Looking back at the first round series between the Magic and Raptors last year, it’s hard not to fixate on the feelings after Game 1. Toronto had just given up a performance of a lifetime to D.J. Augustin, coughed up another first round opener, and had us all questioning exactly why the Raptors couldn’t play up to expectations once the games started to matter. The veterans and the championship guys were here. Why were they suddenly Raptors-ing?
Of course, then they went on to beat the Magic four straight times and win the championship, so why worry about anything ever?
The Raptors and Magic meet again tonight for the first time since facing each other in the playoffs last year. Orlando, if you’re wondering, hasn’t gotten any smaller in the passing time, starting three guys who could feasibly play centre in today’s NBA in Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and Nikola Vucevic.
The Magic, overall, haven’t looked exceptional in a 1-1 start, beating Cleveland but losing in Atlanta on Saturday. Early on, they share a challenge with Toronto — how to sort out the rotation into something that fits. Their point guard spot, especially, has been a source of frustration with Trae Young lighting up Augustin, Markelle Fultz, and Michael Carter-Williams in their last game.
So, how will this matchup shake out? Let’s look into the game details and three keys.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet, 7:30 PM ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Orlando - D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Nikola Vucevic
Toronto - Patrick McCaw (knee – questionable)
Orlando - none
Attack the Guard Spot
As Magic coach Steve Clifford tweaks and experiments with which point guard his team works best under, it’s a great opportunity for the Raptors to attack with two guards of their own — namely Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. Both are shooting the lights out to start the season, with Lowry’s splits at 43.2/40.0/85.7 and VanVleet at 44.2/50.0/90.9.
As they’ve become the primary source of backcourt penetration for extended minutes (both are above 39 per game), Lowry and VanVleet should be able to attack Augustin and Fultz off the dribble, forcing Clifford to run with MCW, who’s someone the Raptors removed from the offensive side of the ball in their first round series last year.
Pick and roll is also a great option with the Magic, and may be a good opportunity for Marc Gasol to get some mojo back. Any of the Orlando point guards in a 1-5 pick and roll with Nikola Vucevic is a chance to gain a mismatch, and the Raptors have a few angles to try it with when Gasol and their two guards are on the floor.
If you had to pick one thing for the Raptors to fix through three games, it’s their woeful rebounding. While they surprisingly lead the league in total rebounds (I refreshed the page a few times and can confirm, this is true!) they are next-to-last in opponents’ offensive rebounds, giving up 16.3 per game. The only team lower than the Raptors are the Charlotte Hornets, a spot you never want to be in regardless of statistical category.
Part of this has to do with Gasol’s slump to start the season, as nimbler players are beating him to rebound positioning. Serge Ibaka behind him has never been an exceptional rebounder, but the Raptors have been better when he’s on the floor.
Without a one-player solution for rebounding woes on the roster behind Gasol and Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and the Raptors guards will need to crash the glass more effectively, especially against a long, athletic team like Orlando. While it might limit transition opportunities, the Magic aren’t a team that’s going to pour it in when given one shot per possession. It’s more important to limit them to that.
More Rotation Talk(!)
With a big lead over the Bulls, Raptors coach Nick Nurse dove a little deeper into his rotation — playing Matt Thomas for a spell, giving Rondae Hollis-Jefferson some minutes, and getting mad at Stanley Johnson again.
Against the Magic, with another home game waiting on Wednesday against the Detroit Pistons, don’t be surprised to see Nurse tighten things up to eight guys once again if the game remains close. Though Hollis-Jefferson is no longer on the injury report, it feels like Nurse is getting comfortable with playing the Raptors’ starters heavy minutes until others get comfortable with the system. He also might push Thomas above Terence Davis after how the new Raptor shot in Chicago.
This strategy might be a little worrisome long term, as guys like Lowry rack up mileage quickly at this point in their careers, but situationally it’s probably the best against the Magic. Ball penetration and understanding of execution is important against a lanky, athletic defensive team.