Death, taxes, and Toronto Raptors losing Game 1s. The Raptors are moving along according to their schedule, and while the fanbase might be panicking, there’s a lot of reason not to — even if Kyle Lowry doesn’t score a single point for this entire series. (Also, fun side note: the Raptors only Game 1 win in the “We The North” era was the Bebe Game.)
It’s easy to dismiss the Orlando Magic as just a bunch of long athletic players. Sure, they struggle to score at times, but coach Steve Clifford made a few high-risk strategic moves that got them past the Raptors in that first game.
The Raptors will not (and should not) have as bad a shooting night as they had in Game 1, but they have a few things to fix, mainly on the defensive end. There are also some minor things that they need to fix on the offensive end. Is getting Lowry a bucket one of them? Read below to find out.
For the Magic
The Magic essentially banked on two major strategies against Toronto and hope they’d work: pack the paint, and target Gasol. Here’s how it played out:
Strategy: Pack the Paint
Whether it was Kawhi Leonard trying to force his way to the paint, or Pascal Siakam’s ISO against anybody not named Isaac, the Magic made it tough to score in the paint as they brought in help defenders to provide additional defense at the rim. At the very least, it was enough to get Kawhi or Siakam thinking that they could get double or triple-teamed at any given moment once they get into the paint.
How are the Magic doing this? Well, they are leaving a lot of Raptors players open. For example, whenever Norman Powell is in the game, Terrence Ross would pretty much play zone and help off him, completely disregarding Powell’s existence beyond the three-point line. The Magic also treated Ibaka similarly.
Orlando seems to be expecting that Kawhi passing out of a crowded paint area is unlikely, especially if he can just barely get a shot off. There were several possessions where at least two of Danny Green, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry were very wide open around the perimeter, but Kawhi would force a highly contested shot. And when he did kick it out, the possession was very late in the shot clock.
I wrote a preview piece heading into Game 1 mentioning that coach Clifford has a big problem to solve: where to hide D.J. Augustin and/or Evan Fournier, as the Raptors targeted either one when they were guarding Danny Green, especially in the low post. This weakness in the Magic’s defense was covered up by the team’s long, athletic, and quick players. Their presence was enough to deter Green from having successful post-ups. In fact, he only had one post-up possession the entire game.
Will We See It Again: Yes, until the Raptors start burning Orlando with their three-point shooting.
Strategy: Target Gasol via Pick-and-Roll/Screen Action
The Magic targeted Gasol’s lack of mobility during Game 1, subjecting him to a lot of pick-and-roll or screen action throughout the game. The strategy was successful in many ways — it was enough to collapse the Raptors’ defense, as the team’s lack of proper communication got exposed over and over.
While Augustin was the primary ball handler in these types of situation, we saw Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, heck, we even saw Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic execute a 4-5 high pick-and-roll when Serge Ibaka and Gasol saw minutes together.
Will We See It Again: You betcha.
Potential Adjustments for the Magic
The Magic did well enough to steal Game 1, but their game and strategy were far from perfect. They can’t expect Augustin to erupt for 19 points in a half, nor expect Michael Carter-Williams to hit more than zero three-pointers in a game. Also, the Raptors can’t miss that many wide open perimeter shots.
Free Up the Wings
Augustin had a stellar night, but Fournier and Terrence Ross struggled to get going. The Raptors defended them well, for the most part, by keeping tabs on their pin-down plays to either prevent or contest Fournier’s and Ross’ shots. Much like Siakam, the majority of their made baskets were tough ones. Coach Clifford needs to find a way to free them up outside of Ross jacking up 30-foot shots (hey, that might work!).
For the Raptors
Strategy: Free Siakam
Jonathan Isaac‘s length and quickness have been a season-long problem for Siakam. Despite much of Spicy P’s wild improvements this season, he’s still been relatively underwhelming against the Magic’s second-year forward.
During the regular season, the Raptors shied away a bit from running ISO plays for Siakam as his drives to the basket were nullified by Isaac. Instead, the Raptors added a wrinkle to his isolation plays where he would get a screen action in hopes of getting a much better first step, or a switch against a defender that he can take advantage of.
The Magic tried to counter this once again by packing in the paint and sending whoever was not guarding a dangerous shooter (e.g. Danny Green) to help contest Siakam’s attempt.
