1-1; Raptors look to take home-court advantage back tonight
There is Marc Gasol at centre – the 2013 defensive player of the year and a three-time all-NBA defender and Danny Green at shooting guard, who was an all-NBA defender in 2016-17 and deserved consideration this season. The centre piece is Kawhi Leonard who has been recognized as the league’s DPOY twice and has a reputation that influences opponents, game plans and referees.
Pascal Siakam could get some all-defence votes this year for his uncanny ability to guard four positions and sometimes five, while Kyle Lowry leads the NBA in charges, is one of the toughest guards in the league to post-up after he switches onto a big and is among the smartest players in the league when it comes to recognizing and blowing up other team’s offensive sets. On the bench, Serge Ibaka has been a first-team all-NBA defender three times and Fred VanVleet is acknowledged as the team’s best on-ball cover man.
The Raptors were a very good defensive team in the regular season – ranking fifth in defensive rating – despite having to manoeuvre around 22 different starting lineups and a major mid-season trade.
The plan in the post-season is to become a great one.
So far so good. The Raptors were solid in Game 1 against Orlando in a tight loss and simply superb in a blowout win in Game 2.
“I think it was a total team effort, right?” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “On the ball, off the ball, disruption on the ball, breakdowns were getting covered up quickly, transition defence was better. Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Who are you?’ That’s who we need to be.”
The bodies were littered all over the Magic’s side of the box score. DJ Augustin, who exploded for a career playoff-high 25 points in Game 1, was stripped off the ball on the first possession of Game 2 and managed one field goal for the game.
Nikola Vucevic came into the series averaging 20.8 points a game as one of the NBA’s most versatile offensive big men. In two games spent being harassed by Gasol, Ibaka and various pesky helpers, he’s averaging 8.5 points on 28.6 per cent shooting. Terrence Ross is one of the NBA’s most dangerous bench scorers but is shooting 33 per cent against his old team even after a 15-point second quarter outburst in Game 2.
In less than three minutes, however, Leonard and Gasol all but ensured the Game 2 result would be much smoother on Toronto’s collective intestinal tract — Kawhi with his silky brutishness, Gasol with his guttural defensive commands and thumping, freeing screens on the other end.
Toronto’s fatherly duo combined to score the opening 11 points of the quarter, each slinging one assist to the other, and winning that three-minute skirmish 11-6. Any illusions of an Orlando comeback were quickly exposed as mirage.
All the more impressive was that Kawhi steadied the ship while negotiating foul trouble, with Marc Davis and his eager whistle glaring away on the baseline, no less. He’d been coping with three fouls on his ledger since early in the second quarter. And in a truly shocking turn of events, he remained calm about it.
“Just can’t be as aggressive as I want to on the defensive end, so really just trying to play as perfect as possible,” said Leonard of how he responded to picking that third foul. Apparently playing perfectly is just a thing he can decide to do when the mood strikes.
“Just getting to spots early and just making sure I don’t reach and get a cheap one. That’s all I can do,” Leonard added. “I don’t foul as much during the regular season, and just kept trying to play my game.”
Any strong set of parents has symbiosis; Kawhi playing ‘his game’ on Tuesday was in large part tied to Gasol.
As Zach Lowe alluded to in his pre-Game 2 primer for ESPN, the Raptors didn’t really lean on the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop in Game 1 the way you probably should when Nikola Vucevic is the opposing centre. Vooch is just asking to be put in the blender, and to open the third quarter on Tuesday, Leonard and Gasol smashed the puree button. Upon seeing this sequence live, it became clear Vucevic was utterly screwed at about the 0:08 mark:
Gasol and Leonard essentially spent three minutes off the top of the half doing yard work while the kids watched and took notes on how to diagonally stripe the lawn.
Center Nikola Vucevic said: “It can be a huge advantage for us, obviously. Especially to start the game, we can feed off their energy. It can really get us going, give us even more energy, get us fired up. So we for sure need them (Friday) night. We expect them to be great, and it’s on us to bring it as well and make it a fun night for the city of Orlando.”
It has become almost cliché for members of professional and major college teams to ask their respective fan bases to impact big games, but it is a cliché for good reason. A raucous home crowd can inspire. The Magic learned that lesson firsthand Tuesday night at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena. A passionate announced crowd of 19,964 fans, egged on by an ingenious fan-engagement strategy and trained through years’ of postseason games, helped the Raptors dominate the Magic, 111-82, in Game 2.
For the Magic, however, it would be a mistake to assume their fans will provide a home-court advantage as fearsome as the advantage the Raptors received. Opened in 2010, Amway Center remains a beautiful, state-of-the-art venue, with fan amenities that rival the amenities at any arena in the NBA. But for the majority of Amway Center’s existence — even the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, when the Magic were among the better teams in the Eastern Conference — the arena’s crowd noise and proactive fan participation arguably have lagged behind the levels of noise and participation at the Magic’s prior home, Amway Arena.
