Fuelled by defence, Raptors show they belong in the fast lane

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It was over before it even began.

Steve Clifford, head coach of the Orlando Magic, coached his team up to an empirically elite level over the final 31 games of the season, guiding it to a 22-9 record and a top-three defence since the calendar flipped to February.

Yet, up against a Toronto Raptors juggernaut that clearly flipped its playoff switch to take four straight in the series, none of it mattered. Facing elimination, Clifford seemed resigned to the reality of the situation and just how daunting a task the Magic were faced with.

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“What they have, to me, is what you need, and it shows in their numbers: their balance,” Clifford said before Game 5. “If you look at every year in the NBA -- this is Year 19 for me -- rarely does the team that wins it [not have that]. Most teams are Top 10 in offence and defence. That's what they are. They can play both ends of the floor at a very high level.”

In Game 1, hard work beat talent when the talent didn’t work hard enough and the Raptors knew it. Their pre- and post-game interviews have revolved around matching the Magic’s effort and intensity.

Four games later and the Raptors have overwhelmed the Magic with both an abundance of skill and energy. The starting five has posted a net rating of plus-46.3 in 96 minutes, bested only by Philadelphia’s starting quintet of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid at plus-62.2 in 49 minutes.

Defensively, the Raptors’ starting five has established a chemistry that sees their length make every passing angle seem risky, every shot attempt contested. They have a scramble mode that’s always a couple Red Bulls down and, at times, they look like The Heatles at their best, protecting the paint and flying out at shooters all at the same time.

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) smiles as he celebrates a dunk. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)
Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) smiles as he celebrates a dunk. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

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.

That team presents a significant talent upgrade, though, and the Raptors will be wise to avoid getting giddy over their shortest seven-game series win. It’s probably a good thing then, that this iteration has finished these laps before.

“We got some great veterans, and guys that's been through it,” Lowry said. “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.”

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