The next step for coach Nick Nurse’s adjustment here should be realizing this development, and taking advantage. He can do this by urging Siakam to quickly put up a good shot, or to create opportunities for a quick kick-out without Siakam eating too much of the shot clock. That being said, the same strategy should apply with Kawhi too, instead of him pounding the air out of the ball.
If you look at Siakam’s boxscore, 24 points on 24 shots look inefficient, but he was pretty much wide open going 0-of-4 from behind the arc. He’s finding the angles, and with the help of the screen, he’s starting to figure out where his opportunities to score can come in. If Siakam’s mid-range shot continues to develop, Isaac will have a progressively tough challenge over the next few games.
Will We See It Again: Yes, and it’s starting to look like Pascal is figuring out what works for him against Isaac and the Magic.
Strategy: Five-Out Offense
The Raptors relied heavily on the five-out motion offense, which in theory should be a good counter for the Magic’s strategy to protect the paint. While the execution was there for the most part, the Raptors were missing wide open three-pointers.
Another issue with this offense was the predictability of Kawhi Leonard and Siakam’s intent once they get into an isolation situation, as they ate too much time trying to dance around their defenders. This allowed the Magic to collapse the paint, leaving them with two options: shoot a very contested shot, or kick-out with the clock running out.
Will We See It Again: Most likely, with a few wrinkles on how often and how early Toronto wants to attack to get the ball moving.
Potential Adjustments for the Raptors
The Raptors have a lot of tinkering to do, but if even one of these strategies is working, it could be enough to win Game 2.
Make the Magic Pay for Packing the Paint
The Raptors have a lot of work to do defensively, but they should be the better team offensively. For that, they need to get back to moving the ball, and generating more in-rhythm shots. It would help, also, to have more off-ball movement/weakside cuts. And sure, earlier kick-outs to provide enough time to reset and find the wide open shot would also be nice. The Magic might foil the initial point of attack on whatever play the Raptors are executing (they’ve been strong defensively), but it usually comes at a cost of leaving shooters wide open.
Iron-out the Defensive Scheme
Just putting the blame on Gasol on his soft pick-and-roll defense is not fair, as the Raptors also struggled with their defensive rotations with or without Gasol. Their communication was so bad at times, it’s something we’d expect from an October regular season game.
Regardless, Toronto needs to figure out what their philosophy is with screen actions, especially when they involve Gasol. The guards (Lowry, Green, VanVleet, etc.) have to do a better job at keeping any pick-and-roll action from turning into an easy 2-on-1 situation (or 4-on-3) situation for the Magic. They should know what the scouting report says about each Orlando player. For example, the Raptors can’t afford Ibaka showing hard on a pick-and-roll by Ross and Khem Birch knowing that Siakam is long enough to fight through the screen, and that Birch only wants to roll to the basket for the dunk.
Push the Pace
The Raptors, especially late in the season, showed that they are dangerous when they push the pace. Sure, the Magic tried to prevent this from happening as much as possible, but watching the game, it felt like the Raptors did not go hard in transition often enough. Even their player movement within their half-court offensive sets looked sluggish to start for the most part. Look here for Lowry specifically to up the intensity in Game 2.
Restructure Kawhi’s Minutes’ Distribution
For one, Leonard has to play more than 33 minutes in a playoff game — especially with a lack of options in the 3- and 4-spots without OG Anunoby. It’s a little concerning having him sit a stretch of eight minutes, which, if we factor in the quarter break, is more like 15 minutes of downtime. Not saying he doesn’t need the rest, but this is the time to maximize Kawhi!
When Kawhi came back in the second quarter after going for that 8-minute break, he looked flat, and needed a few reps up and down the court to warm up again. He struggled to get going after his hot start, going 0-for-5 after checking back into the game in the second quarter. It’s clear now that Kawhi should not be sitting that long. Instead, the Raptors and Nurse should look to get those breaks down to shorter 2-3 minute stretches to let Kawhi keep his rhythm.
Establish Kyle Lowry Early
So Lowry missed his shots, big deal?
While the Raptors have shown they can win despite a sub-par scoring game from Lowry, he needs to be a factor as a scorer. There’s no denying that the team is better with Lowry on the floor, but during Game 1, the Magic are leaving him wide open to help protect the paint, making it tough for Kawhi, Siakam, Ibaka, and even Green to get quality shots around the basket.
Maybe it’s time to bust-out those old Raptors Pistol hurry up plays to get Lowry going with an easy layup. It could work — but let’s see what happens.