A minute into Game 1, Pascal Siakam received the ball in the left corner and surged towards the rim, finishing with a lay-in despite Jonathan Isaac sticking with him every step of the way.
Just a few minutes later, Siakam received the ball at the right elbow, extended, and looked to do the same. This time, Isaac didn’t miss his chance and swatted the ball away and into the hands of a teammate.
One thing is clear about these Orlando Magic: a make or miss on one end or the other will not alter their game plan. They have extreme confidence in who they are as a team, their ability to execute head coach Steve Clifford’s defensive game plan, as well as attack the Toronto Raptors in a manner that embodies their margin for error in this series.
“We’re playing well defensively, we’re rebounding the ball well, that’s our strength and that’ll have to remain a strength as we move forward in this series,” Clifford said Monday. “And also the other part is we have to stay low turnover against this team.”
Nothing is left to chance. It seems uncharacteristic of a team with 29 games worth of playoff experience under their belt in their starting lineup entering the series and a bench rotation featuring Terrence Ross and Michael Carter-Williams tacking on another 42.
Look over to Toronto, and it brings 320 games worth of playoff experience in the starting lineup alone. Then there’s Serge Ibaka with another 109 games worth. Beyond a wealth of experience, this team also possesses a talent level that dwarfs that of Orlando. The Magic do not possess a former Finals MVP or a five-time All-Star, nor a former Defensive Player of the Year, another who once set an NBA Finals record for most three-pointers, or even this year’s most likely Most Improved Player. Orlando has one All-Star, who got there for the first time this year.
But what the Magic do have that the Raptors don’t is time invested in each other. This Toronto team has been put together in one fell swoop, or two rather, including the trade deadline. Kawhi Leonard has missed time and so has Kyle Lowry. 34-year-old Marc Gasol has started 19 games in a Raptors uniform. Even the head coach is a rookie at the NBA level.
The core of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon, meanwhile, has been together for five seasons, while D.J. Augustin has been there for another three. This may well be a series where hard work beats talent when the talent doesn’t work hard enough, or at least gel well enough.
“I think we’ve got to play a little better toward that goal. I think we’re still shaping that, though,” Nick Nurse said when asked about where his team has a fully-formed identity.
“The more games we play throughout the playoffs, we want to see the ceiling continue to grow for us. But listen, we’ve got to be a more dominant defensive team. We showed some stretches and flashes of that. We’ve got to show a little bit longer stretches of it.”
Nurse suggested there could be more full-court presses in Game 2, more so to send a message they may not have sent often enough in Game 1.
“I think pick-up points are sometimes used to make a statement of, ‘We're coming to get you!’ You know, a little bit of "We're coming to attack you a little bit.
“I have a European background where everyone picks up full court all the time. Point guards are up there all the time, hounding them back and forth. I like that a little bit, but then you have to settle in depending on personnel of what you have to do.”
While the defence was certainly very good for the most part in the half court, holding Orlando to 88.4 points per 100 possessions, letting Augustin get away from them the way he did in the first half and the final minute of the fourth quarter is something that doesn’t sit well with the Raptors, as well as the Magic’s transition game.
Toronto made several poor entry feeds that allowed Orlando to get out on the break with nine steals (the Magic averaged a fifth-worst 6.6 during the regular season), and so a team that finished the regular season among the poorer fast-break teams ended up getting outscored by just a single point in that category by the team that finished the season as the most efficient transition team.
“We gotta be consistent, do it for 48 minutes,” Danny Green said after practice Monday. “I think if we don’t get down 16 and put ourselves in that hole, we don’t have those problems. We got to do better on both ends, not just defensively, but offensively and get back to what got us here.
“Moving the ball and being sharp. We were averaging like 30 assists the last couple of weeks of the season and doing really well. I don’t know what we ended up with assists-wise last game, but I don’t think it was 30.”
“It was 23, Danny,” is probably what someone should have said as he looked across the room for confirmation, but he raises an important point. The Magic are stifling the Raptors’ ability to play pretty and testing their resolve to fight through it. That’s when things like familiarity and chemistry can make a difference, but the Raptors may just need to go to the well on what they do have in spades: talent.
Pascal Siakam played 42 minutes, but Leonard’s 33, Kyle Lowry’s 34 and Green’s 34 can’t continue if the games are close. A couple minutes extra here and there may seem like adding a load on some veterans gearing up for a road trip and not a visit to the neighbours, but it also may be the difference between tacking on an extra 48-minute game to the schedule as they’ve already done by losing Game 1.
The Raptors are still heavy favourites to win this series, as they should be. But boy can things change in a hurry if they don’t get the job done in Game 2. Toronto has lost all seven of its playoff series when losing the first two games, of which four ended in sweeps.
This Orlando team will scrap and claw for every inch, and then use their lanky limbs to extend them into yards. That’s who they are. Who is this Raptors team? Despite the regular season ending, the answer to that was always going to be a work in progress for as long as their post-season run extends.
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