The Raptors spent five years making the playoffs as a team that relied on beating teams on the margins. Whether that was dominant bench units, like last year, hybrid lineups between starters and the bench, like the year before, or some other method of finding an advantage to mitigate the fact that they didn’t have a starting lineup that could be relied upon to control games, that was just how things were for the franchise, and to their credit, they always seemed to find a solution to get there often enough to be a great regular season team. When the playoffs arrived, however, the margins always seemed to shrink and those advantages became smaller and less advantageous, with predictably bad endings.
That was just the way things had to be, and as much fun as it was between October and March, April and May always seemed to be more frustrating. This Orlando series seems to have shown a big difference in this year’s team, however.
Now, heading to Orlando having split the first two games at home obviously isn’t ideal for the Raptors, and dropping another game 1 obviously brought a certain amount of anxiety for the fans that’s understandable. However, when you look beyond the standings in the series, you can find a lot of reasons for optimism with this Raptors team. Whereas the Raptors used to try to hold their own when their starters were matched up against the opponent’s opening lineup, in this series that’s been Orlando’s task.
Toronto’s starting lineup has, through two games, been absolutely dominant, with a +49.7 net rating through 36 minutes of play. They’ve been doing their best work at the defensive end, where they’ve been using the fact that they don’t really have any weak links to force Orlando into choosing the least horrible of many bad options to try to score, and that’s generated plenty of turnovers and held Nikola Vucevic, fresh off his first All-Star season, to 36.0% true shooting thus far in the series. That’s not just Vucevic having a rough series shooting the ball, either. Marc Gasol has closed off his space to work in the paint, and the Raptors have done a great job bringing a second defender when the situation calls for it to help onto him, but also being mindful enough to bring that help from the right location and in a timely fashion to prevent the defense from offering holes elsewhere to be attacked.
Orlando’s best option thus far in the starter vs. starter minutes has been tough shotmaking, something Raptors fans are well familiar with having to rely on from playoff runs past, and to their credit Aaron Gordon and DJ Augustin have each had a game where they’ve hit plenty of those shots, with Augustin propelling the Magic to their game 1 victory.
However, at the other end of the floor, that same Raptors offense also offers no easy options to a defense. They have playmakers at nearly every position, and shooters everywhere, and they can force a defense to have to pick their poison. Do you bring help to try to slow down the Leonard/Gasol pick and roll that’s had devastating efficiency so far, and potentially leave Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, or Kyle Lowry with space to work? Thus far, the Magic’s gameplan has been to force Siakam and Green to shoot, and it’s somewhat worked with the Raptors missing the majority of their corner threes so far in the series, but that’s unlikely to be a sustainable plan, with those shooters having shot well over the course of the season when given space.
At the same time, the best player in this series has been Kawhi Leonard, by a large margin. He’s been nothing short of unstoppable on offense, and the talent around him prevents the Magic from focusing on slowing him down to too large of a degree. In game two he was awe-inspiring in how simple it looked for him, invoking memories of LeBron doing the same thing in the same arena, except this time it was the home team who had that transcendent talent. When Kawhi is in that form, there is simply no counter, he’s too strong, too talented, to be really stopped, and the opponent’s mission becomes simply slowing him down enough that they can keep pace, and that’s an insurmountable task at times.
There are challenges remaining for the Raptors to get through Orlando, they have to find better solutions for the minutes that they can’t field the sledgehammer that their starting lineup has been, with Fred VanVleet having struggled in both games so far in the series and the team still looking to solve the lineups they’ll use to buy Leonard and Kyle Lowry rest during the game. This is a much better problem to have though, solving the margins instead of trying to dominate them.
The series is far from over, with the Raptors having to regain home court advantage this weekend with the games in Orlando, but it’s hard to see this formula changing, and that’s the challenge facing Orlando now. How do you win a game in the margins when your opponent controls the minutes of the game where they choose to play their best lineup? It’s a challenge familiar to Raptors fans, but they aren’t used to being on the side they find themselves this year.