Seriously, the Raptors are different this year.
They just didn’t totally show it in Game 1 against the Magic, falling 104-101 — the death punch coming in the form of a DJ Augustin three with 3.4 seconds left. DJ. Augustin. For real.
While the result was sour and painfully familiar in these parts, there were concrete examples and moments over the course of the loss where the altered Raps DNA was on display. All that talk throughout the regular season wasn’t B.S.
One of the main sources of the belief that these Raptors wouldn’t fall into the same post-season traps of past editions has always been Kawhi Leonard. The dude is a monster and a proven playoff stud, and for much of Saturday’s series-opener, he lived up to the billing.
On the opening offensive possession of the game, Leonard probed deftly and rose up for a mid-range J — cash. He followed that up with another, and then a three, and then a trip to the line, and then a lefty jam. He had 11 points on four shots before the arena even emerged from its customary playoff firework haze. At moments where the game teetered, Leonard took control and drained buckets that restored comfort, at least temporarily.
Flanking his attack was Pascal Siakam, whose suspect performance against Orlando’s gangly and fiesty forwards in the regular season had some questioning how much he’d really be able to offer as a secondary scoring option in this series. Those fears were proven unfounded. Siakam dropped a loud 24 on 12-of-24 shooting, including a pair of his meanest dunks to date.
(A side note: I know the growth of Siakam’s pull-up game is the most necessary next step in his development, but count me in for Siakam spending his entire summer honing himself into a Dunk Contest worthy high flyer.)
Kawhi’s 25 and Siakam’s 24 served as the pillars of Toronto’s offensive attack in Game 1. That should be something the Raptors can count on as the post-season unfolds, hopefully, over the next month, month-and-a-half. Leonard and this year’s supercharged Siakam are the biggest reasons why these Raptors looked and felt different up until about 7:30 Eastern Time on Saturday.
Regrettably, though, the Raps couldn’t entirely flip the page over from the last five years.
Kyle Lowry, man. He’s at once the easiest and most difficult player in the world to defend against his hoards of very loud detractors. This game was that conflict exemplified.
Lowry did not have his best game. Not even close. He went scoreless on 0-of-7 shooting, all but one of those attempts coming from outside. A couple of those looks fall, and the tenor of the game is entirely different. There was a passiveness to his game akin to what he displayed during the middle portion of the regular season.
His offensive shortcomings make it really easy to bust out the LOL PLAYOFF LOWRY jokes, and how could you possibly blame anyone for doing so. Jokes are good and fun.
But so is Kyle Lowry, even when his stroke betrays him. In a game where the Raptors lost by 3, and every other starter was a minus on the night, Lowry was a +11. The health of Toronto’s kill-you-from-all-angles offense is directly tied to Lowry — his vision, his gravity and generosity with the ball. His seven boards and eight assists weren’t hollow.
“He had some really good looks that he’s gonna normally knock down,” said Nick Nurse after the game in the voice of Dwane “Make or Miss, Doug” Casey.
“He was still impacting the game greatly. I thought he was a positive factor in the game which is why we went with him and I’m sure he’ll bounce back and play a little better in the next game.”
Far more blame probably belongs on the shoulders of the non-Lowry lineups that couldn’t string together any prolonged runs of good two-way play. Fred VanVleet hit a pair of huge triples a minute after subbing in late in the first quarter; he was a drag on the operation for much of his remaining 25-ish minutes of floor time, finishing as a -16.
Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka weren’t terribly effective in seventh and eighth man roles, either, combining for just nine points on ten shots in 16 and 19 minutes respectively.
Outside of the reserves, there weren’t any notable goats in the loss. A lot of credit for the result belongs to the Magic, who defended their sacks off for as close to 48 straight minutes as one could reasonably expect. Orlando packed the paint, swarmed pioneering ball-handlers when they got close, and forced the Raptors into a ton of drawn-out possessions, all the while avoiding sending the Raptors to the line. Toronto took just 14 free-throws on the night.
“I thought our defense was very good for most of the game. Even when things went against us we hung in the game. We kept fighting,” said Magic coach Steve Clifford.
To help counteract Toronto’s marauding transition game, the 22nd-best offensive rebounding team in the regular season made a notable point of chasing its own misses. They grabbed 10 offensive boards, wiping out 10 opportunities for the Raps to strike quickly.
And then there was D.J. Augustin — the other guy who the Raptors cut bait with back on December 8th, 2013. His 19-point first half was essential for Orlando. Nikola Vucevic was held pointless until midway through the second, and finished the night with a meager 11-8-3 on 3-of-14 shooting. Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier were icy from the field, too. As Clifford alluded to post game, without Augustin’s second-quarter exploits, the Magic never would have had the cushion built to withstand the 20-2 run Toronto went on over about six minutes between the end of the second and start of the third.
Of course, Augustin’s standout moment came with the shot clock and game clock just barely disparate in the final frame with the game tied at 101s:
The consternation after the shot fell, and after the game, was all about what the hell happened between Leonard and Gasol to allow such a wide open look with the game on the line.
“We were in our coverage, our coverage was to (have Leonard) get over the top of the screen and have Marc be up on that,” Nurse explained after the game. “Looked like Kawhi though it was a switch and went under.”
An untimely mix-up between two former DPOYs... what are you gonna do? Hell, Kawhi tied the game the possession prior with a mid-range jumper that the former taker of that shot would have surely bricked in that situation. Without all the new elements this team boasts, they would have had a ‘Game 1 vs Indiana’ amount of stink on them right now.
This loss isn’t accompanied by those 2016 levels of despair. Toronto did a lot of good things on top of the bad. Nurse did a good job staggering his stars in spite of the tricky rotation issues the last-minute absence of OG Anunoby presented. Vucevic was positively stymied by Gasol’s post defense, and revealed himself to be a cushy target for the Raptors on the other end of the floor. More than any one player or coaches efforts, though, remains the very clear talent gulf between the teams that one win cannot erase.
Orlando very well may not have something better to offer than the performance they put together in Game 1. Toronto almost certainly does. The Raptors did themselves no favours in trying to escape the reputation that still dogs the franchise. But no perception-flipping change has ever happened over the course of just 48 minutes.