Beware the Raptors, who may have the East's best starting lineup

Yahoo Sports

Can novelty feel mundane? Because the Toronto Raptors broke a few more franchise records Tuesday night.

They won four straight playoff games for the first time in franchise history, closing out the Orlando Magic 115-96 in five first-round games, their quickest series victory since 2001. They also smashed their single-game playoff record for assists with 34, and Sunday’s Game 4 victory gave them their first 3-1 series lead ever.

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In Toronto, novelty is just a part of the mise-en-scene. The only thing that’s really unusual? The Raptors are finally doing what they’re supposed to do. The seventh-seeded Magic were easy prey, sure, but the Raptors are known for playing with their food. They did in Game 1, in fact, allowing the loss to come down to Magic guard D.J. Augustin nailing a wide-open 3-pointer while Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol crossed wires defensively — Leonard switching the pick-and-roll while Gasol dropped back.

After that game, nobody could quite get on the same page about who messed up what, but they responded by stringing together their best defensive performances in their tenure together, fulfilling the season-long promise that these Raptors — small and quick, lengthy and stocky — were the most versatile and adjustable iteration yet.

Kawhi Leonard gave Raptors fans something to shout about Tuesday night in Game 5. (AP)
Kawhi Leonard gave Raptors fans something to shout about Tuesday night in Game 5. (AP)

“To me, it's a continuous learning process,” Marc Gasol, acquired at the trade deadline, said of team defense. “Game 1 was a perfect example. That shot from D.J. at the top of the key — you play with those guys long enough, you're in that situation long enough, you know what's expected and what the coverage would be, and those things don't happen. To me, always, even through tough times, you always can learn a lot of things. Good or bad, you always learn.”

And what did the Raptors learn over the course of five games? Well, when the intensity ratcheted up, they blew the dust off the console and morphed into the NBA’s most dominant starting lineup — on both ends. They have shared more minutes than any other lineup this postseason, and they’ve used that time together to outscore opponents by 46 points per 100 possessions.

“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,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “And I think the feeling after that game was if we play defense like that we should be able to control this series, each game, and I think that’s pretty much what we did.”

On defense, the starting lineup turned the game into a war of attrition. For the Magic, passing angles became death traps. With Gasol guiding drivers and Leonard’s massive paws following them, every dribble posed the risk of a transition three on the other end.

Toronto isn’t merely adjustable on defense. Led by Leonard, they’re filled to the brim with intelligent defenders who, through the course of a series, can gamble more and more intelligently as they become more attuned to offensive tendencies. The Raptors scored 21 points off 17 turnovers in Game 5. Kyle Lowry, clamped down in the lane and glued onto screeners, drew four charges.

Role definition can be complicated in an improvisational offense, but for now, things seem locked into place. Gasol is the moving nucleus, targeting cutters and shooters off screens. Leonard and Siakam create a gravitational force in the post, garnering attention and zipping the ball away from it. Danny Green is the weathered sharpshooter, while Lowry spots up and controls the pace.

Toronto’s starting lineup employs five shooters, five elite defenders, two excellent passers and three willing ones. The Raptors played 19 regular-season games together after trading for Gasol, seven of which Leonard sat out. Now that they’re beginning to jell, they believe the sky is the limit.

“It’s just about being consistent now,” Leonard said, “making sure we all have each other’s back in the next round and play through adversity when things aren’t going our way. That’s going to be another big test.”

For all the optimism, though, the Raptors’ second-round opponent is on a similar journey of self-discovery. Like the Raptors, the Philadelphia 76ers pulled the trigger on some in-season trades that forced them to retool their starting lineup on the fly. The Nets punched the 76ers in the mouth in Game 1, and like the Raptors, the Sixers responded with four straight wins. Seven-footer Joel Embiid, who Nurse referred to as the NBA’s biggest center, stopped settling after taking five threes in Game 1. Nets forward and Philly antagonist Jared Dudley erupted a fire in Ben Simmons’ belly when he called him average in the halfcourt. Their shooting woes are now belied by the fact that they’re no longer looking for the first release valve; they’re now working through 24 seconds and leveraging their star power.

Both sides faced competent opponents and used them to brandish their armory, unlocking untapped potential by way of necessity, and only one will survive the second round. That’s the name of the game in the playoffs: adapt or die. Evolve or perish.

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