0-1; it’s ok, it’s fine…everything is ok…don’t worry, it’s cool; they got this…the magic…pfft…it’s fine….
It was part of an overall defensive performance that has to be the most painful part of the loss. There were some instances of miscommunication, notably on the winning shot from D.J. Augustin, and a few cases of poor one-on-one defence, but Orlando managed just 105.1 points per 100 possessions, below the Magic’s 108.1 mark from the regular season and a figure that would have ranked 28th for the season. Orlando’s two highest-usage players during the regular season, Ross and Nikola Vucevic, combined to shoot 5-for-25 from the floor, scoring a total of 21 points. Defensively, the Raptors were successful on the top two lines of the scouting report; the Magic burned them elsewhere. You would think that having Powell, who has seen so much of Ross, guarding Orlando’s top reserve threat would provide at least a little bit of comfort to the coaches.
“Nope. Nope,” said coach Nick Nurse, denying that premise. “Every time Terrence Ross comes flying off there, whoever’s guarding him, we’re worried he’s going to make it.
“(Powell) did a good job. He was into him. I thought, again, we made him take some tough shots. He threw a couple off the backboard, or one off the backboard at the early start. He threw some quick ones up. I thought he was very fortunate on the one he got the 3-pointer on ’cause he kicked his right leg way out, there’s just like no path for anyone to run when they do that. He was very fortunate to get those three. But other than that, I thought we did a decent job with him.”
“Me and T-Ross have been competing with each other since college. He was at Washington and I was at UCLA as a freshman,” Powell said. “I’m used to his game and what he does. He’s very active coming off the ball, off pindowns, coming off picks. I just try to stay into his body, trying to be as aggressive as possible and be as physical as possible because he doesn’t like physicality.”
That strategy was easy to spot whenever Powell was on Ross. It is a delicate dance. Ross has become one of the best players in the league at drawing fouls on 3-point shots, as Danny Green found out in the first quarter.
The Magic have so few perimeter scoring options that whenever Ross is on the floor, much of Orlando’s offence is redirected at freeing up Ross using screens and pindowns. If Raptors fans have lost touch with Ross’ game, that approach is very different from how Toronto used him. Beside DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Ross was very much a player who was paid to stand and wait for the ball to find him off of drive-and-kick rotation. His usage rate is up to 23.9 percent this year, after standing a few ticks below the league average, 20, for almost his entire career in Toronto. Before this season, it dropped in his injury-riddled year and a half following his February 2017 trade to the Magic.
“I’m trying to just get him off (the line) and not give him no easy, clean looks for the 3,” Powell said. “He’s gonna shoot them anyway. T-Ross takes some crazy, tough shots in a lot of people’s opinion. But those are his shots. I just try to make it as difficult as possible, and try to make him second-guess, overthink whether he wants to shoot it or not. I try to be as close to his body as possible when he catches the ball and be physical with him. T-Ross is a shooter. He’s gonna shoot the ball whether he’s 0-for-15 or 10-for-15. He’s gonna keep shooting.”
VanVleet provided what Lowry couldn’t as the Raptors’ engine sputtered in a way that we’ve seen before — albeit not lately given Lowry’s solid numbers from the last two post-seasons.
VanVleet finished with 14 points in 27 minutes off the bench, knocking down three triples in six attempts. He stepped on the floor with purpose in the first quarter, delivering a pair of quick threes that gave the Raptors some early life and was part of Toronto’s best stretch in the fourth.
Paired in the backcourt with Lowry, VanVleet hit a three to tie the game (assisted by Lowry); sprinted out on a fastbreak to put the Raptors up two (assisted by Lowry) and then pushed the ball ahead to Norman Powell to put the Raptors up four. Toronto eventually went up six with six minutes to play on a tough jump hook in the lane by Pascal Siakam, but things unravelled form there as we know now.
One of the threads the Raptors will need to tidy up for Game 2 is getting more from Lowry, who has had some ups and downs in the post-season with Toronto, but has never gone scoreless.
Before the series, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made the point that Lowry can help his club whether he scores four or 34, such is his overall impact.
