Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Magic Game 4, Apr. 21

Over the course of 23 seasons and 10 postseasons, the Toronto Raptors have never taken the easy path. There are successes to reflect back upon like the single trip to the Eastern Conference Finals but even then it required going the distance in two series to advance. The harbinger of losing Game 1 aside, this iteration of the Raptors are poised to break that mold.

Certainly, the next series and beyond won’t offer the same set of circumstances which reinforces the need to take care of business in Orlando then return home to complete the gentleman’s sweep.  That said, the Magic won’t simply roll over and hand this to the Raptors. Steve Clifford has demonstrated adeptness via his adjustments (granted an ailing Kawhi Leonard and Tony Brothers’ whistle helped) and undoubtedly will add new tweaks.

Pulling from what did work expect Orlando to replicate their Game 3 defensive scheme on Kawhi, and attempt to get Marc Gasol in early foul trouble. Nikola Vucevic broke out of his coma without Gasol to contend with so it’s also plausible Clifford will increase his time with the reserve unit to capitalize on the Serge Ibaka matchup.

In terms of what Nick Nurse’s chalkboard will offer for Game 4, there are definitive pluses and minuses with tweaks to be made. 

Continue Defensive Assault:

The Raptors defense has been their calling card in the series with improvements each game. Even in their best game of the series (Game 1), the Magic were held to 40.0% from the field although they shot lights out from the perimeter (48.3%). The Raptors smothering defense resulted in massive drop-offs in Game 2 as they held Orlando to 37% from the field, and 26.5% from deep. Game 3 served up more of the same, punctuated by a six-minute Magic scoring drought which culminated in 36.2% field goal efficiency and 29.5% from the perimeter.

Absent Bench and Rotation Adjustments:

Orlando is winning this battle rather convincingly. In Game 1 the Raptors were outscored by five points and since then it’s been all downhill. The Magic were plus +8 in Game 2 and plus +13 in Game 3 with Terrence Ross outscoring the Raptors all on his own (24-18).

Without OG Anunoby and neither VanVleet or Powell making an offensive mark in the series (yet) Nurse has few options He could throw out Patrick McCaw to add defensive length on Ross or on Fournier if he breaks out of his shooting slump. The other option is to utilize Jodie Meeks to provide floor spacing. Or Nurse could stagger his starter’s minutes to ensure there are more facilitators on the court with the reserves.

Ball and Player Movement:

It’s clear the Raptors offense excels when the ball is moving as it forces the Magic to switch and when their best defender (Isaac) is caught between guarding Leonard or Siakam the floor opens. Notably part of the problem comes back to when Gasol and Lowry sit or when VanVleet is on the floor as ball movement ceases in favor of isolation plays. Perhaps putting the ball in Siakam’s hand more as a facilitator could help but Nurse has to drone ball and player movement into whoever is on the floor as it’s the key to keep the offense humming.

Manage the Crowd – Avoid Complacency, Dictate Pace:

For every surge and momentum shift, the Raptors responded, but in this game, in particular, it’s important to take the crowd out of the mix.  Nurse said the fans (augmented by piped in sound) were so loud at times the players were unable to hear him. Jumping on the Magic from the tip offers the best solution and then sustaining that pressure throughout. This means avoiding the team’s natural tendency to get complacent.  And, the best way to accomplish this is to force pace throughout.

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Mastering the whistle:

Every team except the Raptors has been to the free throw line at least 20 times in a playoff game. Of the other 23 completed games only five resulted in a team getting less than 20 free throws. I’m not bringing this up to feed the cacophony of conspiracy theories. Rather as a concern, especially if this trend seeps into the later rounds. Particularly when the team in the cue is the 76ers who sit atop the leaderboard in playoff FTA.

Philly is getting five additional trips to the line over their regular season attempts whereas Toronto is taking 8.3 less. That margin (13.3) and average attempt differential (+18.8 FTA per game) can’t simply be transferred to the next series as clearly defense and matchups factor. That said, while the Nets ranked 14th defensively, their post break defense ranked 4th. Coincidentally the Raptors and Magic ranked third and fourth respectively post break.

