3-1: time to put on their big boy pants and close out the series tonight
When the Raptors are as locked in on the defensive end as they’ve been, the ceiling for what the team is capable of rises accordingly, and it’s left us watching the best version of the team yet.
“I think we saw some flashes of this kind of play at times [during the regular season],” said Nurse. “But now we’re serious about sustaining it and doing it more consistently. Let’s see if we can do it again”
While Orlando hasn’t been able to match the Raptors — particularly when it comes to the performance of each team’s star players — the Magic showed a ton of resiliency throughout the regular season and still present their challenges.
“It’s not easy, because this team fights,” Nurse said. “Their coaching staff are making really good adjustments and we’re having to think really hard about what they possibly might do to counter what we’ve been doing. And we have to do it again during the game several times. There’s a very experienced head coach over there, who’s been through this a lot,” continued Nurse, who, despite steering the ship for several playoff runs in the G-League and British pro league, is in the midst of his first post-season as an NBA head coach.
“It’s interesting for me to see. That’s what’s most interesting in the playoffs as a coach, is to watch the adjustment and how the chess game goes back and forth. It keeps you up at night sometimes.”
The Raptors head into Tuesday’s Game 5 with a significant opportunity for more than just a series win and restful sleep — one that Nurse hopes his team doesn’t squander.
“You just don’t want to screw around in this series,” he warned of Tuesday’s game. “If you lose this one, you’re back in Orlando. You’re adding miles, adding stress, whatever it is, to your team. It does make it important and hopefully, we’ll realize that.”
“Closeout games are probably the hardest ones,” said Danny Green, who has been on the winning end of more than a few during his ten-year career. “The other team has everything to lose, and they’re fighting for their lives.”
“The hardest part, mentally, is not getting too fat and happy, or too satisfied… We want that same sense of urgency we had in Game 2 when we were down 0-1.”
Over the past three games the Raptors own a team defensive rating of 92.5 (points allowed per 100 possessions). That is first among NBA playoff teams. But throw in that first game and the Raptors slip to third at 96.0 behind both the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks, two teams that will square off in the other Eastern Conference semifinal.
This kind of defence has been the plan since Nurse sat down and looked at his team as they went into training camp.
Some load management and some injuries kept them from achieving this kind of consistency early on, but the signs were there that it was coming even as they played out the final month of the regular season schedule.
“Late summer, early fall when (we) were looking at what we had, I think you saw some length and toughness, some defensive players, and then midway through the season, obviously, we made some adjustments to our roster and probably strengthened it defensively even more,” Nurse said. “It was just a matter of actually going out and doing it and being that identity, instead of talking about it, being it.”
Marc Gasol’s addition at the trade deadline was the final piece to his defensive puzzle, giving the Raptors two former defensive players of the year (Kawhi Leonard is the other) and a trio of other starters that do not shy away from their defensive responsibilities in Kyle Lowry, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam — an underrated defender.
Green said he felt things starting to fall into place in the final month as the injury bug subsided and Leonard’s load management days petered out.
“There were a couple of games towards the end of the season where we had mostly everyone healthy and obviously against teams that were trying to make the playoffs which was a good test for us coming into the playoffs,” Green said. “I think we kind of felt we had a pretty good rhythm there during that time. Obviously we weren’t playing playoff minutes as a group, but I think the last month or so of the season we had a pretty good feel for each other.”
As Leonard continued to hit shot after shot, Gordon tried to match him in the second half. Gordon took the game over for the Magic offensively in the third, scoring 16 of his team-high 25 in the quarter.
Yet, despite Gordon’s best efforts, it was never enough. Every time the Magic would get it down with a chance to get it under double digits, Leonard would push the lead right back up.
“He was great tonight.” said Nikola Vucevic on Leonard. “He’s a hell of a player. He can score in a lot of ways. I think we could’ve helped AG a little bit better on some stuff in the pick-and-rolls, could’ve done a better job on stuff when he’s driving. But he’s a great player and a tough matchup. He can score in different ways, he’s seen a lot of different defense’s thrown at him.”
After Gordon shut down Leonard, who was battling the flu in game three, it was unlikely that the Magic would be able to contain the former Finals MVP once again.
Things weren’t made any easier for the Magic as they lost Jonathan Isaac early in the second quarter to his third personal foul. Minutes later, Gordon picked up his third of the half, and took the Magic out of any rhythm they could hope to build.
Now, down 3-1, the Magic have to travel back to Toronto in a must win game to save their season.
It’s not the first time this season their backs have been against the wall and they’ve answered. But, this time will be much tougher than any time during the season.
Still, despite dropping both games at home after wrestling home court away with the win in game one, the Magic know what they have to do to get ready for game five.
