4-1; Raptors handle business against Magic…find joy
Four – Terminator: Kawhi Leonard wasn’t messing around whatsoever as he finished the night with 27 points on 8-of-11 shooting. Leonard was perfect from deep, perfect from the free-throw line, and capped his night with a one-handed dunk that put the Raptors up 30. As he said during a timeout in Game 2, this series was “too easy” for Leonard, and he checked out in the fourth quarter to a massive ovation and chants of “MVP” from the home faithful.
Were there any doubt that the Raptors would take care of business, eschewing any of the tongue-in-cheek expectation of a needlessly extended series and another trip to Orlando to wear themselves out, it was extinguished early. In their earlier wins, the Raptors set the tone with lockdown defence that held the Magic scoreless for several minutes. Nick Nurse challenged his team to match that energy in Game 5. He didn’t come out and say the intention was to break the Magic early and put the final game to rest, but it’s not hard to imagine Nurse’s pre-game address having simply been a replay of the first four minutes from Game 2.
The defence played to form early. The Magic once again went more than three minutes without a field goal to start the game, hanging with a single point on a defensive three-second violation technical for a long stretch. By the time they hit an actual basket, the Raptors were ahead 12-1. Kyle Lowry alone had scored nine points, carving up a failed Magic attempt to make the Raptors uncomfortable with a zone defence. Considering how much Lowry has loved playing against his hometown Philadelphia 76ers in the past, his play gave the impression he was ready to get on to the second round already.
“No. It was just about winning the game,” Lowry said when asked if he was looking to send a message early.
Whatever the intent, Lowry’s early outburst gave the Raptors firm control, which they wouldn’t relinquish. Their lead was 18-3 midway through the first, Nikola Vucevic picked up a third early foul and frustration was evident as Terrence Ross picked up a technical foul. The Raptors then pushed the gap to 28-7.
“I think our focus was to try to get out and put a stamp on the game from the defensive end and I think we did that,” Nurse said. “I think that was a good sign that we were ready to go. We were serious, we knew how hard we had to play against this team and obviously got off to a fantastic start.”
There was little turning back from there. The Magic only managed faint, exhausted counterpunches until the game was decided. (There was, of course, a 16-point swing at the end with the benches emptied that surely gave Raptors 905 flashbacks of their multiple, crucial late-season losses to the Lakeland Magic. I’ll spare you the refresher.) On the way to the 115-96 victory, the Raptors set a franchise record for assists in a playoff game (34), Leonard put up an almost perfect line (a true-shooting percentage of 99 with 27 points on 16 used possessions and a plus-38 mark in 32 minutes), Lowry eased off the scoring to get others going and Pascal Siakam capped his excellent series with another 24-point outing.
The final game in this series brought Lowry full circle in at least one way. Five years ago, the Raptors were wondering how they would respond in a virtually no-win situation, down 0-3 in a series. This time around, the Magic were facing their end, with the Raptors having proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were the superior team.
“We can do one of two things,” Magic coach Steve Clifford told reporters in Orlando on Monday, including The Athletic’s Joshua Robbins. “We can either do the proverbial,‘We’re down 3-1, we have to win two in Toronto, they’re really good’ and say, ‘We’re going to fight no matter what’ — and then if we get down 10, stop fighting. Or we can really fight.”
The Magic did neither of those things. The Raptors’ talent advantage was so staggering that all the Magic could do was put up quick bursts of resistance. When those did not work, they got really frustrated. Nikola Vucevic picked up three fouls in the first six minutes — Clifford had little choice but to ride his star, who had an abysmal series — and the Magic emotionally unravelled after that. Terrence Ross slammed the ball to pick up a technical foul, Khem Birch got one for arguing an over-the-back foul, and Aaron Gordon got dinged for an offensive foul after he tried to unsuccessfully back down Lowry in the post for the fifth or sixth time in the series, without success.