Let’s just say, it’s a tightrope Nick Nurse is walking. He’ll need to don his best circus shoes to navigate because there is a propensity for these situations to become the norm. To be fair, I’m not even sure how much (or if at all) Nurse being a rookie playoff head coach is affecting the situation or if the bad luck of drawing Marc Davis and Tony Brothers skews the results. But, the Raptors certainly need to break this trend as advancing means Toronto will face teams with superstars that routinely get to the line and do get benefit of doubt calls.  

Nurse for his part is at least trying to get a head start by planting seeds into the universe as Eric Koreen of The Athletic detailed:

“The hardest part has been that you just don’t deal with (foul trouble) in the regular season. Like, you hardly ever are in foul trouble,” Nurse said. “Now, here we are playing for the games that mean something, and we’re in deep foul trouble two games in a row. So it’s a little interesting.”

He continued: “My teams have always been leaders in free throws attempted. But this year it hasn’t really been that way. Our style is to take the damned thing downhill to the front of the rim, and we’re doing that, and that usually results in getting to the line a little more. But we will. I think it will balance itself out.”

Final Thoughts:

Toronto has demonstrated glimpses of lockdown defense holding Orlando scoreless for a six-minute segment in Game 3 and offensive brilliance courtesy of Kawhi Leonard in Game 2 and Pascal Siakam in Game 3 (with a nod to Tracy McGrady 😉). Yet, there is an overwhelming feeling this Raptors team hasn’t hit their full stride and remains a work in progress. That’s not a slight, rather it’s the reality of this squad still developing chemistry and learning the nuances with respect to timing, rhythm, and familiarity. 

Moreover, for as much as Toronto has the superior team, they’ve yet to have all cogs functioning simultaneously. Leonard presumably will be closer to his Game 1 or 2 output after another day to recuperate from the flu. And, take it for what it’s worth but my spidey sense tells me one of Danny Green, Norm Powell or Fred VanVleet are due for a breakout perimeter performance.

This young Magic team has to play near perfection to beat the Raptors and have arguably been the toughest opponent of the bottom tier seeds. In years past there was always that sense of unease at this point in the series, but this year the roles are reversed. Now it is the youthful Magic who are the inexperienced squad needing to raise their level of play. Conversely, the Raptors are the team with the superstar and a bevy of defensive talents with high I.Qs who, having experienced the taste of defeat know what it takes to advance.

The preseason predictions all pointed to the semi-finals in what many expect to be the most competitive and entertaining round with the four top Eastern teams waging in battle to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Each of the Bucks, 76ers, and Celtics are one win away from advancing. With a win today the Raptors would join them and position themselves to close the series in Toronto.

Ultimately, as Kyle Lowry opined in preseason “winning the gold ball is the only thing that matters.” He’s right of course, but the Raptors winning a series easily also represents a watershed franchise moment. With a win tonight, the Raptors can set the stage to accomplish that feat on Tuesday night.

Let’s do it!

Game Info:

TV: ESPN, TSN (Toronto), FS Florida (Orlando)

Tipoff: 7pm EST

The Line: The Raptors are a 5.5 point favorites. O/U: 207. Thinking of placing a bet? Learn first about how to get lucky at the casino.

Raptors Injury Updates:

OG Anunoby (appendectomy) is out. Patrick McCaw (thumb) and Chris Boucher (back spasms) are probable

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Jodie Meeks, Patrick McCaw
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, *Chris Boucher

Magic Injury Updates:

Markelle Fultz (shoulder), Isaiah Briscoe (knee), Mo Bamba (leg), and Timofey Mozgov (knee) all remain out.

PG: DJ Augustin, Michael Carter-Williams, Jerian Grant
SG: Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross
SF: Jonathan Isaac, Wesley Iwundu
PF: Aaron Gordon, Jarell Martin
C: Nikola Vucevic, Khem Birch

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