“We’ve got to regroup,” said Terrence Ross. “We’ve got to do it fast and we have to watch film to understand better what we need to do. We have a way to play and I think we’ve just got to figure that out because they’re throwing all sorts of coverages at us, but we’ve got to figure something out.”
Watching the film and figuring something out was the message that most players, as well as coach Clifford stressed as they head into game five.
“We’ve always been good playing with our backs against the wall,” said Gordon. “The message is to go out there and get a win, and then come back and bring it back to our home floor. You know, if we can accomplish that, I feel like it’s anybodies series as long as we can get back to out home floor and play another game here.”
With the Raptors just a win away from reaching the second round, SportsCentre goes by the numbers to examine Toronto’s series against Orlando.
It got a bit lost in the shuffle the past few days, but Pascal Siakam had a great answer when asked about ex-Raptor Tracy McGrady’s absurd comments knocking his case for NBA most improved player honours.
“I don’t know nothing about that. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what’s going on, what people say,” Siakam said.
“I’m focused on this team and trying to come every night and do my best. It’s not about what people say. Most improved for me is bigger than all of that.
“I’m just blessed to be here, happy to be in this position so people from where I’m from (Cameroon) can look at me and hopefully dream that one day they can be here,” said the man with one of the league’s most remarkable stories.
“And at the end of the day, if I do that, that’s what’s important to me. That’s the message I’m trying to send every night I’m on the floor. If some kids or whoever can tell me they’re watching me and watching my development and how you got here an your story and it’s an inspiration and maybe one day they they can be like, ‘I’m here because of you,’ that’s more important.”
“Close-out games are probably the hardest ones because the other team has everything to lose. And they are fighting for their lives,” Danny Green said. “We know they don’t want their season to end and the hardest part mentally is not getting too fat and happy or too satisfied because we are up 3-1 and feeling comfortable and being lackadaisical.”
A loss Tuesday would send the series back to Orlando, which the Raptors would like to avoid.
“You’re adding miles, adding stress, whatever it is, to your team. It does make it important, and hopefully we’ll realize that,” Nurse said.
The Raptors are riding momentum into Game 5, particularly on the defensive end. While Nurse said the team showed flashes of stifling, lock-down defence in the regular-season, they stepped it up the past three games.
“I just think that our team, they were upset Game 1 (a 104-101 loss) watching themselves, guys driving to the rim from 35 feet away, laying it in, dunking, and decided not to let that happen any more,” Nurse said.
The rookie NBA head coach — whose voice was still hoarse Monday from hollering at players and officials on Sunday — was asked if he’s enjoying the coaching chess matches that play out in the post-season.
“I think you don’t really have much choice to like it or not. That’s the job,” said Nurse, who was Dwane Casey’s assistant before the latter man was fired last off-season.
“I’ll tell you what I do like, these games are awesome. I’m not just talking about our series, I’m talking about you turn on Brooklyn-Philly or whatever, the juice in the arenas, how hard the players are competing. I know when I’m walking out on the court before for the game it’s like man, if you wanna compete, here it is, it’s coming. That’s something I really enjoy.”
Toronto help and recover rotations since Game 1 have been scary good. Kawhi with a few of those "where exactly did he come from?" defense plays that remind of peak Kawhi.
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 22, 2019
Initially, Nurse didn’t seem to be the first option to replace Casey. Internally, there was Jerry Stackhouse. Externally, names such as Mike Budenholzer, David Blatt and the Van Gundy brothers popped up. But Nurse got the nod, which didn’t feel much like change. It felt like more of the same, giving all the responsibility to the guy who had been sitting right next to Casey since 2013, very much part of all those previous disappointments.
Slightly less than 12 months later, however, we know a lot more. Or at least, we understand a great deal more about this basketball team and how it has changed.
A team with two main offensive threats, Lowry and DeRozan, now has two other main offensive threats in Leonard and Pascal Siakam. Did Ujiri believe he was going to trade DeRozan when he fired Casey? Maybe. Did he believe Siakam would jump to 17 points a night from a shade over seven points per night? Possibly.
Jonas Valanciunas later moved on in a deal that saw Marc Gasol come to Toronto, and it seems more far-fetched that Ujiri and Bobby Webster had that cooking last May. But clearly the plan wasn’t to hang it all on Casey. The plan was to aggressively alter the team in a variety of ways, including coaching.
Nurse hasn’t stumbled in his first chance at a head coaching job, and many assistants making the jump to head man often do. While you could argue he had lots of talent on his bench, this was a team that rarely seemed to have the same group going in back-to-back games. Much of the year the surprise was when Leonard was playing, not when he wasn’t. From Patrick McCaw to Malcolm Miller, from Jodie Meeks to Jeremy Lin, from Chris Boucher to Greg Monroe and Lorenzo Brown, you just never knew who might pop up in Nurse’s lineup and get important minutes. Or even start.
