What Matt wants, Matt gets.
This was the first time all series the Raptors managed to play a game at their pace. The most up-tempo game of the series understandably played into Toronto’s hands, as they once again forced 16 Magic turnovers and were able to turn those into some meaningful pushes the other way. For the series, the Raptors still scored much worse in transition than they normally do (1.01 points per-possession, 13th among playoff teams), and it will be interesting to see how they match up in that regard with another good transition defence in Philadelphia.
The ball movement was a much bigger story here, though, as the Raptors set a franchise record with 34 assists in a playoff game. That was good for a resounding 82.9-percent assist rate, pushing them to 64.9 percent for the series (fourth in the postseason). They were even passing up open twos for open threes.
We’ve talked a lot this year about how more passes and assists are not necessarily good in and of themselves, but these numbers do suggest less predictability and more ways to attack a defence, which is a positive.
The Raptors finish the first round tied for the league’s best postseason defence and second to the Bucks in net rating. On Tuesday, they held the Magic to 95 points per-100 possessions, and even that was inflated by some very bad garbage-time minutes.
– Lowry finishes the first round ranking first in the league in deflections (17), loose balls recovered (12) and charges drawn (seven). The Raptors outscored the Magic by 30.1 points per-100 possessions when he was on the floor and were outscored by 23.8 points per-100 possessions when he sat. His impact on this series was remarkable.
– As bad as that makes the bench seem, all eight rotation regulars finished with a positive net rating, and all but Fred VanVleet were plus-15 points per-100 possessions or better.
– Leonard became the first player to score 27 points or more on 11 field-goal attempts or fewer since Kevin Love in the first round in 2017. His true-shooting percentage for the game was 99.
Toronto put that defence on display right out of the blocks Tuesday, eviscerating any lingering hope the Magic carried, and it was the Raptors’ heart and soul, Kyle Lowry, who seemed more determined than anyone to crush their spirit. He made his first four shots, scored Toronto’s opening nine points, and before you could say gentleman’s sweep, the Raptors led 31-7.
Orlando missed all but one of its first 11 shots while turning the ball over four times, and the theme was all too similar. Nikola Vucevic desperately needs jumpers to fall in the face of Marc Gasol, and in the absence of that, there’s just been no way for him to score.
In 115 minutes with the Spaniard on the court, Vucevic scored 34 points on 12-of-33 shooting inside the arc and 1-of-10 outside it. He had 11 assists to 12 turnovers and finished the series an incredulous minus-60. He had 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists and a single turnover in 32 minutes with Gasol off.
Evan Fournier, who worked expertly on the left side of the floor with Vucevic all season long, was held to 52 points on 58 shots, including 6-for-28 shooting from three when Lowry was on the court. Go down the line of starters for the Magic and the disparity in talent becomes crystal clear.
“We can always improve, but it’s starting to click a little bit, whereas we understand what each other does and just knowing each other’s spots, and continue to help each other, especially on defence,” Siakam said after the game. “We definitely think we have good potential on defence and we’re going to continue to build on that. And just continue to be ourselves and play hard.”
The Magic were supposed to be a team that didn’t turn the ball over (sixth-best during the regular season), yet, they exit this post-season with the second-worst turnover rate. Lowry set the tone here, too, picking up three charges and a steal to complement the team’s other three steals in the first half. Seventeen giveaways Orlando had in all, fuelling the most efficient transition offence in the league to the tune of 21 points off those miscues.
“We were never able, after Game 1, to handle the ball against their defence the way we needed to,” Clifford said after the game. “To me, that was the biggest factor. But again, you gotta credit them. They played well, they got better as the series went on and we weren’t ready for that.”
Having never won four straight playoff games before, the Raptors are racing now. They’ve earned a pit stop before they look to burn more rubber again, against a Philadelphia 76ers team that finished with one of the worst turnover rates in the league during the regular season.
As good as the Raptors’ defence looked in Round 1, the obvious caveat is that the Magic – while plucky – don’t have much offensive firepower. They finished 22nd in offensive efficiency during the regular season – the worst mark of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs.
Their second-round opponents, the Philadelphia 76ers, are a more fitting test.
The Sixers ranked eighth in offence this season and are currently third in the playoffs, behind Milwaukee and Golden State and just ahead of Denver and Toronto.
The Raptors starting lineup, which was so good in Round 1, outscored Orlando by 46.3 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, in a smaller sample size because Joel Embiid’s knee injury kept him out of Game 3 and limited him the rest of the series, the Philadelphia starters outscored Brooklyn by a ridiculous 62.2 points per 100 possessions.
They’re talented and they can score.
Like the Raptors, they stumbled out of the gate, losing Game 1 at home and raising questions about their chemistry and team makeup. Could they play together? With the exception of their Game 4 win, which required a big fourth-quarter comeback, they controlled the series, also closing it out in five games on Tuesday night.