Nurse was absolutely right in that respect. Had Lowry scored four instead of going scoreless on seven shots – 0-of-6 from three and 0-of-2 from the foul line – the Raptors might have won Game 1 instead of being on the wrong end of a 104-101 decision.
Point guard is one match-up the Raptors should win in this series, but with Augustin going off for 25 points in 29 minutes it was clear who won the battle in Game 1.
As usual, Lowry was still effective, on paper at least. He finished +11, which was the best for the Raptors, and made him the only Toronto starter in positive territory — in large part because he was on the bench when Augustin went off for 10 quick points in the second quarter.
The Raptors had a 90.1 defensive rating and 64.5 per cent assist rate with him on the floor and 133.3 and 33.3 per cent without him.
But the Raptors aren’t going anywhere they want to get to without Lowry stretching defenses as a three-point threat or collapsing them by bulling his way into the paint.
Kate Beirness and Josh Lewenberg discuss the miscommunication between Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol that led to D.J. Augustin’s game-winner, and the great job Gasol did neutralizing Nikola Vucevic in Game 1.
Rebounding is another area for obvious improvement going into Tuesday. Coming into the series, it appeared one of the few advantages Orlando’s roster would have over Toronto’s was rebounding — Magic head coach Steve Clifford even brought it up unprompted on the podium prior to Game 1 as an area his team had to ace.
The Magic didn’t blow the Raptors out of the water, winning the rebound battle 48-45, but they did have a significant edge on the offensive glass, where the Magic fought their way to 10 boards. Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon, neither of whom play centre for Orlando, had three each, which speaks to how long, athletic, and pesky Orlando can be in the paint.
What can the Raptors do about that? Personnel-wise, the Raptors aren’t built to be a terrific rebounding team, particularly after trading Jonas Valanciunas. Gasol and Serge Ibaka will get theirs, and Siakam finds his way to a handful every game. But, in order to beat a much-bigger Magic outfit, players like Leonard and Lowry will have to do their part.
Leonard wasn’t credited with a box out on the night, while Lowry, who’s a crafty, skilled rebounder despite his position and size, tied with Gasol at three. Everyone needed to do more.
“We had moments. I think most of that came with the second unit, with us, where we gave up a couple second shots,” Nurse said of his team’s rebounding. “[Orlando’s] pretty long and athletic — and those guys go charging in. That’s how they’re going to play. Throw it up off the glass and play ping pong with it, right? So, we’ve got to shore that up a little bit.”
ABOUT THAT MISCOMMUNICATION
There seems to be a bit of a disagreement over whether there was actually any miscommunication at all as D.J. Augustin found himself wide open for what turned out to be the game winning three.
Whether it was Marc Gasol, Lowry, VanVleet or even Nurse himself, there was without question a breakdown on the play which saw Leonard go under a screen only to find Gasol there already defending that space.
“Yeah, I think it’s a one-off,” Nurse said of the blown coverage of the play.
Gasol referenced it immediately after the game as did Lowry. VanVleet referred to it on Sunday.
“You would like it to not happen in the critical times of the game but it did and it’s something that we can learn from and grow from and shore up some things,” VanVleet said of the late miscommunication.
Leonard, though, would not concede there was any miscommunication on the play.
“I felt like we were communicating pretty well throughout the game,” Leonard said Sunday afternoon. Asked specifically about the Augustin three that won the game, Leonard described it this way. “We were a bit too far back and he was able to come off a screen and knock down a three. I wouldn’t say it was a communication breakdown. I think we all know what we need to do.”
“These games come down to maybe those half-dozen offensive plays we would like to have back, and maybe at least a half-dozen or more defensive ones we’ve got to shore up as well,” Nurse said.
“Just make sure, again, (that) you turn those six offensive possessions that you didn’t like — maybe cut that in half. The five or six defensive mistakes you make, cut that in half. And then, hopefully, the in-and-outs go out and in and maybe some of theirs go out and things happen.
“There was enough of the game where I thought we did a lot of things really well.”
