After a disappointing loss to the Dallas Mavericks, the Toronto Raptors dusted themselves off and thoroughly handled the underwhelming (but somewhat likeable) Charlotte Hornets. It was an example of the Raptors and Gasol finally making good on his offensive potential, and showing that his offensive utility exists outside of being a 5-out center. Coming into a game where the Raptors will have to contend with freshly crowned Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Nikola Vucevic, an uptick in Gasol’s production is especially meaningful. Add to that a huge game from OG Anunoby, and some pull-up artistry that we hope sticks around, the Raptors look primed to beat a Magic team that might not have the uber-impressive Jonathan Isaac in tow.
To tee up this game I reached out to a friend, and a very smart Magic fan (with some Raptors allegiances as well). I had her on the podcast during last year’s playoffs, Anna Jane Smith.
Samson Folk: What is the biggest stylistic change in the offense between Fultz and Augustin? Which is Toronto better equipped to defend?
Anna Jane Smith: When DJ moved to the bench I thought it was a bad sign. He had struggled to open the season (along with everyone else) but Fultz was (and still does) look pretty green to be starting at point on a playoff team. But it was an absolutely necessary move. DJ provides shooting – he takes 32% of hit shots from 3, and that will likely continue to go up. Teams rightly respect his shot even though he was ice cold to start the season (along with everyone else). Fultz takes only 25% of his shots from 3 and that is unlikely to go up much for awhile. Fultz is stylistically much more like Ben Simmons. He’s not the passer Simmons is but he’s, ah, at least a somewhat better shooter. The starters have enough firepower and spacing for Fultz’ driving game and athleticism to pay out, whereas the bench desperately needs DJ’s creation and off-the-dribble 3s; the bench stabilized a lot once he moved there. Who can Toronto defend better? I have no idea but I’m pretty curious to see what the starters with Fultz look like against their nemesis, the Raptors.
Samson: ‘Vooch’ had a tough opening game with the Raptors this year. He has been applying a lot of pressure on the offensive glass recently, though (and also won the Eastern Conference Player of the Week). Is this the first game where we’ll see Vucevic ditch the notion that Gasol has him handled?
Anna: Probably not, but it’s not really the primary issue. Vooch has been on balance good so far and he’s still the straw that stirs his team’s drink. They’re 15 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor this season. (Even in his latest struggle-fest against the Raptors he was only a -6 despite facing the highest opponent 3% rating.) But he is definitely a player who struggles with pressure, and while there are signs he is learning to adapt to “star treatment”, the more important question for the Magic, now and for the season, is: if the Raptors (or whoever) shut Vucevic down, can the rest of the starting lineup compensate? On that issue, we’ve seen some positive signs but so far only against second-rate teams like the Spurs (against whom Vooch shot 4-16 but was a +18 with four assists). I think a team can be a serious noise-maker, a contender even, with Vucevic as the best player and offensive fulcrum. But it can’t be to the extreme it was last year for the Magic, there have to be good outlets to relieve the pressure. That’s what they’re working on. My hope for this coming game is that the Magic starters can hang, or play to even, with the Raptors starters regardless of Vooch’s individual performance. (I can’t see the Magic bench hanging with the Raptors bench even if Isaac is back, unfortunately for them, unless TRoss finally goes nuclear and gets his revenge game.)
Samson: The loveable Khem Birch is stapled to bench in Orlando. This is obviously done with Bamba’s development in mind, but do you think that’s the right idea?
Anna: Sadly, yes. Birch was a major reason the Magic made the playoffs last season as the addition of he (and Isaiah Briscoe and later MCW) to the bench lineup turned them into a functional unit who didn’t cough up leads or dig massive holes the starters had to climb out of. It should be noted Birch has been terrible in his two games this season, part of a trend of World Cup returnees. I’m sure he’d stabilize with more minutes. But the Magic need to develop Bamba. Bamba looks ok for a second year big who missed much of his rookie season and is much, much better than he was last year. With the right personnel around him he can be an issue on defense. I like him pretty well, but it’s a truism that bigs take forever and unless he is a major detriment to the team’s chances he needs those minutes (of which there are not many to start with since Clifford wants Vooch out there as much as possible). Clifford has said he is wants to find minutes for Birch where he can, but right now that’s just on SEGABABAs.
Samson: Aminu has certainly struggled offensively to start the year. How do you feel about that signing, and what would have to start happening to make it look good?
Anna: I have done a fair amount of complaining on twitter about Aminu’s delight in isolating on offense and dribbling into turnovers, as well as his sad-trombone three point shot. With the offense as miserable as it was to start the season, Aminu did not look like a great signing on a team with limited cap flexibility and absolutely starved for effective creation. That said, since Isaac went down the Chief has demonstrated his value. Playing with the starters he has been operating as a cutter and ball-mover and deferring more to the better offensive players around him. He has replaced much of Isaac’s frightening defense and pairs really well defensively with Vucevic. Also, notably, the bench has gone back to being a tire fire in his absence. Bamba (the “benchiest” player) was among the team leaders in net rating before Aminu joined the starting unit. Since then he has gone -20 in two games and the Aminu starters have had to claw their way back to overcome the bench deficits. That’s not all the Chief’s absence – MCW has also been limited by fouls and then a (hopefully minor) injury. But a lot of it is. So, let’s just say I now get the logic and if Fultz and DJ can carry creation duties effectively for their respective units, it will look like a good signing. That’s a big “if” though.
Samson: How has Isaac done on the road to MIP so far?
Anna: Isaac is a stud and I expect he and Vucevic will fight for top Magic spot on the composite impact metrics all season long. His terrifying, monster defense is not all that surprising given his sophomore season, but he has made major offensive strides as well. When the Magic were rolling through February of last year, Isaac was hitting corner 3s at a nice clip but this year his midrange and floater game is also working to the tune of an 8 ppt jump in TS% so far this season. The general lack of creation has limited his shot attempts a bit relative to the ideal but I expect his usage will continue to increase over the season. The only issue is those ankles. Isaac is a very large man and gained weight in the off season. Spraining an ankle at a team event while interacting with fans around a hoop with his shoes untied is … not great. The team is going to have to monitor that closely.
Tipoff: 7:40pm EST | TV: TSN | Radio: TSN1050
Kyle Lowry (thumb) will be re-evaluated in the next week or so, Serge Ibaka (sprained ankle) is out, and Patrick McCaw (knee surgery) will be re-evaluated at the start of December.
PG: Fred VanVleet, Terence Davis II
SG: Norman Powell, Matt Thomas
SF: OG Anunoby, Malcolm Miller, Stanley Johnson
PF: Pascal Siakam, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
C: Marc Gasol, Chris Boucher, Dewan Hernandez
Jonathan Isaac (ankle) is a game time decision after practicing Tuesday , Michael Carter-Williams (strained hip) is ruled out.
PG: Markelle Fultz, DJ Augustin
SG: Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Melvin Frazier
SF: Aaron Gordon, Wesley Iwundu
PF: Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu
C: Nikola Vucevic, Mo Bamba, Khem Birch
Enjoy the game, cheer for the Raptors (and Fultz) and – have a blessed day.