Their roster is top heavy, but depth isn’t nearly as important as star power at this time of the year. And this team definitely has star power. Both teams do.
With Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick, the Sixers feature one of the strongest starting fives in the association – two all-stars, a former all-star, a fringe and possible future all-star and an elite shooter. Still, the Raptors seem well positioned to match up with them.
Toronto won three of four regular-season meetings against Philadelphia, with its only loss coming in a game that both Leonard and Ibaka missed. While there are always things to learn from the season series, teams know to take it with a grain of salt come springtime.
“I think that we have a new group. We have a new opportunity,” Sixers coach Brett Brown told reporters, saying the record against Toronto was not flattering, but doesn’t reflect the current group.
“A really good team,” was how Philadelphia native Kyle Lowry summed up this version of the Sixers, after dispatching the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night.
“They have three total all-stars. Tobias Harris could have been a fourth at one point in his career. They’re really good. They’re talented. But for us it’s about us getting better and continuing to grow,” Lowry said.
Kawhi Leonard put the clamps on Simmons this season, but deferred to Pascal Siakam when asked about the Sixers.
“I’m gonna let Pascal answer, because I’m gonna enjoy this win tonight and not worry about the Sixers,” Leonard said while up at the podium with Siakam.
“They have a bunch of good players. I don’t know, I can’t name them all,” Siakam said. “I think, you know, it’s going to be a challenge.”
Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said Philadelphia’s size at every position would be one of the notable challenges Siakam was pointing to.
“Right off the bat, with Embiid inside, they’re big all over. They’ve got the biggest centre in the league and maybe the biggest point guard in the league in Simmons,” Nurse said.
“So it presents some matchup issues because of that. I think again we’ve got our hands full. It’s a good thing we’ve got two big defensive centres (in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, who were both masterful in shutting down Orlando all-star Nikola Vucevic).”
It’s no wonder why all the insecurities jumped out after losing Game 1. Never mind that it was clearly a fluke performance by Orlando, that was a prime opportunity to lick old wounds. This franchise just can’t take care of business, Kyle Lowry disappears in the playoffs, Nick Nurse is just a Dwane Casey clone. Panic is not so much rational as it is an identity for Raptors fans. Wallowing is all we know.
The four games that followed, which the Raptors won by a combined 74 points, elicited an entirely new feeling. Toronto reestablished its dominance in Game 2, showed its depth with Pascal Siakam stepping up for a sickly Kawhi Leonard in Game 3, Leonard recovered to destroy the Magic in Game 4, and the Raptors quickly wrapped the series in Game 5 by racing out to a 31-7 lead. The Raptors actually took care of business in the postseason for once, and it felt therapeutic.
That’s the type of performance we haven’t seen from this franchise. They were ruthless, incisive, confident, focused, and operated entirely differently from their predecessors. The stars elevated their games and the supporting cast stepped up. When they had their chance, they took it. And while advancing past the first round is such a minor thing for a supposed championship contender, crushing the Magic was a big deal for a franchise that had never dominated anyone.
Kawhi on Lowry: ‘It’s a blessing to have him on the floor’
Getting past the first round used to be like pulling teeth. The Raptors lined up on the wrong side of the floor and Lowry got blocked at the buzzer of Game 7 in 2014. They came back and got swept in 2015 as the higher seed against a 37-year-old Paul Pierce and a coach who didn’t know how to work a whiteboard.
In 2016, it took a miracle comeback by Norman Powell and Solomon Hill’s unclipped fingernail to squeak past the Pacers. After recruiting Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the deadline, the Bucks still took a 2-1 series lead before Powell again saved the franchise with an improbable contribution. And even last season, after democratizing the offense and earning the first seed, Toronto still needed six games to overcome Washington because DeMar DeRozan couldn’t resist hero ball.
To outsiders, it must seem obvious that things changed for the better. After all, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster rebuilt the entire roster, from the coaching staff to the players. Leonard and Danny Green are proven championship-caliber contributors, Marc Gasol is a Defensive Player of the Year winner, Nurse oozes with this Midwestern nonchalance, and Siakam reinvented himself as a breakout star. Former narratives should not apply because this is a different team.
From Leonard’s flu-like symptoms, which made him guardable for really the only time in the series, to a first half no-show from Serge Ibaka and then foul trouble throughout for a handful of Raptors including most importantly Marc Gasol, this was the game in which the Raptors showed the kind of grit and sandpaper they are almost definitely going to need going forward.
This wasn’t merely a series win, this was a very encouraging first step on the way to bigger things.
It was evident in the lack of celebrating this team did after the series win Tuesday night and in their comments after they laid to waste their first-round opponents.