But obviously not enough, and Tuesday’s Game 2 becomes a virtual must-win outing for a Raptors team that harbours legitimate championship aspirations.
They were saying all the right things, projecting all the right attitudes, on Sunday: It was one game, they identified the mistakes and momentary lapses and are convinced they won’t make them, or have them, again.
It goes to their experience, age and confidence in each other and themselves.
They know — as much as any can know — that Lowry isn’t going to miss every shot he takes in another game, as he did on Saturday. His performance in Game 1 was spotty enough that it was a huge factor in the loss, but also a part of why the Raptors were able to wipe out a 16-point deficit.
He wasn’t good, he wasn’t horrible. and his teammates and coaches know it.
“He had us fighting and battling pretty well. I thought we were getting pretty good looks. He was getting us into sets that were providing those looks,” Nurse said.
“He was making his defensive plays. He got a charge, he had a nice little strip on another double team. He was fighting like hell keeping guys off the boards. So there were a lot of positives as far as his play. So what do you say? I say to him: You are going to have to take these shots. They are (in) rhythm — of the six threes, five of them were wide open. Those are shots he is going to have to take, and he is going to continue to take them.”
If there was one constant emotion among the Raptors on Sunday, it was calm. No panic, no desperation, just the knowledge that the series has just begun and they did enough good things on Saturday that the bad things don’t seem overwhelming.
Kawhi Leonard, who won’t use 40 words when 20 will do, summed it up: “It was just one game. It’s a long series. That’s what the playoffs is for.”
After their Game 1 loss, several Raptors players cited communication issues for some of the team’s defensive miscues, most notably the final play when Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol got their wires crossed and left D.J. Augustin uncovered for the game-winner. Josh Lewenberg has more.
The seventh-seeded Magic, as hard as it is to believe, were a long way from a playoff spot less than a few months ago — struggling with a 20-31 record as January neared its close. But from Jan. 31 to the end of the regular season, they’ve boasted the best defensive rating in the league, reeling off a 22-9 record with wins over the Raptors, Milwaukee, Golden State and Boston. And Saturday suggested their stretch run of must-win games brought them to Toronto in prime form.
Magic point guard D.J. Augustin, as much as he humbly acknowledged the relative insignificance of winning one game in a best-of-seven series, admitted to revelling briefly in the glow of his winning shot.
“The funniest thing (on social media) was a little tag with me holding Kyle like a baby,” Augustin said. “But a lot of people don’t know, me and Kyle are good friends, man … It’s all competition.”
On Sunday, the Magic were back to the video-watching grind.
“From day one of training camp (Clifford) said the only way we’re going to win is defence — we have the talent to play great offence, but it’s going to come down to our defence,” said Augustin, another ex-Raptor.
If that doesn’t exactly sound like a sexy sales pitch in a shoot-first world, Clifford has found a way to get sufficient buy-in from his best players, including all-star seven-footer Nikola Vucevic.
“You know that when he talks, it’s not B.S. He really means it,” Vucevic said of Clifford. “You can ask any player on our team and they’re going to say the same thing. He’s really brought the best out of all of us. You enjoy playing for him. He’s a very fair coach. When he gets on you, he’ll say what he has to say and move on. And if you play great he’ll tell you as well. I think guys appreciate that.”
On Sunday, Clifford humbly gave credit to the smarts and talent and length of his personnel, pointing out that he was the same defensive-minded coach who was fired in Charlotte last spring after five seasons without a playoff-series win. But Clifford’s status as a branch of the Van Gundy coaching tree — an offshoot of the foundational Pat Riley oak — comes with certain non-negotiables. One is a belief that playoff preparation begins in Game 1 of the regular season, which can make for morning shootarounds that are longer and more information-heavy than has become the NBA norm.
“That’s the Van Gundy way — both Stan and Jeff, it was the same thing. We’re going to prepare for playoff games from Game 1 (of the regular season),” Clifford said. “I think it helps … For the players, sometimes it takes a little bit getting used to, because if they played for other places, we do cover more of the opponents’ plays.”