8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Raptors -9.5, Over/Under: 210
After a shocking slew of opening games, the NBA Playoffs rage on as the Toronto Raptors look avoid falling into a deeper hole against the upstart Orlando Magic in Game Two of their First Round Series from Scotiabank Arena, in Toronto, Ontario. While most of us were very quick to write off the lower seeded teams in the Eastern Conference as simple cannon-fodder, the Magic (42-40, 7th in Eastern Conference) are having nothing of it, as evidenced by stealing Game One of this series. There’s no need to apologize if you were unaware that Orlando was arguably the most improved team in the league this season, enjoying an increase of Seventeen Victories, the most in the NBA in 2018-2019. In his first year in Central Florida, Steve Clifford has done a remarkable job of rebuilding a downtrodden franchise that had previously missed six consecutive Postseasons, posting a miserable .319 Win Percentage during that span. However, just as he had done with the Charlotte Hornets, Clifford has hardened this group into a tough, disciplined, defensive-minded unit capable of taking the best in the NBA, and bringing down to their level in a street fight. A lack of identity has been arguably this franchise’s biggest issue over the past half-decade, though that has quickly been mended this year, with the Magic ranking in the Top-10 in a slew of defensive categories, including Points Allowed (106.6, 5th Overall), Assists Allowed (23.1, 2nd Overall), Blocks (5.4, 6th Overall), Effective Field Goal Percentage Allowed (51.5%, 10th Overall), Defensive Rebounding Percentage (79.7%, 3rd Overall), and Free-Throws/Field Goals Attempted Allowed (18.6%, 6th Overall). Again, these are all signs of a Clifford-helmed team. Another hallmark of the veteran Coach is the fact that his charges rarely push the Pace, averaging just 98.1 Possessions per Forty-Eight Minutes, or in other words is sixth-slowest in the league, which also makes them uniquely suited for Playoff Basketball. With that said, these guys are very much late-bloomers, for at one point in the campaign, it appeared to be laughable that they would even come close to qualifying for the Playoffs; Orlando was dismal 20-31 back on January 29th, but since that point have been one of the hottest teams in the league, finishing the season on a 22-9 tear, winning eleven of their final thirteen outings. Further hastening their development has been the fact that their young talent has clearly taken to Clifford’s tutelage; after years of early Draft Picks, it wasn’t that this team was left without a solid cache of talent to build upon, it was that nobody seemed to know what the hell to do with it. Nikola Vucevic (20.8 PTS, 51.8% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 12.0 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.1 BLK, 25.5 PER) enjoyed his first All-Star selection this season, while French Shooting Guard Evan Fournier (15.1 PTS, 43.8% FG, 34.0% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 3.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 12.3 PER) has matured, and former Fourth Overall Pick, Aaron Gordon (16.0 PTS, 44.9% FG, 34.9% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 3.7 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 15.1 PER) finally resembles a real basketball player rather than simply a freakish athlete. Furthermore, last year’s First Round Pick (Sixth Overall), Jonathan Isaac (9.6 PTS, 42.9% FG, 32.3% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.3 BLK, 13.0 PER) has helped speed this defensive renaissance along, with his length and athleticism making him a budding menace in Clifford’s system. With this Playoff Field proving the value that good coaching can make for a young team (I.E. the Bucks, Nets, and Pacers just to name a few), Clifford & Co. have been nothing short of excellent.
When we last saw the Magic, they were prohibitive underdogs heading into Game One of this series, but just as they had in their previous four Regular Season meetings with the Raptors, they fought tooth and nail with their hosts north of the border. Simply put, if this 104-101 victory over Toronto is any indication, this could be a much longer series than anyone could have imagined, due partly to the Atlantic Division Champions habitual Postseason Struggles (which we’ll get into shortly), but more so because this team just matches up with them very well. Few teams in the Eastern Conference have the sheer size, length, and physicality to go blow for blow with the Raptors, but the Magic aren’t built to crumble against that challenge, and Game One was clear proof of that. Despite only shooting 40.0% from the field, the visiting side bested the hosts from beyond the arc (14-of-29 3FG, 48.3%), and earned a considerable advantage from the Charity Stripe, calmly knocking down 18-of-20 Free-Throws (90.0%), outscoring the home side by Nine Points in that regard. Seven different players scored in double-figures, led veteran Point Guard D.J. Augustin (11.7 PTS, 47.0% FG, 42.1% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 5.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 15.7 PER), who scored Twenty-Five Points on 9-of-13 shooting from the floor (69.2%), including 4-of-5 from downtown (80.0%), none more so important than the game-winning dagger he drilled with just 3.5 seconds remaining on the clock. All in all it was a tightly contested affair, featuring thirteen lead changes, including seven in the Fourth Quarter alone. Both Isaac (Concussion) and Vucevic (Illness) sat out the Regular Season Finale, and looked sluggish to begin Saturday’s contest, but Orlando nevertheless managed to keep their momentum rolling.
