3-1 – in a place we’ve never been before: up 3-1
Two – Stomped: Orlando made two hard pushes, but each time Toronto had an equal response. The Magic shot out of the gate to take a 7-0 lead, but the Raptors recovered and won the quarter. Orlando also made a desperate surge towards the end of the fourth with Aaron Gordon drilling every jumper and Terrence Ross pouring in another halfcourt buzzer-beater, but the bench stepped up with Serge Ibaka nailing a jumper and hitting a driving layup, Norman Powell getting to the basket, and Fred VanVleet getting to the foul line.
The Raptors even seemed to get some consideration from the referees. A sub-plot gathering some momentum is the notion that the Raptors had been getting a ‘bad whistle’ through the first three games of the series. And it’s not just the outer fringes of the fan base that are beginning to wonder if the league’s only Canadian NBA team somehow gets treated differently — there have been some internal grumbles as well and the Raptors have made their frustration known to the league office.
Whatever the reason the numbers don’t seem to add up. In Game 3 the Raptors shot just 10 free throws to 23 by Orlando. Leonard shot just four.
In the regular season the Raptors averaged 22 free-throw attempts per game, which was 21st overall, while the Magic averaged 19 attempts, which was last. In their first three games against the Magic the Raptors were taking just 13.7 free throw attempts – last among the 16 teams in the playoffs and notably well-behind the Magic, who were averaging 22 free throws through three games. No other series had anything close to the 8.6 disparity in attempts per game.
Now, keeping opponents of the free-throw line has always been a staple of Steve Clifford-coached teams. The Magic were the fifth-most stingy in that regard during the regular season.
“All I know is that, in our league — and it’s been like this for a long time by a lot — the best possession you can have is to shoot a free throw,” said Magic head coach Steve Clifford. “Last year, when you shot a free throw, it’s 1.52 points per possession. The next best one is a layup, which is 1.31. Just by the numbers, a guy who is a 2.0 – barely — at [University of Maine] Farmington, I can figure out … We don’t do any drills on it or anything like that. They know.”
But it’s not liked the Raptors haven’t been attacking – Leonard was third in the playoffs with 19 drives but 15th in free throws attempted on them. Siakam had had earned one free-throw attempt on his 11 drives.
Something had to give. It wasn’t like the Raptors lived at the line in Game 4, but they got there 18 times, making 16. Leonard was 8-of-9. Maybe most importantly they played through it rather than letting it change their approach or attitude. They played through everything. The looked like a team that plans to keep doing just that.
And yet, the group has been even better defensively, making the playoffs’ worst offence look every bit the part. The Vucevic-Evan Fournier pick-and-roll that was the Magic’s most reliable source of offence has dried up, and the Raptors are causing many turnovers against a team that was not sloppy during the regular season. The Raptors’ starters had 10 steals Sunday, and the long-limbed, position-hopping Siakam did not have even one of them. Because of Lowry’s outstanding post defence, it is hard for Orlando to create a true mismatch. Even when the Magic got a desirable switch, with Gasol having to defend point guard D.J. Augustin, Gasol simply baited him into shooting and then got a hand on the 3-pointer. Since Game 1 — when the Magic scored just 104 points, not a ton — Orlando has managed absolutely nothing.
“He’s deceptively moving better than we think he can,” Green said of Gasol’s defence. “He knows how to get places, and he’s great with his hands. He gets deflections on the ball-handler, on passes. He’s doing everything we need. We’re doing a good job of communicating with each other, figuring it out. It’s taken some time because I haven’t really done it the whole season with him. Now that I am guarding some point guards, I’m talking out that pick-and-roll situation with him, and we’re figuring each other out.”
“Give Marc a lot of credit,” VanVleet said. “He’s been really good. After the first game, we made a couple of adjustments. And one-on-one in the post, he’s been pretty much impossible for him to score on down there.”
Coming out of the locker room in the second half down 16 points, the Magic faced the reality of having to make a run against the Raptors’ starting five to save their season, more or less. Fifteen points of that lead were established with the starting five on the floor together.
And the Magic did a formidable job: They got on the glass well, Aaron Gordon was everywhere and got out in transition, a rarity in what has been a fairly slow series. Yet, there was an inevitability to the whole thing. When Leonard broke down the defence and got a layup plus the foul, Vucevic could only slap the stanchion in frustration. So much hard work, so little headway. It all felt like a little boy swinging his arms non-stop at a giant, and the giant keeping the boy at arm’s distance by extending a palm to his forehead.