So often, it was Lowry making those backbreaking plays, even after his scoring dried up. Two of the three charges he drew came as the Raptors scored 22 of the game’s first 25 points. He set up Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, who had 27 and 24 points, respectively, for each of their first 3-pointers of the game, and the pair wound up combining for eight from deep. He popped the middle finger out of place guarding Evan Fournier late in the second quarter and, assuming Lowry is not myth-making, popped it back into place so he could start the second half. The Raptors held serve for the nine minutes he had to play in the third quarter, which started with him assisting on two more Leonard 3-pointers, and that was that.
Fittingly it was Kyle Lowry at centre stage. The one Raptor with five years of accumulated playoff frustrations and disappointments, who knew first-hand what happens when opportunities get squandered and series extended, brought the hammer. The team leader who was scoreless in a Game 1 loss personally led the Magic 9-1 before the game was three minutes old. The Raptors never looked back – they led 31-7 at one point in the first quarter and by as much as 37 in the fourth – and now can look ahead at opportunities that only come around every 25 years or so.
Lowry knows what time it is.
“I just think what I see in him is, I think that he’s certainly got a lot of years left of good basketball,” said Magic head coach Steve Clifford. “But what I see in him is, I think he’s looking around and saying this is best team he’s played on, this is the best chance they’ve had [to win a championship], and he’s always been a winning player anyway, but I mean, I think he now knows this is his best chance so far, and he’s playing at a really high level.”
Their Game 1 stumble aside it was evident the Raptors were the better team; they held Orlando to 38.8 per cent shooting for the series and forced them into 15.6 turnovers a game. The question was whether the Raptors would take note of the way their competition in the East was taking care of business – the other first-round series lasted only four or five games – and follow suit.
In Game 5 the adults in the room were heard. There would be no fiddling with phones; no one late to work.
“I think our focus was to try to get out and put a stamp on the game from the defensive end and I think we did that,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I think that was a good sign that we were ready to go. We were serious, we knew how hard we had to play against this team and obviously got off to a fantastic start.”
It took the Magic nearly four minutes to score their first field goal and another three minutes to score their second. Meanwhile Lowry was stealing the ball off the Magic’s Khem Birch – the Montreal-native got an extra dose of minutes after Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic picked up three fouls in the game’s first six minutes – at one end, hustling it up the floor, pitching it inside to Pascal Siakam and then relocating to the corner for a wide-open three.
But everyone was in on the Raptors surge.
Leonard’s All-Star partner Kyle Lowry finished up a night’s work with 14 points (on 6-of-10 shooting), to go with nine assists and four rebounds, while in the process of making plays like the one above. Despite those brief minutes missed with an apparent hand injury (which he says will be fine), Lowry still did what he usually does in dictating most everything for the Raptors. That he also managed to take a few charges on the night, frustrating a plethora of Magic players in the process, was just the capper on a superlative series. Apparently Lowry’s Game 1 performance really was all about missing a few shots. Who knew?
The rest of the Raptors’ starters, a unit that has turned itself into quite a terror, filled in the gaps around that pair nicely. Pascal Siakam finished with a loud 24 points (on 8-of-16 shooting) with six rebounds, and four assists. Early in the first quarter he flipped a no-look pass over his head to Marc Gasol for the floater, and it really did send the message loud and clear: the Raptors were taking over. Gasol, meanwhile, returned the compliment by, well, being complementary. The big Spaniard had nine points and nine rebounds, with two assists, while completely shutting down Vucevic and controlling the paint. And out on the perimeter, it was a bout of light work for Danny Green, who chipped in with six points and his usual steady play.
But let’s not leave the Raptors’ bench out here! They too got in on the action, led by Fred VanVleet’s seven points and 11 assists, in what certainly felt like a nice bounce back game for Toronto’s leader of the reserves. His partner in the backcourt, Norman Powell, put together another run of “Playoff Norm” play for 11 points; and the Raptors’ wild card Serge Ibaka — remember when he fell apart last post-season? — continued to be a solid presence with 10 points, four rebounds, and a pair of steals. As coach Nick Nurse implied before the game, it’s a good thing when the Raptors can count on those three guys to get the job done.
