The Raptors made it through their west coast swing with their heads held high — and a record of 3-2. Yes, they were brought low by injuries, but that didn’t stop them from competing almost comically hard. In the process, Toronto discovered some of the strengths of their bench unit, confirmed just how fearsome their team identity is at the given moment, and preceded to return home and beat the pants off the Hornets. All in a day’s work really.
But the march (or November) of the regular season continues. Tonight, the Raptors welcome the Orlando Magic back to Toronto for another contest. The two teams met during the first week of the season, back when the Raps were still trying to figure out the roster beyond their first seven players. In their throwback 1995 jerseys, it was Kyle Lowry who led the way to put the Magic away in a decidedly classic performance.
Now, of course, things are different in Toronto. For one, Lowry will definitely miss this evening’s game due to his injured hand. And for two, as mentioned, Toronto knows what it has on its bench: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to muck it up, Matt Thomas to shoot the lights out, Chris Boucher to run the floor, Terence Davis to play with confidence. It’s been an inspiring couple of weeks. Can the 6-7 Magic really dispel all of that?
Below are your game details and three things for which to watch in tonight’s Raptors-Magic showdown.
Where to Watch:
TSN at 7:30pm EST
Toronto - Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Orlando - Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Al-Farouq Aminu, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic
Toronto - Kyle Lowry (out - hand), Serge Ibaka (out - ankle), Patrick McCaw (out - knee), Stanley Johnson (out - groin)
Orlando - Michael Carter-Williams (out - hip), Jonathan Isaac (questionable - ankle)
I admit, I was fully ready to write off Markelle Fultz as one of the biggest number one pick busts of all time. (Is it me or have there been a lot more of these guys in the last 15 years?) I completely understand why the Magic decided to make a trade for him, but it was still a huge gamble. On the one hand, Orlando is dying for a point guard, someone who can play with the ball in his hands, make plays, and hit shots. On the other, have you seen Fultz do any of that in an NBA game?
Well, hold onto your butts. The Magic moved Fultz into the starting lineup a couple of weeks ago and... he’s been making winning plays! Sure, he’s still only averaging 10.5 points and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 21 percent from three. But he’s plugging away at 23.5 minutes per game, shooting 48.6 percent from the field, and has managed to vanquish D.J. Augustin, our favourite Raptor killer, back to the Magic’s bench. In that time, they’ve gone just 4-4, but also: over the past five games the Magic are actually 4-1 — even with their latest star attraction Jonathan Isaac missing the past two games with a sore ankle. This isn’t all because of Fultz turning things around in his career, but it is something.
Now let’s see what happens when Fultz’s suddenly burgeoning confidence runs into the heady play of the Raptors’ lead guard, Fred VanVleet, and the team defense that has Toronto ranked seventh in the league.
Though it may be hard to believe now, the Raptors were once dead last in assist percentage and bottom five in assist ratio (2015-16). The slow culture reset Toronto has undergone — to say nothing of the massive overhaul in personnel — has now, a few seasons later, led them to be among the league’s elite in terms of ball movement. This season, the Raptors rank sixth in assist percentage and eighth in assist ratio. By more traditional metrics, they also average the ninth most assists per game across the league. It’s led to a prettier brand of basketball — and night’s like what we saw on Monday.
Against the Hornets on Monday, the Raptors managed to assist on 40 of the team’s 50 field goal makes — a truly absurd ratio. They also bested a franchise-record that had inexplicably stood since 1997. (Just look at this ridiculous box score!) And had the mighty Mike Prada positively cooing at the TV.
You won't find many better sequences of basketball this season.— Mike Prada. I have spoken (@MikePradaSBN) November 19, 2019
-Marc's board and immediate outlet
-Fred's pitch ahead
-And I don't know how Pascal saw Norm
This is :chefkiss: defined pic.twitter.com/Kzqmdtw3iW
With the Raptors playing minus Lowry and Ibaka, they’ve lacked some of their go-to offensive options. Lowry does so much to organize the team and hit open shots; Ibaka can be relied on for his touch around the basket and his money pick-and-pop jumper. In their absence, Toronto had turned to VanVleet and Siakam to create. They’ve also seen Marc Gasol get more involved as of late moving the ball. (Three of the last four games have seen Marc post five or more assists, including nine vs. Charlotte).
Against a top-ten defensive team like the Magic, the Raptors will need to make their shots, yes, but they’ll need to remember the same philosophy that has carried them this far, even diminished as they are: move the ball to turn a good shot into a great shot.
Even More Consistency
I... I almost don’t want the adventures of the Raptors’ new bench unit to end. I know that’s a crazy, almost blasphemous, thing to say, but it’s been fun watching the squad’s newest members discover how exactly they can apply their talents in Toronto. The only question right now: how long can they keep it going?
I mentioned four names off the top: Hollis-Jefferson, Thomas, Boucher, and Davis. That’s been the crew coach Nick Nurse has leaned on the most over the Raptors’ past five games. And all four players have had their revelatory moments since Lowry and Ibaka joined McCaw (and, for a moment, Anunoby) on the injured list. A game against the Magic, a well-coached team with a decent mix of talent and veteran experience (if not exactly a winning record), is yet another opportunity for this group to prove that they belong in the NBA — and that they have a place in the Raptors’ rotation even after Toronto’s core members return. What will the bench do against Orlando? Ideally, the answer is simple: more of the same.