Maybe it always has to be like this for the Raptors. Despite the personnel changes and the hype, maybe Toronto just has to be here in this feeling of panic every April. Is there any other way to explain this latest Game 1 loss, a 104-101 last second defeat on Saturday to the Orlando Magic? Is there anything we can do to get out of this? Please, I’m asking, the Raptors HQ Twitter account mentions are still a complete mess. And it’s now Monday.
but im sure dj augustin will save them https://t.co/jxWoBHAsyb— Raptors HQ (@RaptorsHQ) April 13, 2019
Given the inexperience of the Magic, it would have seemed impossible to bet against a squad boasting the talents of Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol, Danny Green, and Kyle Lowry — to say nothing of the ascendent Pascal Siakam. The Raptors were the seasoned, veteran team, a squad that had been through various hells and emerged out the other side. This year it was supposed to be different in Toronto. And yet, the Raptors are apparently still the Raptors, regardless of who is wearing the jersey. And so, here we are.
“What hump?” was Leonard’s answer on the Friday before Game 1 when asked about the Raptors new high level of experience. In his usual flat tone, we could assume his new team would approach the playoffs with if not grace, then at least some cool professionalism. “I mean, this team’s been to the conference finals as well,” he continued. “Just playing and giving our experience, that’s all we can do, just whatever we’ve been through and just combining it with what they’ve been through and trying to either stop a play or make plays out on the floor.”
So Kawhi was at least ready to give the Raptors the benefit of the doubt. His efforts, meanwhile, proved he was also up to the task of leading this team further than it had ever been before. Leonard opened the scoring with seven points for Toronto, on 3-of-3 shooting, and finished the game with 25 on 10-of-18 shooting (including 3-of-5 from three). He also had six rebounds and three assists, and while his four turnovers weren’t great, the Magic were trying their best to stop him. Not that it mattered what Orlando did. It was, after all, Kawhi’s final five points — a three, then an angry jumper over a leaping Aaron Gordon — that put the Raptors up two with a minute left to play. But Leonard is just one man.
One man who was somehow played to a draw by the Magic’s D.J. Augustin. The diminutive point guard had 25 points of his own, including the last five points for Orlando — and the game-winning three in the face of both Kawhi and Gasol. “We just switched, and he knocked down a big shot,” said Leonard in response to Game 1’s final outcome. “Pretty much that’s what happened.”
Unfortunately, there’s a lot in that “pretty much” for Toronto. There’s the sudden case of the yips from behind the three point line for a huge chunk of the first half, there’s the team’s lack of presence on the glass (and a sizable gap at the 4-spot with OG Anunoby absent), there’s the donut the team’s emotional leader, Kyle Lowry, managed to put up, and then there’s all that history. That it was Augustin, a former Raptor the team cut after a handful of appearances in 2013, who took that game-winning shot just adds to the load. It’s a lot to take for Toronto.
And there’s just no way it doesn’t weigh on Lowry. He’s too smart, too cognizant, too aware for it not to be rattling around somewhere in his mind. It is perhaps Lowry’s finest skill, the application of his brain, that has seen him ascend to be one of the best players in the NBA. But it is that brain that can be his undoing. How else to explain Lowry’s line? Yes, a +11, and sure, eight assists, seven rebounds, but also a huge, gaping black hole at the end: zero points, on 0-for-7 shooting (with three missed free throws tossed in for good measure). Toronto cannot win many games this way, even if Lowry can acknowledge that he doesn’t need to score the way he did in the past.
“I got some looks and missed them. That’s about it,” said Lowry of his Game 1 performance. “It’s nothing in me. I just missed some shots. I was open. I did floor well on the floor general side, but I missed some shots.” In this Lowry is not wrong, the Raptors need him to play well on the “general side”, but does it always have to be this way? Do we always have to ask these questions year after year? Will it ever change? The Raptors are still favoured to win this series against the Magic, but it is hard not to feel the tug of despair.
If there’s a way forward for the Raptors it most definitely can be found in Leonard’s play. For whatever reason, he only got 33 minutes of run in Game 1, and sat for almost half the fourth quarter. It felt like Kawhi had more to give. “I think once I go back through [the game tape],” said coach Nick Nurse. “It wasn’t by design to play under 35 minutes or any of that kind of stuff.” One can only hope.
Meanwhile, the Raptors got 42 superlative minutes from Pascal Siakam, who shot 12-for-24 for 24 points, to go with nine rebounds and four assists. It was Siakam who kept the pace and pressure on when Orlando threatened to run away with the game in the second quarter with a lead that got as big as 16. And it was Siakam who floated the bench unit with a quiet Lowry to keep the game neck-and-neck. For Kawhi the playoffs may be old hat, but this was the first time Siakam was asked to do some serious heavy lifting in the post-season. It was heartening to see him gradually rise to the challenge as the game wore on.
So now Game 2 on Tuesday. The Raptors have been here before too, down 0-1 and wondering. It’s a different kind of experience, as uncomfortable as it is perhaps useful. We’ve seen Toronto dig themselves out of this situation multiple times over the past five years, and with the personnel on hand, that very same crew of level-headed professionals, there is no reason to believe they can’t do it again. The Toronto home crowd will once again be booming, and the Magic can’t possibly expect to be as good again. Can they? “It’s fun,” said Lowry in suitably calm tones. “We know who we are and this is one game. They played really well. They played free.
“We got to make sure we know who we are and execute what we can do. When we do what we are supposed to do we are really, really good.”
Yes, it is supposed to be that way, after all.