“We’re just playing, day by day, game by game, possession by possession,” Kyle Lowy said tampering any over-enthusiasm from a first-round series win. “We’re not getting too up. We’re not getting too down. We’re just going out there and playing. That just shows the professionalism of the team. We got some great veterans, and guys that’s been through it. It’s been pretty fun to be part of a team that’s just kind of staying the course, no ups, no downs, we’re just going to ride it and play extremely hard.”
Magic head coach Steve Clifford sounded downright envious of the way the Raptors were able to build on each success with a bigger one as the series evolved. It started with Toronto’s defence but that was only the beginning.
“It’s not just their defense,” Evan Fournier said of the Raptors’ improvement. “They got better on everything. Offensively, defensively, running the ball, seeing our weaknesses and taking advantage of it. They just played better, played better that game and overall in the series.”
Game 2 and 3 were actually all about Toronto’s defensive improvements as they basically eliminated Nikola Vucevic from Orlando’s offence and then made movement of any kind in the paint for any member of the Magic virtually impossible.
But in Game 4 the three ball came back into Toronto’s arsenal as a real weapon and from there it was just a matter of seeing a few go down and the ball movement that had somehow become a forgotten part of Toronto’s game came back as well.
On this week’s episode, Vivek Jacob and Alex Wong join the show to preview the Raptors’ second-round series against the 76ers:
Can Marc Gasol handle Joel Embiid?
Can the Sixers handle Kawhi Leonard?
Who does Kawhi guard?
Tobias Harris vs. Pascal Siakam
Should the Raptors play fast or slow?
More likely to fight: Kyle Lowry vs. Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid vs. Serge Ibaka
Of course, the Raptors beat Orlando thanks to more than just Leonard’s brilliant play. Gasol was monumental in stifling the Magic’s bigs and posted the highest defensive rating in Raptors playoff history in the process (89). Lowry shook off his Game 1 dud to make a massive impact on both ends, Siakam’s continued rise put the East on notice and an engaged, swarming team defence were other key factors.
But it’s the play of Leonard that has set the tone for the Raptors so far in the playoffs, and has the team rolling into Round 2 playing the best basketball this team’s fan base has ever seen.
How much do those stellar numbers have to do with the Raptors’ opponent, a defensive-oriented, playmaker-deficient Magic team? Probably a fair deal, but watching Leonard and his teammates go to work over the past four games hardly suggests a real regression is in store for Round 2. Needless to say, it will be much harder to slow the Sixers — who boast four all-star calibre players in their starting five — than the Magic.
Regardless of what happens from here on out, the Raptors find themselves in the situation we all talked about, yet still feels hard to believe for those who have been following the franchise since Day 1: Toronto will enter the series with the best player on the floor.
So they have that going for them, which is nice.
2) Using Aikido against their elite half court defense
As mentioned, the Raptors can be highly aggressive. They forced the 9th best turnover rate in their opponents. They often move like a swarm to protect the paint and rotate like a choreographed ballet to find open shooters. They have a top four half-court defense per CTG. How do you combat this style? Like a skilled Aikido master, the Sixers would be wise to use this dinosaur aggression against their opponent:
Of course, some of the ways that the Raps will defend the Sixers will be different. For example, they don’t have hot shooting ball-handlers like Patty Mills who you will see force defenders out 35 feet to pick him up. But the Sixers, as you may know, utilize the space that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons generate with dribble hand-offs. This can cause similar actions, as defenses scramble to take away shots from shooters or slashers.
The three keys for the Sixers in using the Raps aggression against them:
1) Find ways to spring guys going downhill when the Raptors play out too far on potential shooters.
2) Make good and quick passes out of the post when they double Joel Embiid.
3) Drive into the paint knowing Toronto will sell out to help, and drive to make the pass — not to score. Sometimes it’s the first pass and sometimes it’s the second that does the trick.
With both Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid on a tear through the first round, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman debate who will be harder to contain in their second round showdown.
And what about Toronto? The Raptors could be a Finals contender this season and nosedive into the lottery in the next one. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m sure that a deep playoff run ensures a Kawhi Leonard return—I’ve written two deep profiles on Leonard for Sports Illustrated, including one this past January, and I have no real read on him—but it seems more likely than not that an early exit will make it easier for him to walk out the door.
And as Serge Ibaka told me, “no one is safe if he leaves.” The Raptors could rebuild. Kyle Lowry could get traded. Ibaka, too. The Pascal Siakam/Fred Van Vleet Era could begin in Toronto earlier than anyone thought. Raptors president Masai Ujiri could be forced to strip down the team and start over.
Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid may have only been together for a half season but there’s a ton of talent there that the Raptors will now have to contend with.
Philadelphia only needed five games to get past the Brooklyn Nets in a series that turned out far more one-sided than many thought it would.
