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Five thoughts on yesterday afternoon: Magic 113, Raptors 98

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Afternoon NBA action, It’s fantastic! Or, you know... not

Five thoughts recap: Orlando Magic 113, Toronto Raptors 98, Jeremy Lin John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors showed toughness and mettle on Friday night, fighting through their home crowd cheering for players on the other team at times, and navigating some questionable officiating to come out on top. A good sign for the playoffs!

On Sunday they showed none of that. A bad sign for the playoffs — especially against a potential first-round opponent! Let’s get to the thoughts:

Sunday Afternoon Trap Game Blahs

If any late February game is a game not to be concerned about, it’s a Sunday afternoon game (almost always crappy contests, regardless of the teams involved), with a DeMar DeRozan-related emotional hangover (from the close-fought, emotional game against San Antonio on Friday), sandwiched between that and a big-time division matchup (against Boston on Tuesday). So, I have no problem shrugging this loss away.

Nevertheless, it’s still disappointing. The 76ers and the Celtics lost on Saturday night, and the Bucks and Pacers won, so it was a chance for the Raptors to solidify their playoff positioning.

Does Orlando have TO’s Number?

Speaking of playoff positioning, Orlando looms as a potential first-round matchup for Toronto. Orlando currently sits in ninth, but have been one of the league’s best teams in February, with a 7-2 record and a 14.4 net rating; they could easily move up into seventh over the next couple of weeks if they continue to play this well.

And that may mean trouble for Toronto, who has now lost twice to the Magic in blowout fashion —once at home — and needed a Danny Green buzzer-beater to stave off a collapse in their lone victory. (It’s also worth pointing out: Whoever the Raptors play, the series will likely have at least two early afternoon matchups. So they’d better find a way to compete in them sooner rather than later!)

I don’t doubt that the Raptors are the better, more talented team than the Magic. But Orlando’s got a solid rotation and players who seem to the know their roles. The Raptors... well, that remains the team’s number one problem.

My Kingdom for a Consistent Rotation

With 21 games left I would say it’s time for the Raptors to adandon the “experimentation” and settle on a consistent lineup. I know that it’s been tough, with the injuries, and VanVleet is still out, but nevertheless: Find a group of starters, and stick with it; establish who your sixth and seventh players off the bench are, and bring them in at the same time every game (barring emergency); establish your nine-man rotation and the lineups that work best together and roll with them. Let them play through tough stretches, let them play against different opponents. ANd once that’s established, when you have games where certain players or matchups are not working — like yesterday’s! — that’s when you try to mix things up and find something to get you going.

That’s what great teams do. And sure, you can argue that’s what last year’s Raptors team did, and they bombed out of the playoffs, but, A) that team was middle-heavy whereas this team (with Kawhi Leonard) is more top-heavy, and B) the Raptors actually went away from that rotation (necessarily, because of VanVleet’s injury) in the postseason.

At the very least, Nick Nurse needs to stagger his playmakers better. Until Jeremy Lin and Marc Gasol are more familiar with the team, neither of them should ever play without Lowry or Siakam, and in fact one of Lowry and Siakam should probably always be on the floor. There were almost 12 minutes yesterday with Lin and without the other three and that just seems like a recipe for disaster.

OG up, Norm Powell Down

I slammed OG Anunoby pretty hard here in this space at the beginning of the month, but he’s been great lately, and got a well-deserved start in place of Leonard yesterday; it wasn’t his best game (five points on six shots, six boards) but no one acquitted themselves particularly well. Overall Anunoby has averaged 8.8 points on 55% shooting, including 43% from downtown, in the past five games. He’s definitely trending in the right direction.

Norman Powell, meanwhile, has been going the opposite way. Powell had a great January (10.5 points on 52%, one steal), but February has been rough — he’s averaging only six points on 30% shooting, including a ghastly 20% from three, over the past six. It culminated in an 0-for-3, zero point stinker yesterday.

Sure would be nice if Anunoby and Powell could both be “up” at the same time, wouldn’t it?

Another Load Management Day, Eh

Well the fan base is predictably up in arms about this, and who can blame them? It’s definitely... disconcerting, to see your top player need a rest day one game after an extended All-Star break. That means, by the time Tuesday rolls around, Kawhi will have played four games in 21 days... and one of those was the All-Star game.

I’m trying to look at this objectively. Objectively, if Leonard needs rest, he should take it; the team can afford the time without him (they’re now 44-17 overall, and 13-4 when he’s not in the lineup.)

Also objectively: Kawhi has been showing signs of rust lately, his jumper flat and short, indicating he’s no longer in game shape. He needs time on the court.

Perhaps a little more on the subjective side, this current team has played zero games with its top-10 rotation players, and there are only 21 games to go (and fewer than that with Fred VanVleet available). Chemistry remains an issue; “The Raptors have an offense, and a Kawhi offense,” is no longer just a Twitter take, it’s a thing.

And veering into the speculative, one can easily infer that if Leonard cannot handle playing a game every other day, after an extended break, then Leonard will miss playoff games. When that happens, well, I might just have to quit Twitter to steer clear of the outrage.

Finally, though, I’m trying to view all of this through an empathetic eye. We — all of us, whether you’re a professional athlete or couch potato blogger or whatever — know our bodies the best, better than team trainers or family members or agents or doctors or fans or coaches. If Leonard isn’t feeling right, he has the right to make the call on what he does, just like you or I do.

Put another way: Have you ever had a feeling — a pain, or ache, or something you can’t easily explain, that you can’t easily describe? You know something is wrong with you, you’re sick or hurt, but you don’t know why or what it is. And you go to the doctor, and you struggle to explain the issue, and the doc examines you, doesn’t see anything wrong... and looks at you like you might be crazy, or faking it, and all you can say is, “yeah, but Doc, it just doesn’t feel right”? I think many of us have been in that situation. I definitely have. It’s awful, to know that you feel something but someone else is telling you you’re wrong. And that’s just a private situation between you and your doctor... now imagine it playing out in public?

It’s easy to hold someone like Leonard to a higher standard because he’s paid millions to play sports 82 nights out of 365. But he’s human like the rest of us, and we owe him the benefit of the doubt.

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Yesterday afternoon’s game was fairly predictable, but we can only hope Tuesday night’s marquee matchup with the Celtics doesn’t follow the script of the last two Raptors-Celtics matchups, both of which saw Kyrie Irving dominate and the Raptors collapse down the stretch. Heres hoping the Raptors show up and that a consistent rotation begins to emerge.