Naturally, there was a lot of garbage time in this one, with everyone on Toronto’s roster right on down to recent addition Eric Moreland getting minutes. It was all ugly for the last half of the fourth quarter, but that didn’t matter at all. When Toronto gets to watch Jodie Meeks complete a back-cut lay-up, or see the lightly used Jeremy Lin hit a shot, it’s all gravy. Who would have thought, after the Game 1 loss we went through just last week, after all those stressful series throughout Raptors history, that we’d be here?
Now more than ever, allow me to repeat: we made it. And we’re not done yet. On to Philly.
Coming into the first round, one of the main talking points was how the Raptors would contain Vucevic. The dynamic, floor-stretching centre wasn’t only an all-star, he was borderline all-NBA, averaging 20.8 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists per night during the regular season. Plus, he’d torched the Raptors two of the four times he played them this season. Vucevic’s 30-point, 19-rebound, plus-33 night against the Raptors in December was his strongest performance all year.
Of course, this is why the Raptors acquired Gasol. Jonas Valanciunas is a fine rim protector, but he simply doesn’t possess the same flexibility and instincts as Gasol does defensively. And it showed quickly, as Gasol thrived serving as Toronto’s go-to defender on Vucevic. Through the first four games of the series, Gasol held Vucevic to 34.5 per cent shooting — only 20 per cent from range — when serving as Vucevic’s primary defender on a possession. He forced the Magic centre into 11 turnovers and three offensive fouls.
And those numbers will only look worse for Vucevic once NBA.com updates its matchup data in the morning. Only 5:24 into the game, Gasol had already forced Vucevic into going 0-of-4 from the field while turning the ball over three times and committing three fouls. Magic head coach Steve Clifford pulled him at that moment, and Vucevic didn’t see the floor again until the second half. He finished minus-25 with only six points on 3-of-10 shooting.
“He’s big. He’s smart defensively. He knows how to use his body. He slaps the ball down a lot. He’s really good at that. He gave me trouble all series long. I wasn’t really able to get in a rhythm, get going,” Vucevic said of Gasol after all was said and done. “He’s a great player. I’ve played him a lot of times over the years, and it’s never been easy. He certainly made it tough for me again this series.”
Now, Gasol has to carry that physicality over into his matchup with Embiid. Gasol played Philadelphia only twice this season, both of them coming in 2018 when he was still a Memphis Grizzly. But he did an excellent job on Embiid in both games, holding the 76ers centre to 33.3-per cent shooting and 22.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than his season average.
Meanwhile, Gasol forced Embiid into seven turnovers and three offensive fouls over the 108 possessions he guarded him. Embiid missed all six three-pointers he attempted with Gasol on him. In a regular season full of phenomenal performances, Embiid’s two games against Memphis were among his worst.
While Serge Ibaka also did fine work against Vucevic, it was Gasol leading the charge with nightly defensive clinics befitting a former defensive player of the year award winner. Vucevic had no space to operate. He bricked shots or turned the ball over and the league’s weakest offensive playoff outfit was completely lost.
“What Marc Gasol has brought to me – I think they were Top 10 in 3-point shooting before the trade and now they’re first. The difference is simple: It’s spacing,” said Magic coach Steve Clifford.
“They’re five-out (on the floor, with everyone being able to shoot at a high level). It was a big problem the other night. We gave up more drive-and-kick 3s the other night than we have all year. Why? He’s out. They have five guys outside of the 3. It’s like playing Milwaukee, except the difference with him is like us with Vuc. There are only three or four guys that can shoot 3s and throw penetrating passes. So he is a playmaker playing outside the three, so you can’t guard penetration,” Clifford said.
Clifford said there might be five big men in the NBA able to throw the passes Gasol can find cutters with, while also being dangerous from beyond the arc.
And that isn’t even getting into what he can do at the other end of the floor.
Gasol lauded Toronto’s physicality against Vucevic and said he believes it’s the first time he’s been on a team that double-teams a big. “That was new for me. On the cuts. So, I’m sure that he didn’t like that as much. We took it off afterwards. But it gets you off your rhythm,” Gasol said.
