Raptors showing off ruthless, cold-blooded side

Vivek Jacob

Who are these Toronto Raptors?

When the Orlando Magic stole Game 1 at Scotiabank Arena, it was a palpable expression of identity that temporarily gave them home court. They had fought tooth and nail to sneak into the post-season, and were going to do everything in their power to stay there.

Risk-free defence and a deliberate offence had become their staples, and aided by a Raptors team without the need to play desperation basketball over the final month of the season, they pulled off the upset.

What winning that game did not do, though, was let a sleeping dog lie.

Over the past three games, the Raptors have risen from their slumber and the defence has been a sight to behold. From Marc Gasol bullying Nikola Vucevic to Danny Green shutting down D.J. Augustin and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard infiltrating passing lanes, the Raptors have become the team many envisioned.

Even before the acquisition of Gasol, the potential was mouthwatering. Leonard, Green, Siakam and OG Anunoby presented the length and strength along the wing positions that could shrink an NBA court when spacing is at its utmost premium.

Now, with Gasol and Lowry’s strategic alignment in tow and Serge Ibaka on the back end, they have become the stealers of candy from a Magic team with only 71 games of playoff experience combined in their playoff rotation coming in. The Raptors have been absolutely ruthless and even domineering in the manner in which they’ve dismissed the Magic’s offence.

“In Games 2, 3, and 4, we’ve gone out there and really guarded,” Nurse said after Sunday’s victory. “That is who we are, are becoming, need to become, need to be each and every minute of each and every game and we’ve done it pretty well, I think, three games in a row.”

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - APRIL 21: Serge Ibaka #9 of the Toronto Raptors blocks a dunk from Aaron Gordon #00 of the Orlando Magic at Amway Center on April 21, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images)
Serge Ibaka blocks a dunk from Aaron Gordon. (Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images)

In the playoffs thus far, only the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets have held their opponent to a lower effective field goal percentage (eFG% adjusts for the extra point from three-pointers), but without even a single series completed, that doesn’t tell the whole story of what the Raptors are doing on that end of the floor.

Orlando played its best basketball from Jan. 31, winning games from that point on at the rate of a 58-win team (conveniently the number of games the Raptors actually won) with the league’s third-best net rating of plus-9.0, the seventh-most efficient offence and the second-most efficient defence, per Cleaning the Glass. Four games in against the Raptors, and it seems easier to make the case that regular-season tricks are for kids.

In the playoffs, the Magic are now scoring almost 18 points per 100 possessions fewer, are allowing about eight points more, and have — at times — looked like a team tired of having its back broken despite trying to do what it seemingly did at will for almost the entire second half of the season.

Jonathan Isaac is the perfect embodiment of all that has transpired for the Magic in this series. He served in the periphery of the Game 1 win with a few key blocks and hit one of the crucial trio of three-pointers that won the Magic the game. He was anonymous in Game 2. When Toronto jumped out to a 10-0 lead in Game 3, it was Isaac who helped work the Magic back with a dunk and a pair of threes, cutting the deficit to five entering the second quarter. Siakam finished with a playoff career-high 30, Isaac only managed six more points the rest of the way, and the Magic ceded back home court.

On Sunday, after the Magic jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead, Lowry and Leonard each drew shooting fouls on the second-year pro to send him to the bench. When he checked back in to start the second quarter, he was quickly sent back with his third foul less than two minutes in. Then, the Raptors methodically took them apart.

Toronto was up by the end of the first, before dominating the second period by making it seemingly impossible for the Magic to score inside and rotating in harmony on the perimeter. The box score showed Toronto blocked six shots in all, but just as buzzer-beaters and impossible looking fadeaways have a soul-sucking, deflating effect that’s deeper than a few points, the ones the Raptors had seemed to bestow the same effect.

Aaron Gordon’s hops are well respected in Toronto after his gravity-defying acrobatics at the 2016 slam dunk competition, but Ibaka showed no regard for them, and then, instead of engaging in his customary two thumbs down celebration, recognized the job was incomplete and forced another Gordon miss from the perimeter.

The Raptors had three more blocks over the next 10 minutes: Siakam on Fournier and Leonard on Vucevic at the rim, before Gasol swatted Augustin on a three. How about that for versatility? After shooting 63 per cent at the rim over the course of their 22-9 stretch to finish the season, the Raptors have limited the Magic to just 53.5 per cent this series.

They’re being forced to put up more shots from the perimeter, but are hitting just 29.5 per cent of their non-corner threes after making 37.3 per cent over their final 31 regular season games. Orlando’s biggest discrepancy comes on shots where, per NBA.com, the closest defender is within 4-to-6 feet, shooting 5-for-35 (14.3 per cent) on three-point shots compared to 32.3 per cent during the season.

This, to an extent, can be attributed to the Raptors’ length and activity. When a team is constantly asserting the level of pressure they have for the majority of this series, even the average open shot becomes harder to make. Like the pressure of a non-negotiable deadline that must be met, Magic players are perhaps feeling the pressure of having to get a shot off before it’s “too late,” and thereby feeling the presence of a defender even when they’re not quite there yet.

Despite a halftime pep talk to recover and a strong third-quarter showing courtesy of 16 points from Gordon, Leonard took over when he needed to and kept the Magic at an arm and a full grown claw’s length with three straight baskets that may have been the final nail in the coffin before anyone was ready for it.

“These games and these series are a lot about imposing your will on a team,” Nurse said after the game. “They make a run, Kawhi goes down and gets those three buckets in a row and it’s a little bit of imposing your will ... I think, psychologically, that has an impact on a game.”

Backs broken, the Magic are being dared to either keep believing in who they thought they were or just throw the kitchen sink and hope to survive. Toronto, meanwhile, is showing it’s cold-blooded enough to ensure it probably won’t matter.

The Raptors are expressing themselves in a manner that screams for greater tests, and on Tuesday night, they’ll have the chance to ensure they can start getting set for the next one.

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