Orlando created a little momentum for themselves heading into the game’s final twelve minutes, thanks to a buzzer-beating heave from Terrence Ross (his first and only field goal of the game).
But that momentum ended abruptly. Toronto blitzed Orlando at the beginning of the fourth quarter, coming out on a 14-5 run to begin the period.
An Ibaka hook shot in the paint with just over six minutes remaining gave Toronto their largest lead of the game at 21 points (at that point).
Clifford emptied his bench at the 2:52 mark, and Game 4 was history.
Gordon played fantastic for the Magic, finishing with 25 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. But he didn’t get a lot of help from his teammates.
“That’s never the thought process,” Gordon said at the podium after the game when asked about the way he took over in the third quarter. “Just being aggressive, my teammates did a great job finding me. They gave me the rock, and I was just taking what the defense was giving me.”
“We’re going to watch the film and we’re going to go over how we can play better as a team. That’s what we’ve been doing all year, winning games collectively (as a team),” Gordon added.
Now it’s back up to Toronto for the Magic, needing another win on the road to keep their season alive. The Magic have won twice already in Toronto this year, once in the regular season, and then in dramatic fashion in Game 1 of this series.
“To me, what I just said in the locker room is we can do one of two things,” Clifford added after the game. “We can either do the proverbial, we’re down 3-1, we have to win two in Toronto, say we are going to fight no matter what and then if we get down 10, stop fighting. Or, we can really fight. But we won’t know until adversity hits in two nights.”
`We’re going to go to Toronto and, obviously, look for a win,’’ Gordon said. “We’ve shown that we can win there before and, that’s what we’re going to do. That’s the idea – go out there and fight – definitely fight – and potentially get back here (for a Game 6). We get a win out there, then the series is up for grabs.’’
Nothing will be up for grabs if the Magic don’t reverse their rebounding disadvantage. Two nights after missed rebounds hurt their chances of rallying in the fourth quarter, the Magic got smashed 45-34 on the boards. Toronto had seven offensive rebounds that it turned into 11 points.
Orlando was outrebounded by 11 boards just six times all season – but not once after a Jan. 19 home loss to Milwaukee. The Magic had rebounding edges of plus-six, plus-19, plus-10 and plus-seven in the four regular-season games against the Raptors. After winning the rebounding battle in Games 1 and 2, the Magic have been outboarded in Games 3 and 4.
“We don’t have a lot of room for error,’’ Clifford said. “You can make an argument that the biggest difference was their Game 3 offensive rebounding and the same happened tonight. We weren’t hitting (while rebounding); we’re going to have to hit. Look at the strengths of the team – if turn the ball over, it’s going to be a problem. And if we don’t win the rebounding game by a pretty significant margin, it’s not going to happen for us.’’
Another very telling statistic of the Magic’s plight over the past three games: Veteran point guard D.J. Augustin, the Game 1 hero with his game-winning three, has scored just 24 points in the past three games after pumping in 25 in the opener. Toronto’s move to switch 6-foot-6 shooting guard Danny Green onto the 6-foot Augustin has greatly limited his looks, holding him to nine, seven and eight points on Sunday.
“They’re a long team and they’re all over the place,’’ Augustin said. “Once you get by one guy, somebody else is there to step up. They’re playing good defense. We’ve got to make the right play, make the simple passes and don’t wait until the last minute.’’
Following the Magic’s brief run in the third quarter, the Raptors proceeded to drain most of the drama out of the night by making an efficient 53.3 percent of their shots and 39.3 percent from 3-point range.
“It was great (winning twice in Orlando),’’ Leonard said. “Road wins are the best, especially in the playoffs. We all know the job (in the series with the Magic) isn’t done yet.’’
Leonard is the ultimate offensive trump card. His brilliance is a luxury the Magic do not have.
“It’s part of the game,” Gordon said. “He’s a really good player. He’s established. So you know Kawhi’s going to make shots. The demoralizing part about it is that we know that we’re a better team than what we’re showing and how we’re playing. That’s the demoralizing part about it.”
Gordon did his part on the offensive end Sunday. In the third quarter, he scored 16 points on 6-of-6 shooting and dished out a pair of assists without a turnover. He finished with a team-high 25 points.
But Gordon received little support, other than 19 points from Fournier.
All-Star Nikola Vucevic, sixth-man extraordinaire Terrence Ross and Game 1 hero D.J. Augustin were all nonexistent. They combined for 24 points.