Nurse never complained about the missing bodies or what seemed to be an overprotective training staff. Just played with who was available. And kept winning.
Casey might have done the same with this new group. Maybe he deserved the chance. But what we do know is that all of Ujiri’s changes collectively created a new dynamic. You could see it all season in the way Siakam blossomed, in the fundamental role that Danny Green filled, in the way Gasol altered the rhythm of the offence when he arrived.
After a tight loss to the Magic on opening night of the post-season, rather than getting here-we-go-again jittery, the Raps roared to three straight triumphs in very confident style. There were enough players who hadn’t been with this team to accumulate the psychological scars of playoff disappointments past to support those who had been part of those stumbles and had those scars.
OG Anunoby is progressing in recovery from his appendectomy. He was at the Raptors facility today and Nurse said he looks good. "He was smiling and happy and moving around, which is a heck of a lot better than the last time I saw him at the hospital." No timetable for return.
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 22, 2019
The most impressive aspect of Leonard’s hike in volume so far through four games is that he’s done it without sacrificing any of his trademark efficiency. Not only is he third in postseason scoring, he’s doing it while flirting with 50-40-90 shooting splits despite the Game 3 clunker in which he shot 5-19.
The list of players to keep up that level of scoring with that type of efficiency is a small one, a who’s who of MVP and Finals MVP caliber players. When you start looking at who has done it for an extended postseason run with a relatively large amount of 3-point attempts, the only two players who can truly rival the type of run Leonard is in the early stages of are Durant and LeBron James, not only two of Leonard’s contemporaries at his position, but two of the greatest scorers in league history.
Though he’s taking it to another level right now, Leonard’s mix of high volume and high efficiency is nothing new. This could be his third postseason scoring over 20 points per game with 50-40 shooting splits, a feat matched only by Reggie Miller and LeBron James. Remove the volume scoring from the equation to take into account Leonard’s early years in San Antonio as a productive role player and this could be his fifth postseason shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc which would be the most such postseasons by any player in NBA history.
Simply put: he always shows up to the point where you can statistically make the case for Leonard as the most consistent postseason finisher – regardless of role – in NBA history.
But let’s not get entirely carried away.
They’re four games into a run against a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs in seven years.
The Raptors didn’t trade for Leonard to watch him go off in the 1st Round against the Orlando Magic and walk away satisfied. This is a team with much higher aspirations and one that won’t truly be judged until things get more difficult.
But you have to start somewhere.
"Kawhi Leonard reminds me of Michael Jordan."
— Get Up (@GetUpESPN) April 22, 2019
It took the Raptors six games to finish off the Washington Wizards last year and the Milwaukee Bucks in 2017. It took them seven to beat the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat in 2016.
“This team, let’s see if they can start their own history tomorrow,” Nurse said. “I’m not trying to be rude in any way, I just want this team to form its identity. What’s happened in the past has no bearing or relevance to what’s happening now, to me. I like to steal [Chicago Cubs manager] Joe Maddon’s line and say ‘we don’t vibrate on those frequencies of the past.’ ”
One of the new Raptors, Danny Green, wasn’t part of those series, but worries about a different challenge.
“The hardest part mentally is not getting too fat and happy or too satisfied because we are up 3-1 and feeling comfortable and being lackadaisical,” Green said. “We still want to have that same sense of urgency we had in Game 2 because we were down 0-1. That is the key. Just keep the mentality: that the job is not done.”
The Raptors no doubt want to keep pace with the other powers in the East, who are moving swiftly through the first round. The No. 4-seeded Boston Celtics already swept the No. 5 Indiana Pacers out of the postseason on Sunday, and the top-seeded Bucks are calmly taking apart the No. 8 Detroit Pistons.
The Raptors have shown a sharp increase in their intensity the past three games – especially on defence. And the chemistry is increasing between starters who didn’t get a lot of time together during the regular season because of injuries and roster changes.
“In Games 2, 3 and 4, we’ve gone out there and really guarded,” Nurse said. “That is who we are, are becoming, need to become, need to be each and every minute of each and every game.”
Although both the Raps and Sixers appear poised to close out, anything in happen in either of their series. The 76ers-Nets series early on looked like it could be a possible upset by Brooklyn. It has also featured some spicy talk between Nets agitator Jared Dudley and Sixers stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The Magic stunned the Raptors at home in Game 1, and yearn to keep alive their first playoff appearance since 2012.