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Raptors punishing Magic for relying on Jonathan Isaac

Writing, for me, requires a very specific headspace. When I was younger and much more emo, I used to think that the writing mood required a severe melancholic affectation, so I would play Elliott Smith on my iPod and get to work. It became a tradition. I had the time and inclination to get some words on a page? Let’s throw Either/Or onto the sonic waves.

The problem for me was that listening to Elliott Smith required too much attention. It can be corrosive, or uplifting, or transcendent, but all of those feelings are emotionally taxing. That’s sort of the point with Elliott Smith: he’s kind of consuming. You can’t listen to Elliott Smith in the background. He remains one of my favourite musicians in the world, but I didn’t – and still can’t – get much writing done with his silvery voice fluttering in my ears. Now, I know all the lyrics to every song he ever wrote, but I couldn’t write anything longer than a few pages until I kicked the habit.

In order to write, I had to listen to Elliott Smith. But in order to write, I couldn’t listen to Elliott Smith.

Jonathan Isaac is the Orlando Magic’s Elliott Smith. He’s a dichotomy, a required negative. And no, this metaphor doesn’t extend very far. But the Magic need Isaac on the floor to stop Pascal Siakam. Isaac is one of the only humans long, twitchy-fast, and fluid enough to stick with Siakam. Over six combined regular season and playoff games between Toronto and Orlando, Isaac has guarded Siakam for 217 possessions and held him to 15-for-36 shooting. There’s no other defender on Orlando’s roster who can contain Siakam as well, and letting loose the Spicy One would be Orlando’s means of waving the white flag in the series. Isaac has to play big minutes for Orlando to have a chance in the series.

The problem for the Magic is that they cannot score when Isaac is on the floor. Isaac, therefore, cannot play big minutes for Orlando to have a chance in the series. See the problem?

Toronto has switched liberally when Isaac has been on the floor. They emphasized this to comical degrees in game two. The Raps don’t care who’s guarding Isaac. They’re just as happy with Kyle Lowry guarding the 6-foot-10 power forward as Siakam, and anyone in between. The two frequently passed Isaac back and forth like they were playing a game of frisbee.

The switching sometimes got out of hand. I’ve written it before, but Toronto tries to use switching as a defensive weapon instead of a reactive tool. They switch Siakam onto guards, or Lowry onto bigs, as a means of keeping their best defenders engaged as close to the ball as possible. Sometimes in game two, the switching looked less like a defensive assault and more like an Ajumma’s aerobic exercise.

What’s even going on here? Watch that play again, but watch the weak-side exclusively. Only watch who’s guarding Isaac. Toronto is kind of zoning up the weak-side, but they technically have Leonard, Green, Leonard, and Lowry guarding Leonard in order. But none of them even move! The point isn’t that Toronto just doesn’t care what Isaac is doing. They are focused elsewhere.

The point of such disrespect is to clog the floor. Nikola Vucevic can’t rampage into the paint on his pick-and-rolls if there’s three defenders surrounding him at all times.

Siakam helped liberally off of Isaac to defend the rim and contest drives before they even reached the paint.

Furthermore, Orlando didn’t trust Isaac to make plays. One commonality between all the above GIFs is that Isaac doesn’t touch the ball. His teammates did not pass him the ball despite acres of wide-open space in front of him. That ruins Orlando’s offence. That’s even more important than Isaac missing shots.

But when Isaac did get a chance to shoot, either by design or by lack of other option, it didn’t go well.

Isaac shot 0-for-6 from deep in game two and 1-for-4 in game one. He shot 32.8 percent on catch-and-shoot triples in the regular season, despite being wide-open on two-thirds of his attempts. Toronto will take their chances with him.

Toronto effectively played defence five-on-four. Here, Siakam is playing defence in the middle of the lane because Isaac and Michael Carter-Williams are spotting up on the weak-side. So far, so ordinary. When it comes time to vacate the paint to avoid a three-second call, Siakam heads away from his original man and stations himself on the opposite side of the paint from Isaac.

Yes, Ross made the shot. But Toronto was willing to defend a two-man pick-and-roll with three Raptors.

There are creative ways to involve a non-shooter in an offence from the wing position. Being a good passer, driver, or screener can still help an offence. File under: Green, Draymond. However, Isaac is none of those things. When the ball is in his hands, the Raptors pounced on him faster than did the city after someone shot 0-for-7 in game one.

Minutes after the end of the Toronto Raptors’ game two massacre, Steve Clifford addressed media. In an uncommon move, he opted to make his messages clear before any question had even been asked. His message was this:

“Our offence was much more a problem than our defence.”

Seems counter-intuitive when Kawhi Leonard put up 37 points on 22 shots, and the Raptors posted 111 points despite playing a full fourth quarter of garbage time, but Toronto’s defence was indeed how the Raptors managed to stifle the Magic on game two. If Leonard was brilliant at driving the nail into Orlando’s coffin, Isaac’s offensive performance was the coffin itself.

“A coach’s responsibility is to put guys in position where they can play best, but also, players have to figure some things out on their own,” said Clifford.

Clifford was talking about Vucevic after game two, saying how his center needed to handle double-teams better. Clifford could just as easily have been talking about Isaac, whose defender it was usually double-teaming the post. If the Magic can’t find a way to punish Toronto for disregarding Isaac, this series is over.

I have since learned how to write without listening to Elliott Smith. After years of struggle, I can have my cake and eat it too. The Magic have now reached the same crossroads. They have to play Isaac, but they can’t play Isaac. To solve that problem, Isaac will need to start hitting his shots. Because so far in the series, Elliott Smith would have been just as useful spotting up around the arc.

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