But few saw the dominating defensive side to the Raptors that was on display in the final four games of the Orlando series and the Sixers have some figuring out to do, as well.
The Raptors got deflections and steals, and disrupted offensive sets and passing lanes with speed, quickness and intelligence.
“I think we’ve shown that a little bit in this series where we can be, where we need to get better, but the consistent defensive intensity the last four games has been impressive” guard Fred VanVleet said after Monday’s clincher. “As long as we keep that defensive-minded focus, we have enough guys to make enough plays on the offensive end.”
And maybe that’s the special thing about this team. They know they are good, they see it in film sessions, they feel it when they seize games as they are going on.
Kawhi Leonard can make three jaw-slackening defensive plays in a row. Lowry is going to stand in and take a charge and he doesn’t care who is barrelling into him. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are a one-two punch of former all-defensive team centres that can harass Embiid in any number of ways.
But the Raptors are also confident in what they’ve done, how they’ve meshed, and what more they can do.
“Yeah, there’s more to come,” VanVleet said. “We haven’t played perfect and we’re striving to be better, so there’s a lot of stuff that we can still continue to do better. We’ll look at the film this week and see how we can grow.”
That’s the theme with the Raptors: They don’t think they’ve yet peaked. But given how good they’ve been, it’s hard to imagine how much better they can get.
If they do improve, they can be scary.
5. Prioritize defense over offense
Every young baller gets told that offense wins games and defense wins championships. Throughout the season, the 76ers solidified themselves as an elite offensive team, scoring an average of 115.2 points per game, which they have increased all the way to 122.4 points per game so far in the playoffs.
It is no secret that these Philadelphia 76ers are a very young and inexperienced team. Even though their roster consists of highly talented players, they often tend to be rather careless with the basketball.
During the regular season, the Sixers averaged 14.9 turnovers per game, which was close to the bottom of the NBA. Since the playoffs began, this chaotic style of play has only gotten worse. They are turning the ball over an alarming 16.4 times per game, meaning they are extremely vulnerable in this aspect of the game.
On the other side, we have a very mature and experienced team that has proved to be an elite defensive group, often winning their games based on their hustle the defensive side of the court. In five games against the Magic, the Raptors allowed an average of 92 points per game, winning the series with ease without showing anything close to remarkable on the offensive end.
Defensive aggression creates havoc against inexperienced teams, forcing the main ball-handlers to panic and turn the ball over. By capitalizing on that, the Raptors should ensure that they get the better share of the ball.
Nick Nurse admitted that he did not have the team ready for Game 1, but the Raptors came together defensively and used that loss as motivation to sweep the Magic in the next four games. TSN’s Josh Lewenberg has more.
For the Sixers, the outcome hinges on Embiid, who was fantastic against Brooklyn but also missed one game with knee soreness. His health will be a constant storyline throughout the series.
But when he plays, he can dominate and presents considerable problems for any opponent. Embiid averaged 24.8 points and 13.5 rebounds in just 24.3 minutes.
The Sixers are judicious with Embiid’s minutes, and he didn’t need to play big minutes in blowouts. But they might have to increase his minutes against the Raptors as long as his knee can withstand it. Keep in mind Embiid has two flagrant foul points in the playoffs, and if he reaches four flagrant points, it results in a one-game suspension.
The starting five of Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris and Embiid were fantastic on the court together against the Nets, scoring 131.5 points and allowing 81.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s a great sign considering they played just 10 games together during the regular season.
Simmons might not have a jump shot, but his ability to push the ball and drive to the basket opens opportunities for himself and teammates. Butler’s ability to find his spots with Philadelphia is underrated, and Harris is an efficient scorer.
Philadelphia’s high-powered offense will have a much more difficult time scoring against Toronto’s stingy defense, and it needs to hit 3-pointers at a better percentage than it did against Brooklyn.
Marc Gasol’s Defense
The Raptors 95.8 defensive rating (tied for first with the Celtics) this playoffs has a lot to do with Marc Gasol. He is blowing up plays he has no business blowing up, swiping steals from hapless guards in the pick-and-roll, and smothering Nikola Vucevic into despair.
The play of Gasol has sealed the deal for Masai Ujiri’s deadline acquisition. Ever since Bismack Biyombo, the Raptors have lacked a centre with the defensive versatility to be factor down low and also contest up to the three point-line. Jakob Poeltl didn’t have the strength to guard bigger centres (although he is only 23), and Jonas Valanciunas didn’t have the savvy to guard up to the three-point line.
The Raptors must be happy with their 34-year-old big man organizing the defense and (somewhat humorously) averaging two steals per game versus Orlando this series — the most steals per game in any playoff series during his career. It’s not hard to see why Gasol was a former Defensive Player of the Year.