Vucevic continued to struggle. After he made four of his first five shots, he went 1-for-9 the rest of the night — ending 5-for-14 overall — and finished with 11 points.
“I thought tonight I started well, made shots,” Vucevic said. “Then I just went cold the rest of the game. I’ve just got to stay aggressive. … My shots will fall. They didn’t tonight after the first quarter. So I’ve just got to stay aggressive with it.”
Ross finished with only five points on 1-of-5 shooting as the Raptors keyed on stopping him.
Augustin managed to score only eight points.
The struggles of Vucevic, Ross and Augustin weren’t the only issues. Critical defender Jonathan Isaac got into early foul trouble. And, meanwhile, the Magic kept turning the ball over and did not do a good enough job on the defensive glass.
“If you look at the strengths of the teams, if we turn the ball over, it’s going to be a problem,” Clifford said. “And if we don’t win the rebounding game by a pretty significant margin, it’s not going to happen for us.”
Orlando does not have any margin for error.
And even if the Magic play like a well-oiled machine, the Raptors have Leonard.
Kawhi was more than his 34 points in Game 4 and showed what having a superstar can provide in a playoff setting. Every time the Magic made a run, especially early in the first and midway through the third, Kawhi would answer with a play on both ends of the floor. Leonard was 12-for-20 overall, adding six rebounds, two assists, two steals, and two blocks, finishing a +20.
An added bonus for the Raptors was that their bench put in great work on both ends. Norman Powell had his best playoff game since dunking into our living rooms three years ago against Indiana, scoring 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting. Serge Ibaka was also super efficient, finishing with 13 points on six shots while grabbing eight rebounds. Even Fred VanVleet, who’s struggled this series, drew an important charge and had nine points.
Again, Kawhi was awesome, but the play of those three guys really stands out to me. So far in this series, the only moments you’ve had to sweat as a Raptors fan have been the transition periods where two or more bench players see the floor. Tonight, Nick Nurse didn’t have to bring the starters back except to flex on the Magic up 20 with four minutes left. Otherwise, the bench was good enough to support the starters — a marked difference from the first three games of this series. Overall, their proficiency led the Raptors to shoot 53.3% from the field and 39.3% from deep.
Unlike Games 2 and 3, the Magic had a run in them right from the opening tap. A couple Raptors turnovers resulted in points on the other end, as Orlando would take an early 7-0 lead. The Raptors had a response, though, led by three straight baskets from Leonard — along with this gorgeous series of passes from Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, who once again worked their oft-magical pick and roll into an open look.
The run ended up being 17-4 for the visitors, giving them a 28-26 lead after one. In the second, Toronto broke the game open. Some solid bench play was propped up by Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry playing with Powell, Ibaka, and VanVleet, as both teams got hot from the field. When the starters returned for Toronto, though, their defence dialled in on Orlando’s efforts — captained by two blocks by Leonard. The Magic would make just one field goal over the last 5:22 of the first half, resulting in a 58-42 halftime lead for the Raptors.
In the third, Aaron Gordon fought the good fight for Orlando. He made two tough jumpers out of the break, attacking the paint ruthlessly. Gordon would end the game with 25 points, seven rebounds, and five assists — the problem was his supporting cast wasn’t there.
Few, if any teams can handle the two-pronged threat presented by Leonard (who finished sixth in the league in scoring and is third in the playoffs so far) and Siakam, who is playing huge minutes without looking noticeably tired. Throw in perennial all-star Lowry, former all-star Gasol, champion Green, Ibaka and the rest and this is quite a formidable group. One Orlando can’t come close to matching up with. The Magic doesn’t have the horses. Few teams do.
“We obviously have a lot of talent and we have two very ball-dominant players that can play either block and like to play in the low post,” Gasol told Postmedia before the game.
“It’s a matter of keeping that beautiful balance that always so hard to find. And once we have that discipline and urgency defensively on the ball and off the ball, communicating and all those beautiful things, The ball gets moving differently, we get out on the floor and it’s just a different look for other teams.”
A look too challenging to counteract. But give Steve Clifford’s group credit for battling throughout this season. They don’t go away and they fight.
They’re in for the biggest fight of the season on Tuesday. They’ll go home either way, but need to win to head back to Florida with the season still going.
The Raptors would love to avoid that trip, which would mean a number of days off before likely facing the Philadelphia 76ers in Round 2.
“For sure. We wanna finish it at the house,” Siakam said of Scotiabank Arena.
“That’s our objective and we go out there with that and knowing that we could definitely use some rest, for sure. But at the same time it’s an important game and we know coming in we want to just bring that same intensity we’ve brought the last three games and finish it up.”