“He’s a great player. You try to make it as tough as possible on every possession, and make him earn every shot that he takes.” Norman Powell, who had a strong series off of the bench for Toronto, said the big men all did their jobs on Vucevic.
“It was a key point of the series, making it difficult for him, making it tough for him,” Powell said.
Kawhi Leonard spoke to Kate Beirness after Toronto’s series clinching win over the Magic explaining how he felt about the series and about changing the narrative of Raptors’ playoff history.
The Raptors advanced to the second round in convincing fashion, blowing out the Magic in Game 5 behind a strong defensive performance by the whole team and exceptional offensive performances from their star players. Josh Lewenberg joins Kate Bierness to discuss the win and how the Raptors match up against the Sixers who they will meet in the next round.
It had all the hallmarks of the Cavs beatdowns in this arena: The Magic were tight off the tip, turning the ball over and missing shots on possession after possession. Toronto went up 14-3, with Kyle Lowry scoring a dozen quick points, and Orlando coach Steve Clifford called a timeout to apply gauze to the gushing wound. The Raptors promptly reeled off a 14-4 run, and at 28-7 the team’s logistics department probably started cancelling hotel and plane reservations for a possible Game 6 a lot sooner than it had envisioned.
After Orlando stole a win in Game 1 with some final-minute heroics from D.J. Augustin, the Raptors overwhelmed the Magic for the rest of the series, registering three blowout victories and a close win in Game 3 when Kawhi Leonard was fighting an illness that kept him out of practice for two days.
It was, in other words, exactly the kind of comprehensive series win that tends to happen when a strong two-seed meets a weak seven-seed in the NBA playoffs. Except it was also exactly the kind of comprehensive series win that the Toronto Raptors had never previously managed in their 24 seasons.
When the front office of Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster turned the page on the era of Raptors basketball that was reliably good enough to perform well in the regular season but could only stagger through the early rounds of the playoff before getting demolished by Cleveland, it seemed like they had put together a roster that could be more dangerous in the second season. They had Leonard, a far more complete scorer than DeMar DeRozan, the man he unceremoniously replaced. They had Danny Green and, eventually, Marc Gasol, defensively sound veterans who gave added protection to the Raptors’ traditionally soft playoff underbelly.
And, they cruised through a 58-win regular season, finishing just behind in the Milwaukee Bucks in a top-heavy East after a campaign in which rookie head coach Nick Nurse told anyone who would listen that they weren’t really worrying about win totals or playoff seeding. They gave Leonard close to a quarter of the season off as he rested a wonky quad, they played with a full lineup for only a handful of games, and when the playoffs began it was unclear what, exactly, the Raptors had. This looked different, and it felt different, and the available evidence suggested it would be different.
And now, they have proved that it is different. They pounded a weaker team into dust. It was a first.
The caveats for what the Raptors have accomplished with this series are many. As much as the Magic looked like they might be a frisky playoff opponent, one that had a 21-9 record after the end of January and one of the NBA’s stingiest defences, Toronto matched them on defense and was far more potent on the offensive end. It was a mismatch, one that Clifford did not try particularly hard to dispute as the series wore on.
However, he is primed to change that narrative this year, as his performance during the first round suggests.
Not only did he come out as the tone-setter in Tuesday’s elimination contest, he bounced back from his Game 1 debacle with 22 points in Game 2. It was an important sign he can quickly put poor showings behind him, which will critical against better competition in later rounds.
There is also less pressure on Lowry this season than in the past because of Toronto’s roster construction.
He can play the role of facilitator with Leonard, who is perhaps the best two-way player in the league, and Siakam, who will likely be named the NBA’s Most Improved Player this season. Those two are not only capable of carrying the offense for an entire series but can also defend the opponent’s best players and allow Lowry to preserve some of his energy for offense.
In the past, the Raptors typically needed impressive outings from Lowry and DeRozan to advance.
Motivation also won’t be an issue for Lowry in the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s from the City of Brotherly Love and will have the opportunity to prove his mettle against Ben Simmons in a high-profile point guard showdown.
