Finally, the NBA playoffs are upon us. Terrence Ross’ long awaited revenge on the Raptors commences Saturday, and we’ve had the privilege to speak to managing editor Mike Cali of the Orlando Pinstriped Post about five burning questions regarding this upcoming opening round series with the Magic.
Before diving in, here are my answers to the OPP’s five Toronto Raptors-related questions.
Does the Raptors’ track record of playoff failure ease your mind at all, or does this new iteration of the team with Kawhi Leonard overwrite all previous perceptions?
To say that it eases my mind might be a little strong, considering how talented and deep the Raptors are. But yes, it did play a role in my pick of the Raptors being the best possible first round match-up for Orlando. Not in the sense that the Raptors in recent years have disappointed in the postseason so that means this new regime is also likely to disappoint and keep the trend going. It’s a new team, new coach, new start.
I’ve always felt those organizational type of streaks, like the Raptors being 2-13 all-time in Game 1 of the postseason, are more coincidental than some kind of contagious virus passed down from team to team. But I do think it is a factor in that it places additional pressure on the current team to win and rid the organization of those past demons. Combine that with the risky win-now move of trading for Kawhi Leonard in the final year of his deal, and no team in the playoffs is under more pressure to go deep into the playoffs this season than the Raptors. Maybe that pressure overload favours the Magic. Or maybe it causes the Raptors to come out and steamroll everyone on their way to the NBA Finals.
As a former Raptor, we’re both quite familiar with Terrence Ross now. Do you think T-Ross has some more playoff heroics in him (a.k.a. Revenge Games)?
Terrence Ross’ heroics have become something of a nightly occurrence this season in Orlando, and if the Magic go on to challenge the Raptors in this series at all, that will likely be a big part of the reason why. Ross has earned the nickname “The Human Torch” this season because of his ability to come in off the bench and provide instant offense once he ignites. Behind Nikola Vucevic, he is the Magic’s most important player on the offensive end. When Vucevic was out in the regular season finale and the Magic were in need of a win, Ross came to the rescue with a season-high 35 points on 12-for-19 shooting (6 of 10 from three). He averaged a career-high 15.1 points this season and hit 217 threes, becoming the first player in NBA history to make 200 threes in a season without starting a single game.
So yes, I think there are more three, more big games, and more heroics coming soon for Ross. He has nothing but love for Toronto, but he has found a home in Orlando, and I’m sure he will be extra motivated to show what the Raptors gave away. It’s not a “Revenge Game.” It’s a “Revenge Series.”
Let the Terrence Ross revenge series begin! pic.twitter.com/mK390IjKgG— Orlando Pinstriped Post (@OPPMagicBlog) April 11, 2019
Nikola Vucevic has had a dominant offensive year. How do you think he’ll handle Marc Gasol’s defense this series?
The Magic’s inside-out offense is predicated around getting the ball down low to Nikola Vucevic. Marc Gasol, a former Defensive Player of the Year who has always defended Vucevic well, will certainly complicate that to some degree. He is a longtime master of positioning, anticipating, and clogging lanes. Out of sheer curiosity, I pulled up Vucevic’s career numbers against Gasol and against former Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas, more of the rim-protecting variety big man, just to compare the production between differing centres.
Vucevic vs. Gasol: 12 games, 12.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 45.4 FG%
Vucevic vs. Valanciunas: 19 games, 16.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 48.4 FG%
For us in Orlando, we’re now accustomed to seeing Vooch put up a consistent 25 and 15. Just two weeks ago he had a somewhat quiet offensive game (13 points on 5-for-14 shooting) against Gasol, who has helped make an already very good defensive team even better. Vucevic has the footwork and passing ability to keep Gasol very active while defending the post. The Magic will also run a healthy dose of high pick-and-rolls at Gasol in hopes of taking advantage of his lack of quickness. To compensate, Gasol tends to drop back into coverage, and that could provide Vucevic, who shot a career-best 36.4 percent from three, with some quality perimeter looks.
Orlando’s defense has been incredible over the latter half of the season. To stifle the Raptors’ potent offense, do you think the Magic will have to change their defensive game plan at all?
The Magic defense is the reason we are having this conversation today. Had it not been for the defensive improvement they made over the season’s final two months, they wouldn’t be in the playoffs. Since January 31, they own the league’s best defensive rating at 104.9 points per 100 possessions, and they will stick with the game plan that got them to that point.
Knowing the Magic don’t have the offensive firepower to outscore teams on a nightly basis, Steve Clifford wants his team to play with the same defensive effort every night. That means sticking to shooters, quick rotations, aggressive closeouts, and using their length to deflect passes and close passing lanes. That formula has helped the Magic have success on the defensive end against the Raptors this season, holding them under 100 points in three of the four match-ups (though they’ll be seeing much more of Kawhi Leonard over these next four to seven games).
Are there any lesser-used Magic players that might see some extended run during the playoffs? Any surprise X-factors?
Steve Clifford has used a nine-man rotation all season long, with injury and necessity forcing some positive changes in the depth chart along the way. Ross anchors a second unit that also includes Wes Iwundu, Khem Birch, and Michael Carter-Williams. Some non-Magic fans reading this may have just learned that Carter-Williams is still in the league. They might be even more surprised to learn that he has been playing extremely well and could be an X-factor in this series. The Magic signed the former Rookie of the Year to a 10-day contract late in the season to play back-up to D.J. Augustin and he became instrumental in the Magic’s playoff push. With his length, energy and perimeter defense, he could frustrate Kyle Lowry over the course of the series when called upon.
Birch, another defensive-minded player, took over the back-up centre role when Mo Bamba got injured and provided an immediate spark. Birch is high-energy, and being that it’s the postseason and he is a Montreal native, he may be playing with a little extra adrenaline.
Once again, thanks to Mike for his thoughtful answers. Be sure to check out the Orlando Pinstriped Post for more Magic content!