Today’s player of the day is…
Team’s result: Toronto Raptors 107, Orlando Magic 85
Stat line: 34 points (12-20 FG, 2-5 3PT, 8-9 FT), 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals, 2 assists
Leonard bounced back from a miserable Game 3, in which he missed 14 of his 19 shot attempts and committed six turnovers, with a game-high 34 points in Toronto’s Game 4 victory.
Leonard also got it done defensively in the 22-point win, blocking two shots and coming up with two steals.
This is the second time Leonard has been named our Player of the Day in these playoffs, the first being after Game 2 when he scored 37 points.
With their season on the line, the Magic came out and threw the first punch but the Raptors responded like a No. 2 seed and snuffed out any hope Orlando had of evening the series. TSN Raptors reporter Josh Lewenberg has more on how Toronto is looking forward to closing out the series on their home court.
These new Raptors, unlike the old Raptors, are showing the early signs of possessing an essential ingredient to a true contender’s DNA. It’s called killer instinct. And history suggests this might be one of the first times we’ve actually seen an early-round dose of it from Canada’s NBA franchise.
You know what I’m talking about. Ruthlessness. The kind of step-on-their-throat meanness that takes a 10-point lead and turns it into a 25-point chasm. The kind of we’re-better-than-you greediness that takes a 2-1 series lead and converts it into a 3-1 series stranglehold. That’s what the Raptors displayed here in Game 4, when they scored a 107-85 win that gave them a 3-1 advantage in their best-of-seven set. Guess how many times the Raptors had previously come out of a post-season Game 4 with a chance to close out a best-of-seven set in Game 5? Until Sunday night, that number was precisely zero.
For Raptor fans, this could take a little getting used to. So far we’ve yet to see a trademark of the DeRozan-Lowry era — the annual playoff-time crisis of confidence. These new Raptors — led by the Leonard-Siakam tandem and supported by a late-career Kyle Lowry in a playmaking role — are confidently taking care of business.
Since they mailed in a Game 1 loss, they’ve outscored the Magic by a combined 56 points in three straight wins. It’s just the second time in franchise history the Raptors have strung together three straight victories in a post-season. In lieu of the perennial playing down to the level of an inferior opponent, they’ve spent the past six days calmly stating their superiority.
“You should try to get it over as fast as possible. That’s the plan,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said in the leadup to the game. “Everybody wants to win four in a row, but that’s not always how it goes. Obviously we understand it’s a big game for us and for them. As fans of the game, we’re watching all the games, or at least I am when I’m not playing. We’re up and it’s a good chance for us to go out there and get a big win. That’s all that matters and all that we’re focused on.”
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) April 21, 2019
TSN Basketball analyst Jack Armstrong joins Jay and Dan to weigh in on Kawi Leonard’s bounce back game against the Magic and the lift that the bench provided in Game 4.
How good has the Raptors defence been these past three games?
For the past two, Magic coach Steve Clifford has been harping on his team’s need to protect the ball. During at least three different availabilities over the past week, he has pointed out how Toronto was the best team in the NBA converting turnovers into points. It was his primary focus after Game 2 and again after Game 3, but the Raptors turned the Magic over 16 times. In Game 2 it was 17 turnovers and then in Game 4s another 17.
The Magic knows, and has been told repeatedly exactly what needs to change in its game but is incapable of doing it. It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise considering the Raptors boast two former defensive player of the year award winners in Leonard and Marc Gasol, plus lock-down defenders in Lowry and Danny Green, not to mention a vastly underrated defender in Siakam.
That’s the entire Raptors’ starting five. And every one of them is a ball hawk, swiping at opponents’ dribbles every opportunity that arises.
Toronto has played some excellent defensive quarters over the course of the season and even a few halves, but to put back-to-back-to-back full-game defensive gems together at a time when they need them the most is the kind of run that can put a team on a path that becomes tough to be knocked from.
“Yeah, we’ve been pretty locked-in now on the defensive end,” Fred VanVleet said on Sunday. “They’ve guarded us pretty well, too. Give them credit for that. Throughout the season, with ups and downs and trying to get up for games and stay motivated, we’ve had a lot of lapses and injuries, different lineup changes. But I think we’ve been playing consistent basketball for a little bit. Being able to stay locked-in, staying engaged, staying in tune defensively has helped us have success for sure.”
And it’s what can take this team further than it has ever gone on an NBA playoff run if it can sustain it.