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Series Preview: Raptors look to assume playoff form as they face Orlando

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We look at three storylines leading into the first round series between the Raptors and Magic, including a tightened rotation, Pascal Siakam’s matchups, and more.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It was the running joke in the weeks ahead of the NBA playoffs. If the Raptors end up playing the Magic, would anyone end up watching? Which channel would TNT or ESPN relegate it to? How deep into the TSN Multiplex would we have to dive?

While the No. 2 seed Toronto Raptors and No. 7 seed Orlando Magic might seem like an unexciting matchup to the uneducated, clearly somebody in the broadcast decision-making sphere recognizes that this Raptors team deserves a full reset in terms of attention. With five of seven games on national television in both Canada and the U.S. (the other two are TBD), it appears that having Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol, the MIP, and — oh yeah — five-time all-star Kyle Lowry, is enough to turn some heads.

There’s also some intrigue to the Magic, one of the exciting fresh faced teams in the NBA playoffs this season.

Head coach Steve Clifford did an excellent job of steering the Magic this year, after Orlando went through a couple years of hot starts and quick fades into the Eastern Conference’s level of mediocrity (hello, Charlotte). In 2019, the Magic started hot, faded, but improved and settled into a noticeable style in the second half of the season, closing the regular season winning 21 of 30 games.

They have the hallmarks of a Clifford team — they play slowly and deliberately (seventh-slowest pace in the league), they collapse and defend the paint well (eighth-best defensive rating), and they score by committee — although Nikola Vucevic was a worthy all-star at 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game.

In looking at how these teams match up, three thoughts stand above the rest as storylines that I’ll be anticipating. Let’s get into it, with the series tipping off Saturday at 5 p.m.

Ignoring (Mostly) the Season Series

Given that the Raptors have spent much of the season in upheaval, there simply isn’t much to learn in the four matchups played between the Magic and Raptors in 2018-19 — a series split 2-2. Let’s quickly go through the games and the outlying factors in each.

November 20: Raptors 93, Magic 91

This was probably the healthiest game between these two teams all year, which was decided on a Danny Green jump shot at the buzzer in a relatively low-scoring affair.

Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier were very good against an Ibaka-centric Raptors frontcourt, as the Magic pairing combined for 41 points and 21 rebounds.

December 28: Magic 116, Raptors 87

One of the more disappointing losses of the Raptors season, as Toronto felt a late turkey hangover to shoot 29.5% from the field and 35.3% from three. Vucevic went off for 30 points and 19 rebounds in this win, once again throwing his weight around against Serge Ibaka and — for ten minutes at least — Greg Monroe.

Also no Kyle Lowry in this game, as Fred VanVleet went 3-for-12 filling in.

February 24: Magic 113, Raptors 98

The first game in a post-deadline world, the Raptors’ new bench pieces struggled in this one, getting thoroughly beat down by Terrence Ross (28 points). Jeremy Lin was 2-for-8, Jodie Meeks was 4-for-9 on his first ten-day contract, VanVleet was out due to injury, and Kawhi was off for load management. This was more weird, but the onus was on Lowry and Siakam to pick up the slack; they failed to do so, combining for just 29 points.

April 1: Raptors 121, Magic 109

Despite the Magic being in a race for a playoff spot, Toronto soundly beat Orlando in their final meeting of the season, with a final score that belies the beatdown that occurred — as 905ers nearly blew the game to Wes Iwundu and Khem Birch late.

Danny Green went 7-for-10 from three for 29 points, Kawhi and Kyle combined for 27, and the bench was solid in slowing down Ross. While Siakam was quiet again (we’ll get to that), this may be the best indicator of this series. Toronto took a motivated Magic team and picked them apart through ball movement.

Tightening the Rotation and Winning Bench Minutes

A major factor in this series won’t happen on the court, but on the Raptors bench, as Nick Nurse finally has to put aside the experimenting and settle into an effective rotation.

The best expectation for a depth chart looks something like this, as Toronto pares down to nine players.

PG: Lowry / VanVleet
SG: Green / Powell
SF: Leonard
PF: Siakam
C: Gasol / Ibaka

It’s hard to see Jeremy Lin playing much, unless the Raptors are protecting a lead or are in dire need of an offensive spark. Everyone else is break in case of emergency — though the very recent OG Anunoby news may change that calculus a bit.

Eliminating those outlier minutes where the Raptors play all-bench units, which were admittedly getting much lower as the season went on, will really help. Nurse has talked about ensuring his bench is always propped up by the presence of Lowry, Leonard, or Siakam — with the onus on the first two considering the difficult matchups for Siakam against the Magic.

This rotation also highlights one of the Raptors great strengths, which is adaptability at the wing positions. Orlando is 12th in the league in allowing shots between 25-29 feet at 20.3 per game and Toronto will have four proficient three-point shooters on the floor at all times, playing different positions, with an ability to capitalize.

Orlando, meanwhile, can do some tightening, but there’s no question the Raptors have more talent at spots seven through nine in the rotation. Terrence Ross is a capable bench scorer, but Michael Carter-Williams still can’t shoot (33.9 FG%) and won’t be able to effectively use his size on defence against a Toronto team that doesn’t run a lot of north-south pick and roll. After that, the Magic will need proficient play from Wes Iwundu and Khem Birch if they have any chance of pulling an upset.

Pascal Siakam Making an Impact in New Ways

If there’s one realistic reason to fear the Magic, it’s their length at the forward positions and ability to stymie Pascal Siakam. Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, and Wes Iwundu offered the rare double threat of being able to close on Siakam’s outside jumper and slow down his creative off-the-dribble game in the half court. They did this through a simple strategy: not guarding him in the mid-range.

The averages bear it out. Siakam, who averaged 16.9 points per game, 59.1 true shooting percentage and 114.0 offensive rating overall, saw those numbers drop to 8.8 points, 38.2 TS%, and a 100.4 rating against Orlando — a huge drop-off.

How is this happening? When it’s the primary matchup against Isaac, there is some intimidation factor with Orlando’s size. Siakam has diverted a few drives to post-ups, which favours the Magic.

In drifting to the outside, Siakam’s shot chart shows how his game plays right into the Magic’s preferred style of defence.

Steve Clifford plays the percentages and has allowed Siakam to take threes, then offers tremendous length at the rim to change up what would otherwise be easy shots.

In order to be effective against the Magic, the Raptors will need to find new ways to utilize Siakam rather than just isolate or throwing him the ball in semi-transition. Using him as a screener in pick and roll, moving him into some weak side action — anything that gives him a bit more daylight on the perimeter to either shoot or create will work.

The tape shows Siakam struggled against Orlando this year, but a lot of it was missing easy shots too. There’s always going to be an opportunity for Pascal to get hot. Making subtle changes to the offence to give him some breathing room will be ideal.

Series Prediction

All said, a series against the Magic is the ideal litmus test for a Raptors team who were conservative in playing Kawhi Leonard and struggled through injuries during the regular season.

All year, we’ve talked about the regular season being a long lead-up to the playoffs, where the team would be healthy, where load management would go out the window, and where the rotation would be tightened into a Finals contender. In the regular season, Toronto had their struggles against a Magic team on the bubble of the NBA playoffs. If all goes according to plan, according to what we’ve told ourselves since Leonard joined the team in July, then the Raptors should flip their switch and take this series with relative ease.

Prediction: Raptors in 5