The biggest reason for the drop in crowd noise, of course, has been the performance of the team itself. Even the 2010-11 and 2011-12 squads, which had Dwight Howard, were not as good as their immediate predecessors.
Then, from the 2012-13 season through the end of the 2017-18 season, the Magic struggled terribly. For those six seasons, the Magic posted a combined record of 157-335. The team gave its fans precious few successes to cheer. The on-court futility more than offset the franchise’s herculean, often innovative, efforts to engage its fans.
The atmosphere within the arena has started to improve only recently — and even then, the progress has been relatively incremental. On Jan. 31, the Magic opened the day with a 20-31 record. From that day forward, the team went 22-9 to earn a playoff berth, a run of strong play that seemed to take Central Florida by surprise.
2. Make Kawhi a passer:
Kawhi Leonard made it look at times like he was a man playing against boys in Game 2. He did whatever he wanted to in a nearly flawless outing.
Aaron Gordon is a strong, ultra-athletic opponent who seemed to slow Leonard a bit in the first game, but he had no answers on Tuesday. Orlando’s best bet might be to double-team Leonard more frequently, making him a playmaker. That way a Raptors team that has been awful (Leonard, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet aside) from beyond the three-point arc early on will have to prove it can hit shots. Pascal Siakam has missed all seven of his three-point attempts so far, Kyle Lowry’s 2-10 and Norman Powell just 1-8.
Even if Toronto had been finding more success from long range, it still might be wiser to let them fire away rather than allowing Leonard to work his magic (pun intended) 1-on-1.
Gordon appears ready either way. “He had a really efficient game and I’ve gotta do my part to make life more difficult for him back in Orlando,” Gordon had said in the leadup.
Load management for MVP?
But the Raptors star had fans singing a different tune after Tuesday night’s 111-82 Raptors rout of the Magic that evened up the playoff series heading into Game 3 on Friday in Orlando. Leonard scored 37 points in a brilliant performance.
One Raptors fan tweeted: “Load management this season’s MVP.”
Another wrote: “Post-load management Kawhi Leonard is a cheat code.”
After what was virtually a write-off of a season last year, Leonard has credited the Raptors medical staff for how healthy he is now.
“Me missing games isn’t just to keep me fresh,” he told reporters after a game last month. “It’s obviously making sure I don’t reinjure something that I was out for last year. [Raptors medical staff] have been doing a good job of reading images and making sure that I’m improving instead of declining on the health side.
“It feels a lot better than when I started the season. There was a little spell where it kind of plateaued but everybody brought their minds together and we figured out a way and now things are looking good and I’m feeling good.”
That’s about the deepest anyone with the Raptors has gone when explaining Leonard’s load-management plan. The team hasn’t revealed details of the strategy, simply stressing that it is being used to put Leonard in the best possible condition.
Passing out of the post
The Orlando Magic have two basic ways they get Nikola Vucevic his offense — post-ups and pick and rolls. He will also score on the offensive glass, but that is not necessarily something the team can gameplan for.
The Magic like to run a lot of their offense through Vucevic and cut off him, using his passing from the low- and high-post to get players free. Vucevic draws a lot of attention because of his ability to score on the block. Vucevic scored just 0.93 points per possession on post-ups according to NBA.com, despite being one of the most frequent post players in the league.
But teams swarm and account for him at all times. He is probably the only player that commands this kind of attention. And so the Magic have to go to him even if it is not always the most efficient way for Vucevic to score.
Despite how poorly Vucevic has played overall, this attention has already paid off for the team. Late in Game 1, it was Vucevic reading the double team and whipping the ball to Aaron Gordon for a late 3-pointer that proved vital.
When he has the time to read the defense and can work through his play, he can put passes on the money to get shooters good shots. Here, he sees Pascal Siakam preparing to trap him when he makes his move to get past Danny Green. That is good for him to be in help.
Nikola Vucevic sees it and surprises Pascal Siakam by sending the pass cross court to Aaron Gordon for a big three.
He did it again on Jonathan Isaac‘s big 3-pointer.
Again, Nikola Vucevic gets a mismatch with Kyle Lowry in the block. That forces Siakam to start making his way across the lane to try to help and that leaves a shooter open on the weak side. He finds Gordon on the wing knowing Kawhi Leonard is likely to steal a direct pass to the corner. Aaron Gordon could have shot it but he draws Kawhi Leonard to him and finds Jonathan Isaac for a big shot.
That is the kind of gravity Vucevic can have. Give him the time and the attention and he will make the right play more often than not.
Of course, the bigger issue at this point is not that Vucevic makes the right play against smaller defenders when the trap is late. The problem is more how immediate the pressure comes and how the Raptors’ bigs are able to knock Vucevic off his favored spot and force him to speed up.
This is not an issue of whether Vucevic can make an impact from the post. It is just whether he can get to those spots to make that impact. The Raptors switched a whole lot less on the post-up players in Game 2. Vucevic had fewer opportunities like this to make a big play.
When it comes to determining Kawhi Leonard‘s future in Toronto, “It’s not all about what happens at the end of the season.”
