The Raptors defense brings a tear to my eye

Whenever I find myself growing grim; whenever I find myself pausing on our prospects; and especially whenever individualistic tendencies creep on the floor, I remind myself that the sheer talent in the starting five can beat anyone. Unlike ever before. A 5-19 from your star performer has usually meant an L in the post-season, especially if accompanied by a modest 12 points from your second-best player. Not this year. They can withstand sustained assaults from the opposition because, 1) even if they leak defensively, it’ll never turn into a flood, and 2) there is enough offensive talent on this roster, especially in the starting unit, that it’ll will never dry up because one individual is struggling. Again, unlike years past.

With Kawhi Leonard misfiring, the bench being outplayed yet again to a tune of 33-18, a boisterous home crowd, and Tony Brothers officiating, the scene was set for Orlando to rebound. The story line never materialized as Pascal Siakam dropped 30 points which included punishing Terrence Ross in the post, taking Jonathan Isaac off the dribble, and simply running the floor better than anyone else on the court. Sprinkle it with Kyle Lowry’s timely drives and Marc Gasol’s stellar defensive play (four steals) where he’s not just being a nuisance for Magic big men, but also their guards, and you can’t help but wonder that if the bench just played the Magic evenly the Raptors would win by 30.

The good news here is that the Raptors have gears which they haven’t come close to hitting yet. If the Magic series is teaching us one thing it’s that the defensive pressure the starting five can exert is immense and downright scary. The Raptors are able to close-out and contest shots anywhere on the court and do it for 5-6 minute stretches with ease. Orlando’s 36% shooting in Game 3 is not because they missed open shots but because they were under severe pressure at all times. I would go as far to say that given the contest-level on their shots, shooting that percentage is highly impressive. Look no further than the nature of Terrence Ross’s made threes (5-13), which were very well defended.

Some of the quotes coming out of the Magic lockerroom were lamenting turnovers, for example Vucevic:

“Obviously tonight I thought turnovers hurt us again. We had too many of those. Just empty possessions for us, and against a team like them we can’t have that. I thought some of our looks were good, we had some good looks, we didn’t convert. It was mostly our turnovers that hurt us in the end.”

I’m not sure the Magic have the ball-handling and experience to deal with the level of pressure the Raptors are capable of applying, leaving their main hope outplaying our bench.

Milwaukee is rolling Detroit, Philly will take care of Brooklyn, and Boston, though in a very tight series, will get past Indiana. Will the Raptors current form of play be sufficient in beating Philly? The Magic bench was ranked 19th in scoring and Philly’s was a woeful 26th. One strategy against Philly would be for the Raptors to view the bench as a competitive advantage and seek out those matchups; this is vastly different than the approach against the Magic. Nick Nurse is viewing the bench as a stop-gap measure so his starters aren’t exhausted. That’s all. Fred VanVleet’s play has dropped in every conceivable manner, and if it weren’t for him combining with Lowry in stretches, his -11 in Game 3 could have been far worse. Norman Powell has been playing hard and defending well, and to see him finally hit a three and contribute meaningfully is hopefully the early indications of an upward movement. For whatever reason I expect Serge Ibaka to miss every jumper he takes in the post-season so watching him square up on pick-and-pops and even hit a fade was encouraging. Though still struggling overall, the bench has shown some signs of life to where Nick Nurse might see them as a tactical option rather than glorified waterboys.

It is a rare to see a center coming out to defend above the break and cause guards problems because of quick hands. It’s usually enough for a center to earn kudos if they push the guard out further than they’d like to or to switch back quick enough, negating the screen. Marc Gasol is giving a whole new meaning on how to defend guards up top. It is unrealistic to expect him to excel in one-on-one situations against smaller guys, but during the negotiations that happen in a two-man game, he gives the other guard nightmares. He’s making the pass back to the big man very difficult by playing the angles, resulting in the Magic guards either looking for a pull-up, or a hard turn on the corner, which only DJ Augustin seems to be capable of. Gasol’s play has resulted in the Raptors finally controlling dribble penetration. Most dribble penetration doesn’t happen because of a one-on-one blow-by, but because the defense wasn’t able to react effectively to high screens. Having Gasol involved in those situations has a direct impact on how much dribble penetration that Raptors prevent. Ibaka, though still a good overall defender, is often sub-par in these situations, which is why the combination of him and Fred defending the high screen is a nightmare.

Nick Nurse revealing that Kawhi Leonard had the flu prior to Game 3 is a good indicator of how closely Raptors guard information. Pretty sure even Woj wouldn’t have known that if he tried. Of the 19 shots he took about two were ones he settled for, the rest were good makeable shots that he usually makes or gets fouled on. That short turnaround jumper from 6-8 feet is one he can get anytime. He can get to the low block through a spin move or two, and find himself within 2-3 feet of the rim with defenders surrounding him. Even in those situations you’d bet on him because of his strength. The Magic’s strategy has been to muscle Leonard out through their strongman, Aaron Gordon. This has paid off to some degree as Gordon, who is 2” taller and only 10lbs lighter, can wear Kawhi down, certainly far more than anyone else on their roster. This comes at a price for the Magic because Gordon’s offense has suffered in the series – he’s averaging 9.5 points which is well below his 16.5 season average. All this to say that even making life slightly difficult for Kawhi is hurting the Magic on offense, an area they’ve generally struggled with as a team.

Louis recently wrote the Magic’s strategy of handling Siakam via Isaac. It is another instance of the Magic being forced to pigeonhole a player into a defender rather than seeing the full breadth of their game. Isaac is a potentially impactful player who the Raptors right now don’t even care to defend. His offense is coming off scraps and he’s often the fourth of fifth option on the floor. He puts no pressure on the Raptors defense and on the other end, hasn’t been able to control Siakam, other than some short-lived moments. The Magic are so worried about how to defend the Raptors that their attention to their offense is suffering. The gameplan is often nothing more than to let their guards figure out how to score…somehow.  Such is the life of a lower seed.

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