Meanwhile, the more things change that they seem to stay the same for the Raptors (58-24, 2nd in Eastern Conference), who after last year’s disappointing debacle against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals bucked convention and introduced MAJOR change in an attempt to get over the proverbial hump. General Manager Masai Ujiri was clearly unhappy with how the most successful Regular Season in franchise history (59-23) unraveled once again in the Postseason, and as a result went about renovating his team. First, Dwayne Casey, who was just months removed from earning NBA Coach of the Year honors, was relieved of his duties, quickly replaced by his top assistant, Nick Nurse, who was brought in the previous season as virtual Offensive Coordinator, instituting the requisite shooting and spacing that helped lead to their sterling record. Second, he mercilessly broke up one of the league’s top bromances, trading away All-Star Shooting Guard DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (26.6 PTS, 49.6% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.4 BLK, 25.8 PER), who missed just about the entirety of the 2017-2018 term with the most mysterious of injuries. This move in particular was a huge gamble on their part, for not only did it have the potential of completely wrecking the team’s chemistry, but there was no guarantee that Leonard, who is heading into Unrestricted History in just two months, would in fact re-sign with the franchise, meaning that they could have sent their all-time leading scorer packing so that could in effect rent a perceived malcontent for a single season. Seriously, folks, these are the kinds of decisions that if they fail, you lose your job. To Ujiri’s credit, his gambit has largely been successful, with the Raptors winning just one fewer game than they did a year ago, Nurse continuing the offensive evolution that he began last season, and Leonard by and large picking up where he left as one of the game’s premier two-way talents after a lost season in San Antonio. Granted, he did miss Twenty-Two Games, but that was due to the Coaching Staff’s mandate of monitoring his minutes, with Leonard largely abstaining from participating in back-to-back contests. Ranking in the Top-10 in both Points Scored (114.4, 8th Overall) and Allowed (108.4, 9th Overall), there is a real argument that can be made that this incarnation of the Raptors is far better suited for a lengthy Playoff Run, which is a notion that was only enhanced when they further bolstered their ranks in acquiring former All-Star Center Marc Gasol (9.1 PTS, 46.5% FG, 44.2% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 3.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 16.0PER) from the Memphis Grizzlies at the Trade Deadline. The towering, 34-year old Spaniard appears to have plenty left in the tank, with Toronto really kicking things into another gear since adding the 2012-2013 Defensive Player of the Year; Nurse’s charges have gone 18-8 since he immigrated north of the Border, helping form one of the most imposing defensive fronts in the sport alongside the aforementioned Leonard, and Serge Ibaka (15.0 PTS, 52.9% FG, 29.0% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.4 STL, 1.4 BLK, 18.7 PER).
Now, if it seems that we’re setting you up for a fall, then you would be correct, for when we last saw the Raptors, they were preoccupied with running their stunning ineptitude in Series Openers to an abysmal 2-14. That’s right, folks, in the (brief) history of this franchise, Toronto has only managed to win a Game One twice in sixteen attempts. So after all of this change followed by another stellar Regular Season, can you blame the fan base for feeling sick to their collective stomach after Saturday’s 101-104 defeat? So what the hell went wrong, for these guys, you ask? Well, it’s hard to put our figure on it… In his first Playoff Game in two years, Leonard was advertised, scoring Twenty-Five Points on an efficient 10-of-18 shooting from the field (55.6%), including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc (60.0%), along with Six Rebounds and Four Assists. Ditto for Gasol, who appeared to be revitalized after the decay of the Grizzlies, adding Thirteen Points on 5-of-9 shooting (55.6%), Six Rebounds and Four Assists. As a team, the hosts shot 45.5% from the field, assisted on Twenty-Three of their Forty Field Goals, and committed just Twelve Turnovers. However, it was the older guard (no pun intended) that have found it more difficult to shake the past disappointments, particularly Kyle Lowry (14.2 PTS, 41.1% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.5 BLK, 16.5 PER), who was the subject of ridicule after a miserable performance in which he the veteran Point Guard went scoreless, missing all seven of his attempts from the field, all but one of which came from long range. Lowry has a clear history of struggling in the Postseason, posting stinkers like this in past Game Ones, so it’s hardly surprising that this happened again, but he was absolutely WORKED by the aforementioned Augustin, who shook free of his defense and nailed the game-winner. With that said, it should be noted that he did manage to contribute in other ways, racking up Seven Rebounds, Eight Assists, and a pair of Steals for the home side.