A Sunday afternoon game against the Orlando Magic. We’ve seen the Raptors in countless scenarios like this one, and it always seems to end poorly. This year however, the Raptors were undefeated in day games, leading into this matchup they were 5-and-0 in games that started before 5 o’clock. It was a trend that would not hold, as a short-handed and often lethargic Raptors team fell 113-98 to the Orlando Magic.
It felt like a day game from the first tip. The Raptors struggled with early turnovers, turning the ball over three times in the first four minutes, in addition to missing some open shots. With Kawhi Leonard given the game off to rest, the Raptors offense seemed far less structured: players overpassed, and often passed up good shots. Nick Nurse made an early substitution in an effort to spark some energy, inserting Jeremy Lin for Danny Green, but with Lin in place of Green the Raptors’ offensive spacing collapsed, and they struggled to get into the paint. The resulting stretch saw the Raptors consistently settle for, and miss, contested midrange jumpshots, and their offense continued sputter even as the turnovers abated. The offense then petered out completely when Marc Gasol, who was making his first start as a Raptor, exited the game along with Kyle Lowry, as the bench unit that ended the frame would only manage two points in the last stretch of the quarter.
Conversely, the Magic were solid in the first, executing their gameplan by forcing switches between Gasol and Pascal Siakam and then having Nikola Vucevic attack Siakam in the post. When Vucevic went to the bench former Raptor Terrence Ross picked up the offense with his outside shooting, helping Orlando build a 25-15 lead by the end of the first.
The second quarter saw the Raptors get a spark from both an expected and unexpected source. Kyle Lowry was inserted to right the ship at the start of the second to right the ship, and he got fired up midway through the frame, as his game took on the “I won’t let us lose this game” cadence it so often does. Lowry scored seven consecutive points after the Magic had built their lead to twelve, and he took control of the game’s pace, racking up assists in transition.
When the Magic counterpunched by pouring in a swath of shots from deep, the Raptors got their answer from recent signee Jodie Meeks, making his Raptors debut. Meeks drilled a pair of threes and moved well without the ball, cutting and running the floor. He scored 10 points in the quarter, providing some needed energy to help lift the Raptors out of their day-game slumber. The lift from Meeks and Lowry helped the Raptors score 35 points in the quarter and reduce the Magic’s lead to 53-50 at the half.
Making the most of an opportunity pic.twitter.com/TlWQzAQeBq— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 24, 2019
The Raptors starters carried that energy into the second half, pushing the tempo and sharing the ball, but were unable to turn their energy into a lead. They often got overly ambitious with their passes and struggled to finish the looks their ball movement generated. Still, they were able to play the Magic to a draw, getting their scoring primarily from the duo of Gasol and Lowry, who played well off each other to generate open looks.
Things again went to pieces when the bench re-entered. With Meeks unable to re-create his first half scoring magic the bench group was utterly punchless. Meanwhile, Terrence Ross once again got hot, leading the Magic bench on a run that would widen the Magic’s lead back to nine by the end of the third.
Nurse opted to stick with the bench group to begin the final quarter, and they remained cold while Ross remained hot. Imbued with the same boundless confidence that once saw him detonate for 51 points in a Raptors uniform, Ross began to take gradually tougher and tougher shots, making enough of them to help the Magic pull away. Ross would end the night with a game high 28 points to go along with 9 rebounds, including 11 in the fourth. With the Magic’s lead pushed to double digits, the last hope for the Raptors was a big push from their starters to get back in it.
Instead, the starting unit floundered. Pascal Siakam, who had been quiet all night, blew a few easy shots, and the unit remained reckless with their passing, committing turnovers and struggling to stop the resulting Magic run-outs. Meanwhile, just as T-Ross had started to cool back off, Nikola Vucevic re-entered and he and D.J. Augustin put the Raptors out their misery with a series of back-breaking threes. Vucevic, the Magic’s lone All-Star, would end with 23 points and 12 rebounds. He was also 3-of-4 from behind the arc, as his ability to space out and hit jumpers proved crucial in compromising the Raptors’ defence.
The Raptors were lead by Kyle Lowry’s 19 point and 10 assist performance, as Lowry’s continued strong play was one of the few bright spots in the loss. He stepped confidently into a couple transition pull-up threes for what feels like the first time in a long time (though he missed both) and he played well off Marc Gasol, getting a few baskets on cuts set-up by the Raptors big man. Speaking of Gasol, he had a solid performance in his first start with the Raptors. Though he struggled to score early on, settling for a few too many jumpers, he would end the game with 16 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists, as his play picked up as the two-man-game between him and Lowry developed. The rest of the team, however, looks to still need time to adjust to the style of play that Gasol encourages, as they weren’t aggressive enough in their cuts while Gasol was working in the post and at the elbows.
It’s a loss that comes with lots of ready-made excuses. Kawhi Leonard rested, the team is still adjusting to its new pieces, the game started at 3:30 in the afternoon and a microwave scorer got hot. Still, the Raptors are locked in a tight Eastern Conference race, trying to keep pace with a white-hot Bucks’ team, so it’s a loss that hurts nonetheless. The Raps will look for some better chemistry, and will look to re-gain some ground in that Eastern Conference race, when they face the Celtics on Tuesday.