A motivated Lowry who is no longer playing under the pressure that comes with being the team’s primary playmaker will continue to thrive with talent around him. He can fall back on the talented Leonard and Siakam, as well as playoff-tested veterans in Danny Green, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, when needed.
The result will be a deep playoff run and potential appearance in the NBA Finals, which will help Lowry change the postseason-choker narrative that has haunted him throughout much of his career.
That Game 1 loss could have been the start of what looked like it might be another stressful, grind-it-out series. Instead, it was a turning point. Toronto went on to win four straight, two of them wire-to-wire.
“It kind of just woke us up a bit,” Fred VanVleet said of the Game 1 loss. “There’s a million things we could have done better to win that game. Those guys played good, we didn’t. We just made a few small adjustments but we just kind of ramped it up again a little bit. You never want to take it up again and do that, but I think that kind of woke us up for the rest of the playoffs to understand what we have to go out there and do.”
With the exception of a bout of the flu in Game 3, Kawhi Leonard was brilliant. He ended Magic runs, made crucial plays on both ends of the court, and controlled games. He was every bit as good as they hoped he would be after spending most of the season managing his workload with this time of the year in mind.
Kyle Lowry did just about everything he could to silence his critics following a scoreless Game 1. He would go on to shoot 15-for-31 over the rest of the series, including 6-for-15 from three-point range, and his impact extended well beyond the standard box score, as per usual. The Raptors outscored Orlando by 106 points with him on the floor – the best mark on the team – and were outscored by 34 points with him off it. His net rating (30.1) is the highest among NBA players that are averaging at least 30 minutes per game this postseason.
Leading the team in minutes played, Pascal Siakam passed his first big test as a featured player, and then some. He averaged 22.6 points on 53 per cent shooting, despite being held to just 8.8 points on 34 per cent shooting against Jonathan Isaac and Orlando during the regular season.
Marc Gasol showed why Toronto acquired him from Memphis at the trade deadline, neutralizing Magic all-star centre Nikola Vucevic. Overall, the Raptors starters were plus-84 in 96 minutes for the series.
However, the real story is the Raptors defence, which was solid in Game 1 despite some crucial late-game miscues, but reached another level from there. Toronto held the Magic under 100 points in each of the next four games and under 40 per cent shooting in three of them. Their defence, which was occasionally great during the regular season, became their calling card.
“I think we kind of figured it out and made a good adjustment after Game 1,” Lowry said. “We were a little bit too soft in coverages, but we figured it out really quickly, and how we needed to help each other, and how we needed to play. We figured it out quick, which is a really good thing for us. We just needed to build off of it.”
“For some reason we weren’t quite ready to go, I just didn’t have ‘em ready to go for Game 1,” Nurse said. “But in Game 2 I think we came out with a defensive effort sustained over the course of the game that we haven’t seen from this team. And I think the feeling after that game was if we play defence like that we should be able to control this series, each game, and I think that’s pretty much what we did.”
Leonard is joined near the top of the leaderboard by his now longtime teammate Danny Green, who was traded with him in the blockbuster move from the Spurs to Toronto last offseason.
The two have outscored opponents by 20.7 points per 100 possessions during the postseason when on the court together. They had an impressive two-man net rating (13.2) recorded during the regular season as well. That mark is also consistent with previous campaigns like the 2014-15 season (14.8), 2013-14 season (14.4), 2015-16 season (12.7) and the 2012-13 season (11.7).
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) April 24, 2019
"He was amazing in this series…He was maybe as good as I've ever seen him." – Nick Nurse on Kyle Lowry
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) April 24, 2019
Matchups to watch
Simmons vs. a relentless defense: The Celtics essentially played the reigning Rookie of the Year off the court in last year’s conference semifinals by planting long-armed defenders at the free-throw line. Brooklyn doesn’t have the same array of defenders as Boston, but Toronto does — and has a handful of wings capable of hounding him further from the basket. The Raptors mostly threw Leonard at Simmons during the regular season, but Anunoby, Siakam and Green also switched onto him. Even Lowry and Ibaka got their shot, and all had varying degrees of success against Simmons — no one more so than Leonard, who held Simmons to 17 points on 15 shots and nine turnovers against 10 assists over 115 possessions.
