Well those were the longest two days of my life. The Toronto Raptors were not great in game one, but they’re not responding with panic. Remember game one of the 2017 playoffs, where Toronto lost the series-opener 97-83 to the Milwaukee Bucks? Lowry finished with four points on 2-for-11 shooting, and he said after the game that he might have to start “forcing shots.”
That’s not where he’s at now. Lowry sported a team-low -22 plus-minus against the Bucks in 2017, but he was a team-high +11 in the loss to the Magic on Saturday. In other words: he played well, other than the poor shooting. And yes, shooting 0-for-7 and 0-for-6 from deep is inexcusable. Toronto needs more from Lowry. But he played solid defence, passed well, and was altogether a positive factor other than his inability to make a shot. Most importantly, he knows that, and he isn’t reacting nearly as negatively as he has in the past.
“I got some looks and missed them,” said Lowry after the game. “That’s about it. It’s nothing in me. I just missed some shots. I was open. I did well on the floor general side but I missed some.”
“I think he had some really good looks that he’s gonna normally knock down,” agreed Nurse. “We need to get him involved a little bit offensively and we need some points from him. I thought he was impacting the game. I took him out midway through the fourth for his normal last rest before he goes in, and it was a decision, was I gonna? I look down and I see he was a +12 in the plus-minus and he had zero points, so he was still impacting the game greatly. I thought he was a positive factor in the game, which is why we went with him. I’m sure he’ll bounce back and play a little bit better next game.”
Steve Clifford lavished praise on Lowry after practice the next day.
“If you had time to study the game, he played a terrific game. Not good, he was terrific. He made — whatever it was — eight assists, they were plus-11 or -12 when he was on the court, he put a ton of pressure [on us]. He’s the one who starts their transition, all those advance passes up the court to Siakam, that’s all him, and he took seven shots and didn’t make them. He’ll make them.”
So, no panic on Toronto’s side. No late-night shooting sessions. No undue worry. At least, within the franchise itself. Nurse quietly scoffed at the use of the word “desperation” pre-game. I can’t speak to all of Raptors’ fandom, but I’ve certainly seen a fair amount of worry in a number of places. A dominant showing in game two could do about as much to quell the panic that has stricken Toronto as could free therapy and massages for all the city’s residents. Apparently Lowry holds our hearts in his hands, but I think he already knows that.
It runs counter to the game’s narrative, but Toronto was fine on defence. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka were both excellent against Nikola Vucevic, and Toronto guards were great at disrupting Ross to get the ball out of his hands. Ross and Vucevic combined to shoot 5-for-25. Sure, DJ Augustin scored 25 points on 14 used possessions. It wasn’t perfect, but Toronto did limit him better in the second half. On the whole, Orlando scored 104 points on 101 possessions. Excluding heaves, they scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions. They averaged 109.4 points per 100 possessions on the season. So they scored less efficiently against Toronto than they averaged in the regular season; it was a job well done, in some ways. To further the point about Lowry actually having played well, his defensive rating was 90.1, third-lowest on Toronto. He was great at rotating and helping, and he multiple times saved Toronto on the defensive end.
It’s on the offensive end that Toronto could have been better. They should have used more screens to free Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard, who too often isolated against their initial defenders. But Toronto isn’t upset about the shots they created on the offensive end. They attempted 36 triples, 29 of which are classified by nba.com as open or wide-open. They shot 1-for-10 on corner triples. Siakam (0-for-3, shot 41.6 percent in regular season from the corner), Green (0-for-2, 50.8 percent), and Powell (0-for-2, 47.3 percent) will probably never combined for 0-for-7 from the corner again in their careers. Gasol only attempted seven corner triples all year, so his two misses are a little more understandable. (He shot 2-for-7 from the range, for what it’s worth.)
Not to belabour the statistical point, but Toronto created good shots that didn’t fall. There are problems to solve, namely consistently limiting Augustin, getting Siakam and Leonard more space on offence, and making their triples (especially Lowry), but game one falls in the solid-process, poor-results bin. It’s no consolation to Toronto, but if they play the same game against Orlando 100 times, they’ll probably win 90 of them, maybe more. Losing game one changes things, but the point remains: if Toronto stays the course, they’ll be fine.
OG Anunoby (appendectomy) is out, but Patrick McCaw (thumb) is a game-time decision. He practiced today, but Nurse didn’t tip his hand pre-game about whether he would be in the lineup.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Patrick McCaw, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Eric Moreland, Chris Boucher
Mo Bamba (leg), Markelle Fultz (shoulder), and Timofey Mozgov (knee) remain out. Basically, the same as game one.
PG: DJ Augustin, Michael Carter-Williams, Jerian Grant
SG: Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross
SF: Aaron Gordon, Wesley Iwundu
PF: Jonathan Isaac, Jarell Martin, Amile Jefferson
C: Nikola Vucevic, Khem Birch
- Toronto’s starters were great together. They played for 21 minutes – the third-highest average of any team’s starters so far in the playoffs – and outscored Orlando in those minutes by +13. Orlando’s starters, in 23 minutes, were -10. Toronto crushed in starter versus starter minutes. As in the regular season, it was the bench and transitional lineups that got Toronto in trouble.