FICTION. That quote comes from Raptors general manager Bobby Webster in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times for a piece speculating about Leonard’s upcoming free-agency decision, and whether or not the all-star forward will return to Toronto next season.
Webster’s argument is sound, and clearly one he and the Raptors front office hope is the case. All of the work the organization put in this season maintaining Leonard’s health, selling him on the franchise being capable of earning perennial title-contender status and providing a framework to help maximize his abilities are all major factors in Toronto’s odds of re-signing Leonard this summer.
What’s more likely?
How far the Raptors go in these playoffs, with Leonard surrounded by the most experienced and talented roster the team has assembled, will be what determines Leonard’s future above all. Like, way above.
While Leonard surely has several considerations that will go into his decision, there’s no question that the ability to contend for a championship is first and foremost. It’s a part of why there was quite the panic following Toronto’s game one loss. Another disappointing post-season run would almost surely send Leonard packing for greener pastures. It’s also a part of why Kyle Lowry’s Game 1 performance was worrisome. As Jalen Rose put it on ESPN, “When Kyle Lowry plays like crap, and he’s under contract for three years [Editor’s note: it’s two years], you’re leaving. This is a point guard-driven league, and that’s your point guard.”
It’s also why things felt so good in Raptorland following the team’s Game 2 performance, one that not only saw Lowry bounce back and prove why he’s a high-impact player, but also because Leonard showed us exactly why his free-agency decision will determine whether or not Toronto remains a contender or goes back to the drawing board next season (hint: it’s because he’s very, very, very good at basketball).
Look, nine months after he was acquired from the San Antonio Spurs, we still have no idea where Leonard’s head is at when it comes to next season. For now, it’s almost certainly focused on this current playoff run, one in which he and the Raptors, if they consistently play up to their abilities, could have a real shot at their first Finals appearance. And it really feels like whether or not they reach that goal — or at least show a significant amount of fight in falling short (think: a closely-contested seven-game Conference Finals series) — remains the single greatest factor in persuading Leonard to return. Anything else feels like wishful thinking.
“Amway’s going to be beautiful Friday night,” veteran Magic forward Aaron Gordon said. “The house is going to be rocking, louder than it’s ever been in seven years.
“So it’s going be beautiful just to have the whole city of Orlando behind us. We feed off the crowd, we like their energy and it’s a beautiful thing.
“It was nice coming (to Toronto) and stealing one, all in all, and now we get to go back to Orlando and have the chance to protect our home court.”
The Magic have been on a roll at home, part of a dramatic 22-9 finish to the regular season that vaulted them to seventh in the East. They won their last nine regular home games — the last loss was Feb. 22 to Chicago — and went 25-16 at the Amway Center during the season.
The Magic may need the crowd’s energy to help them unlock an offence that has been held in check by Toronto’s defence through two games.
Orlando shot just 40 per cent from the field in a Game 1 win, and 37 per cent in the Game 2 loss.
“More offensive force, more offensive energy,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford told reporters Thursday. “The biggest part is that we’re going to have to play better offensively, and their defence had a lot to do with (the Magic’s shooting). It was very good. They shut down the paint. They had great pursuit.”
Webster told Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times on Thursday that the Raptors expect some correlation between the length of their postseason run and Leonard’s desire to stay, but they don’t believe it’s the only factor.
“Of course there is [a link between postseason success and Leonard’s potential desire to re-sign]. There is,” he said. “… It’s not all about what happens at the end of the season. It’s about what’s gone on to this point. From the day we acquired him, it’s the ground work.”
The comments come one day after ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported on The Jump that there’s widespread belief around the league the two-time Defensive Player of the Year will leave the Raptors this summer.
“A lot of people in the NBA think Kawhi is out of [Toronto],” Windhorst said. “It’s not because of anything the Raptors did. Kawhi kind of wants to be on the West Coast. The difficulty is that he doesn’t really articulate his feelings to people.”
The number of instances over the previous five NBA post-seasons in which a player was on the floor for at least 40 minutes. Kawhi Leonard did it nine times over that period, all with San Antonio, while Lowry has played 17 such games with Toronto. (DeMar DeRozan had 20 of those games with the Raptors.)
Only Siakam has cracked the 40-minute mark, as he was on the floor for 42 minutes in Game 1. After Leonard played 33 minutes in that game, Toronto coach Nick Nurse said he was planning to give him more of a run on Tuesday night, but early foul trouble meant he had to bide some stretches on the bench. If he avoids foul issues in the upcoming games in Orlando, and they aren’t blowouts, there’s a good chance he’s up near the 40-minute mark, which he only surpassed four times all season.
“He’s able to play as many as he wants,” Nurse said after Game 2. After Leonard played the entire third quarter in that game, the coach pulled him out for the start of the fourth and said he would have quick rest before going back in.
“He said he was ready now,” Nurse said. “I think he’s ready to play as many minutes as he can handle. And he can handle as many as the game calls for.”