Embiid vs. Gasol: There are few players better equipped to defend Embiid than Gasol, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. He is strong and smart, and has held up against the Sixers star as well as anyone. The two have not met on their current rosters, but in four games between the Sixers and Grizzlies over the past two seasons, Gasol has defended Embiid for 178 possessions, holding the game’s most dominant center to 29 points on 10-of-29 shooting (0 for 9 from 3) and forcing nine turnovers. It is game over for Philadelphia if Gasol can keep that up in this series.
Kawhi vs. everybody: In his return to the playoffs for the first time since an ankle injury derailed what seemed to be a special singular performance against the Golden State Warriors in 2017, Leonard has teetered between very good and extraordinary. He combined for 98 points on 66 percent shooting and finished a plus-95 over 70 minutes in Games 2, 4 and 5 against Orlando. He shot 40.5 percent and was a combined minus-1 in Games 1 and 3. This is his opportunity to truly reestablish himself as one of the league’s three or four biggest game-changers, and he will have to do so opposite two capable defenders in Butler and Simmons.
How Toronto can win
Leonard is the best player in the series, Gasol limits Embiid, and Toronto’s waves of capable two-way players overwhelm Philadelphia’s lack of depth. It all seems plausible, especially if Embiid’s knee continues to bother him. Another star turn from Siakam and Lowry avoiding another playoff meltdown wouldn’t hurt, either.
How Philadelphia can win
Embiid is the best player in the series, the Sixers find ways to get Simmons the ball around the rim, and the Butler/Harris combo shoots with precision. Both teams ranked in the top 10 in both 3-point percentage and defending the 3-point line, and whichever team wins that battle will have a leg up. The Sixers fell to league average shooting levels once they dealt their depth for Butler and Harris, and they cannot afford both of them going cold in this series. Redick holding his own on defense and some contribution from stretch forward Mike Scott would certainly help.
Prediction: Raptors in six.
"You know how it is. If you lose a game you're terrible, if you win a game you're a superhero." Kawhi Leonard on the Kyle Lowry narrative
— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) April 24, 2019
Even though his future was a constant topic throughout the 2018-19 season, Durant put up big numbers once again with averages of 26.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists per contest.
If the Clippers sign Leonard and a 10-time All-Star in Durant during the same offseason, it would arguably be the biggest coup for a single team in the history of free agency.
Even after parting ways with the likes of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Tobias Harris in recent years, the Clippers made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference this season at 48-34.
L.A. even managed to beat Golden State in Game 2 of their first-round playoff tilt, although the Warriors hold a 3-1 series lead.
If the Clippers add Leonard and Durant to a core that already includes Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, they have a chance to shift the balance of power in the Western Conference.
— Ky Carlin (@Ky_Carlin) April 24, 2019
The game took place at New York’s Madison Square Garden, as the Knicks (50-32) finished the regular season with a better record than the Raptors (45-37). The Raptors didn’t get off to the start they were looking for – the Knicks outscored them 27-12 in the opening quarter – but they played them close the rest of the way, eventually losing by a final score of 92-88.
Tracy McGrady led the Raptors in their comeback attempt with 25 points (9-21 FG), 10 rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block. Vince Carter, meanwhile, struggled with 16 points on 3-for-20 shooting from the field.
“Vince was just overexcited,” McGrady said afterwards. “He wasn’t relaxed. We were caught up in the hype of it being our first playoff game.”
Carter agreed, telling the media that he was “overexcited” and wasn’t his “normal self.”
For the Knicks, Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston each scored 21 points. New York also got solid outings from Larry Johnson (15 points, six rebounds) and Patrick Ewing (15 points, nine rebounds) in the frontcourt.
The Knicks would go on to win the next two games to sweep their way into the second round, where would take down the Miami Heat in seven hard-fought games. The Raptors would have to wait until the following season to win the franchise’s first-ever playoff game, doing so against the Knicks in New York.