During the Raptors championship run you would sometimes have to take a step back and say: “Wow, these guys can really play defense.” And honestly I don’t think that quality has left the team whatsoever. Granted, the Magic are not a juggernaut offensively, but that doesn’t mean the Raptors extended runs of lockdown defense aren’t impressive. Those runs are what won the game for the Raptors. Well, that and a brilliant Kyle Lowry game, mixed with OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam’s continued excellence.
As someone who didn’t have an opportunity to be a part of the lockdown defensive units, Anunoby has vaulted himself into a position of great importance in the Raptors version of it this year. That was no different vs. the Magic, as he quietly removed Aaron Gordon from the Magic’s offensive gameplan – he shot 1-for-6 for the game – as did Marc Gasol with Nikola Vucevic – 1-for-13.
From the outset, the Magic tried to get Gordon and Vucevic going in the pick n’ roll. Little did they know that Anunoby and Gasol would shut that down every time. Gasol shading Gordon to his weak hand, Anunoby trailing, pushing him further into Gasol’s vicinity; constantly walking the line, close enough to contest a shot and at the same time protecting against the pocket pass.
On the other side of the floor the Raptors came out on fire. Anunoby, Lowry, and Siakam were hitting triples. Not only that, but the latter two were also getting to the rim with relative ease. They paced the Raptors offense in the first quarter, jumping out to a 14-point lead that wasn’t relinquished until the late minutes of the fourth.
The Magic bench did a lot of the heavy lifting in this one, though. The lead that the Raptors starters built up was slowly whittled away by Markelle Fultz & co. with the Raptors bench offering little to no shot-making. We saw Patrick McCaw minutes in this game, and he was active above the break on defense, getting deflections and a steal. McCaw actually managed to outplay Norman Powell in this one, as the Raptors patiently wait for #24 to revive his jump-shot and inject some life into bench units.
While neither Fultz or VanVleet had a terrific game themselves, both remained in the teams closing lineups. It’s cool to see these two players in this position. Both players were considered not worthy of the league at some point, and that’s not to say that Fultz has come as far as VanVleet or is as good as VanVleet. Fultz had much different difficulties, and has significantly different tools in his toolbox. Regardless, these two players boast very unique journeys to where they are today, relative to the rest of the league. I’m just happy both of them are on an upward trajectory.
This game generally followed the pattern of the bench units and starter units overlap. The Magic squeezed in runs as best they could, powered by their stout defense. The Raptors followed what has been the formula this year: Siakam showcases brilliant standalone offense, Lowry controls the pace and hits massive triples, Anunoby provides stellar defense and fills the lane on offense (+ some triples). The contributions from Gasol and Ibaka defensively bookend what the other players managed to do quite nicely.
Steve Clifford was clearly disappointed with the results of the Vucevic led lineups and eventually swung the Magic back into the game with Jonathan Isaac at center. Isaac to that point in the fourth quarter had been phenomenal, defending the rim, stepping out on shooters, hitting his own shots on the other end. He looked every bit the player that many are proclaiming to be the next MIP winner.
When the Magic went to Isaac at center the Raptors offense dried up like raisin in the sun. The VanVleet led offense was unable to create anything meaningful against that length, and the end of the game was left in the hands of Lowry and Siakam, who did not disappoint. There was a moment, a Terrence Ross triple, that snatched the lead away from the Raptors late. But Lowry took on the bulk of the ball-handling down the stretch, forced the issue, and plunged himself into the heart of the Magic defense with reckless abandon. He was rewarded with free throws and a contorted defense that he had set in motion.
On a night when the 3-pointers dried up and the offense was hard to come by, Lowry refused to let jump-shots dictate the outcome. Siakam ran into foul trouble at the end, but buckled down and finished the game out, like a superstar would. Even when the Magic took the lead at the end it didn’t seem like the end of the world. The Raptors carried on with their championship swagger and closed it out with little to no anxiety.
The Raptors host the Pistons on Wednesday night in what should be Nick Nurse’s first victory over Dwane Casey. Let’s get it.
Have a blessed day.