlando upset of Toronto in Game 1. Despite executing a bold trade for one of the game’s most accomplished stars, the Raptors find themselves trailing another first-round series.
From the opening tip, Leonard stood as Toronto’s bellwether. As he dazzled with an efficient 11-point first quarter in which he was perfect from the field and flawless defensively, Toronto appeared to be en route to a workmanlike victory befitting of a well-seasoned 2-seed against a young underdog just thrilled to be playing playoff basketball. When Leonard went scoreless in the second — 0-for-5, his worst shooting quarter as a Raptor — his team coughed up a 30-9 run and trailed at one point by 16. With Leonard as their fulcrum, the Raptors assembled their best defensive stretch of the game in the third quarter.
Then came the fourth, with the Raptors in an achingly familiar spot — nip and tuck in the opening game of a series they’re supposed to win. Drawing historic parallels to teams with vastly different personnel, playing styles, coaches and schemes has always been an overwrought exercise, but pattern recognition is a funny thing to those steeped in history.