Not the Same Old Raptors

There were a lot of elements to Friday night’s Raptors game 3 that felt all too familiar. Tony Brothers was officiating, and the Raptors were clearly frustrated with the calls all night long, and letting it get to them at times. They had a clear talent advantage over their opponent, but couldn’t quite get a lead to stick due to some troublesome rotations and execution, and their leaders were struggling to score for most of the night. It felt like a game from the past, with different actors playing familiar roles, and the destination seemed to be a disappointing end.

That’s how it would’ve gone in the past, a game the Raptors couldn’t quite establish a big enough lead in and then the opponent took control in the second half and Raptors fans and players alike left with a sour taste in their mouths of a win that could’ve been. For the Raptors in the postseason, nothing was more familiar than this.

It kept building, too, as the Raptors closed out the first half relatively strong, regaining control after the bench gave back momentum and most of the lead the starters established to open the game, but then Terrence Ross hit a half-court three to close it to just a three-point gap at half-time. The second half started, and it felt like the starting lineup needed to build a strong enough lead to account for the bench possibly struggling once again in order for the game to feel safely at hand, and they looked to control momentum expanding the lead to seven again in short order.

Then Marc Gasol quickly picked up fouls three and four, two and a half minutes in. Gasol had been the Raptors’ most important defensive cog in the series thus far, forcing Nikola Vucevic to struggle to find any offense whatsoever, and the Magic offense had stumbled without their centerpiece. However, working against Serge Ibaka was a much better matchup for the Magic All-Star, and he immediately went to work, scoring 14 points in four minutes after Gasol went to the bench, and giving the Magic the lead at 61-60 midway through the third quarter. This felt like the moment that the game would get away from the Raptors, if history held. Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry were both due for rest in short order, and the bench hadn’t given the Raptors many good minutes all series, and without Gasol slowing down Vucevic at all was a tall task.

Something unexpected followed, however.

Kawhi drove into the paint and kicked it out to the corner to Danny Green, who knocked down a three. Both players had been struggling somewhat, with Green having a rough series and not looking himself, and Kawhi having a rough night finding any offense for himself and not getting to the line. But they saw the magnitude of that moment in the game and found a way. Then Kawhi hit two free throws. It kept going and was suddenly, four minutes later, a 16-0 Raptors run with Leonard having four free throws, Green contributing another two lay-ups to go with his three, and Pascal Siakam providing the other five points. Suddenly, it felt comfortable again.

The lead closed back in the fourth quarter, getting as low as three in the closing minute, but order had clearly been restored and it felt like the Raptors had the game in hand from that point onward. There are definitely things from Friday night’s game to work on, but in the playoffs it’s sometimes about finding a way to work through the frustration and the struggles and just getting to the win at the end of the night.

It’s probably not an accident that the shot that started the Raptors towards finding control again was Kawhi and Green teaming up to regain the lead. They’ve been here before, and understand the nature of the playoffs as well as anyone. Pascal Siakam had yet another breakout game in game 3, one more time he showcased just how far his skillset has come this season, and he was the best player on the floor for this game, unstoppable on offense against a great defensive team, and causing issues for the Magic offense frequently. But in that moment it was the playoff veterans, and that’s why they’re here.

The nature of the NBA playoffs is that a team will be forced to answer a lot of questions that speak to their character on the way to a potential championship, and being able to find a way when your best player is struggling, and, as we found out after the game, not entirely healthy with Leonard battling illness. When the officiating is frustrating your squad, and when you’re forced away from the matchups that have played a huge role for you in your gameplanning. When all of that isn’t working, and you still manage to walk away with the win, that answers a huge question for your team, and can only build confidence moving forward.  That’s an answer the Raptors have never seemed to have before.

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