- Related, for those (crazies) who want to bench Kyle Lowry? The Raptors’ worst lineup, by far, was Fred VanVleet in Lowry’s place with the starters. They were outscored by 16 points in 5 minutes. That’s fluke, because no NBA lineup is that bad, but it’s still worth mentioning. VanVleet himself is not to blame; his defence was solid in those minutes, and he wasn’t the one missing shots and turning the ball over. The point here is not to criticize VanVleet but to point out that benching Lowry would be inane.
- The starters were excellent on both sides of the ball. They won the starts of both halves, as they forced Orlando into the midrange. If they had made their 3s, the conversations around this game would be very different.
- The Lowry-VanVleet-Gasol lineup finished a -1 in 3 minutes. That’s not what you want from one of the smartest, highest-paced lineups Toronto can offer, but they didn’t have many minutes. They outscored opponents by 90 points in 82 regular season minutes.
- Watching the film, though, the trio did a little bit better than the score suggests. It came midway through the second quarter alongside Green-Leonard, so by rights it should have dominated. But Orlando subsisted on tough, contested shots (except for one putback from Gordon where VanVleet missed a blockout), and Toronto missed some good looks. Much like the game itself, the process was solid, if the results weren’t great.
- In general, that trio could help Toronto boost the game’s pace. Toronto wants more possessions in the game, and shots earlier in the clock. That would help the talent gap influence the score. Orlando controlled the pace in game one, but look for Nurse to actively try to win that battle tonight.
- The Ibaka-Gasol minutes were fine for Toronto. They finished a +2 in 3.4 minutes. Nurse cited those same numbers pre-game; he’s clearly been thinking about those lineups. Orlando doesn’t have the offence to punish the Ibaka-Gasol defensive look. Both Ibaka and Gasol can guard Orlando’s power forwards and centers, so there isn’t a matchup there that hurts the Raptors. Toronto seemed to want to switch Gasol onto Aaron Gordon in the regular season, and Gasol had success there again in game one. If that’s the matchup Orlando wants to pound, Toronto will be pleased.
- On offence, Ibaka-Gasol weren’t great. There wasn’t much space on the floor, as Orlando packed the paint. Toronto was forced into contested post-ups and turnovers. With OG Anunoby still out, Toronto will need to survive a few minutes with Ibaka and Gasol sharing the floor. Gasol should turn into the power forward on offence, effectively working as a spot-up shooter in those situations, as he’s a more diverse offensive player than Ibaka.
- Leonard is a better backup power forward option than Ibaka. He’s just so much more diverse on offence. Toronto was outscored by one point in two minutes with Leonard at power forward, but they could use that look more often going forward to open up the floor. It would conveniently be another way to get Leonard’s minutes higher. Nurse didn’t tip his hand pre-game about who would play the brunt of back-up power forward minutes.
- Regardless of who the back-up power forward is, Toronto wants as many minutes as possible with Siakam in the game. He was Toronto’s best player on defence and probably second-best (behind Leonard) on offence. He was fantastic switching onto every Magic player, and even though he was only credited with two blocks, he was responsible for several more Magic misses around the rim. Siakam is capable of guarding every non-Vucevic player on Orlando’s roster, and he did just that in game one. More please.
- I’m going to once again plug my piece on Vucevic screen-and-rolls, because I’m proud of it, and it was awesome. But mostly because it proved incredibly prescient in game one; Toronto’s botched coverage of that very play resulted in Augustin’s game-winning triple. I cover every angle of how Toronto can cover those plays.
- Some great stuff from Samson Folk on the Siakam-Isaac matchup here.
- That will be one of the most important aspects of the series. Siakam is Toronto’s second-most important offensive player, at this point. He is Toronto’s bellwether; as Siakam goes, so too does Toronto’s offence. In game one, Isaac forced Siakam into mostly inefficient shots. He did much of his scoring on switches, getting easy finishes when Terrence Ross or Vucevic switched onto him after screens. Siakam finished with 24 points on 25 used possessions. He scored well, but his relative inefficiency reflected Toronto’s own inability to score against Orlando. As Samson writes, Toronto can use the Siakam-Gasol pick-and-roll to get Siakam going downhill against a lesser defender in Vucevic.
- Marc Davis is on the crew tonight.
- Don’t want to take my word that Lowry was still a positive force against the Magic in game one? Josh Howe wrote a piece on that topic, and Anthony Doyle found a related adjustment upon which he expounded.
- A lot has been made about Kawhi Leonard’s low 33-minute total. Some of that was because twice he stood at the scorer’s table to check in, and there wasn’t a break in play for a few minutes. Without that fluke, his minutes would have been around 36-37 minutes. That’s still a little lower than you’d like, but more reasonable.
Toronto is -10.5 against Orlando. I said that I favoured Toronto against Orlando on the radio this morning, and the hosts dared me to bet on the line. I wasn’t brave enough. The over-under is 211.5.