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Tactical Issues: How will the Raptors and Magic adjust in Game 3?

The Raptors punched back in Game 2, and the Magic are going back home to regroup. How will the Magic adjust after Game 2, and what can the Raptors do better?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Where do we start with Game 2? The Magic were punked? Wait, that’s too nice. Obliterated? That doesn’t do enough justice. Whichever word you want to use, the Raptors — especially Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Nick Nurse, and, oh heck, the entire fanbase — should feel like they now have the blueprint to eliminate the Magic in this round.

Yes, Game 2 was a blowout for the Raptors, but it just didn’t happen in a flash. Let’s revisit each team’s strategies and how they arrived at that ending. And most importantly, let’s review Game 3 options for the Raptors and Magic to prepare.

For the Magic

The Magic got bullied Tuesday night, and their scoring issues in Game 1 were even magnified in Game 2. Coach Steve Clifford has to find a way to slow down Kawhi, and at the same time put some meat on the backbone of their offense: Nikola Vucevic. But first let’s get to what worked for the Magic in Game 2.

Attack Fred VanVleet

If there’s one silver lining for the Magic in game 2, it’s the play of Terrence Ross, especially during that stretch in the first half when Ross pretty much got what he wanted off pin-down plays. At the time he was being covered by Fred VanVleet, who tried his hardest, but is also considerably shorter than Ross. It forced Nurse to switch coverage, putting Norman Powell on Ross and shifting FVV elsewhere.

Nurse countered by putting FVV on Michael Carter-Williams, who also tried to attack FVV in the pick-and-roll. The Raptors defense did look more vulnerable with FVV on the defensive end of the PnR action. In a lot of cases, Toronto was bailed out by the fact that, well, the Magic need to find a better play than MCW to attack FVV.

Potential Adjustments for the Magic

Simply put, the first adjustment is that the Magic need to show up, particularly their team defence. Once the game started to get out of hand for Orlando, it was a steady line of comfortable open shots for Kawhi, Lowry, and Marc Gasol.

After my last column, I was told by a Magic fan that the Magic aren’t packing the paint, that they just have freakishly long and athletic defenders. If that’s the case, then their defensive performance in Game 2 indicates they were just playing straight up lazy.

Since the Magic do have long and athletic defenders, I suppose the only adjustment to make on defense is to “try.” Setting the defense issue aside, let’s focus on the Magic’s main problem: how to free up Vucevic on offense.

Free Vooch #1 - Pick-and-Pop

Not much pick-and-pop action for Vooch in Game 2, but in the few times he did get the chance, the Raptors left him wide open. In Game 3, that’s something Orlando could (and should) look into.

Free Vooch #2 - Baseline Cut/Camp in Dunker’s Spot

The Raptors would use whoever is switched to Jonathan Isaac or Wes Iwundu to be the help defender to cut off Vooch’s rolls to the basket. The ball is barely getting to the corner where those guys are and the few times Isaac was closer to the rim than the three-point line in such situations, Lowry was not able to help off him because of the threat of a drop pass.

Free Vooch #3 - Get to the Serge Ibaka Match-up

Take Vooch out early, and put him back in for majority of Ibaka’s minutes. The only wrinkle here is that D.J. Augustin is the only capable playmaker that can consistently get him the ball on pick-and-roll actions. Relying on Michael Carter-Williams might not be the best option for the Magic.

Another way of going about this is by attacking Gasol and trying to get him into early foul trouble. This already happened in Game 2, with Gasol picking up his second foul in less than five minutes. But then Vucevic was unable to get a shot in the six minutes that Serge Ibaka was guarding him. Still, this situation might be favourable for the Magic to try and exploit. (At least that’s what we saw in the regular season, anyway.)

Free Vooch #4 - Less Pick-and-Rolls, Start with More Horns

I don’t know why the Magic don’t go to this option often enough. Coach Clifford seems to have intricate variations on how to execute “Horns” based on his main players’ skill set. They have used this play call in the past to make the Raptors pay in the following scenarios:

  • Quick big-to-big high/low from Isaac to a hard cutting Vucevic under the basket;
  • Vucevic fake cut to the basket to provide a pin-down screen to Gordon, who curls to the midrange area, creating a tight pick-and-roll situation where he can either shoot or drop it off to Vucevic; and
  • Get Vucevic to pop and re-enter the paint from the weak side to establish post position.

There are enough options here to potentially put the Raptors’ defense on its heels. We’ll see if the Magic change things up and come at Toronto with more of these “Horns” variations.

Make Lowry Win the Game

The Magic would have to be really disciplined to execute this, but maybe there’s a path forward where they let Lowry try to win the game. In this scenario, the Magic would have to use their length and speed to defend him for the pass, but let Lowry shoot at a higher volume and stay home with their coverage on other players.

Despite Lowry’s solid shooting numbers in Game 2, the real killer of the Magic was Kawhi Leonard and everything he can do with the ball in every situation. There’s some logic in trying to push Lowry to beat Orlando single-handedly. The trouble is: Lowry is too smart to actually fall for it.

For the Raptors

Coach Nurse ran a masterful game plan on Tuesday night, as he repeatedly made the right adjustments and counters to whatever the Magic were trying to do. For example, after seeing consecutive plays of the Magic targeting FVV on a Ross pin down, he switched FVV with Powell. In the second half, Ross was held scoreless as he had a steady diet of Danny Green, Kawhi, and Powell.

Establish Kyle Lowry

Nurse made sure that Lowry was involved offensively right from the jump in Game 2. Lowry was empowered by calling his own number within the first three plays to start the game/quarter, and when he checked back into the game.

This is important for the Raptors. In the past, the Magic have tried to play Lowry for the pass, allowing their defense to execute their strategy. In Game 2, Lowry had the gravity to keep his defender nearby, while also forcing the Magic’s defense to collapse on the drive. Lowry almost always makes the right kick-out to whoever is open on the perimeter, so this was the worst case scenario for Orlando.

Just look at this beauty right here:

Quick ISO Decisions

The Magic protected the paint in Game 1, while goading Kawhi and Pascal Siakam to dance around their defenders in ISO mode. It stalled the Raptors’ offense, and the Magic defended how predictable it was — especially when Kawhi and Siakam were in tunnel-vision mode.

This was not the case in Game 2. The Raptors mitigated this issue with a few adjustments:

  • A steady diet of Kawhi getting screens from Gasol;
  • Kawhi taking advantage of the space that Gordon is giving him to prevent a blow by. That space is enough for him to get into his bag of tricks in and around the perimeter;
  • Kawhi/Siakam will “test the waters” and go for a quick drive to the basket knowing there are kick-out option available. They executed this with very little dancing around, and without eating up much of the shot clock; and
  • Siakam with the ball on the move, either from cuts or dribble hand-offs.

Kawhi’s Load Management

Kawhi was hot early and often, and did not cool off. In fact, by the end of Game 2 it looked like Leonard wanted more blood. That’s a stark difference from how Game 1 went down, where Kawhi went off early but struggled to get it going after sitting on the bench for 8 minutes.

Nurse did an excellent job getting Kawhi his breather without letting him lose his momentum. In Game 2, for example, Kawhi left in the first quarter with under three minutes left, and then he came back to start the second quarter for a stretch, got another three minutes of rest, and came back in the middle of the second quarter. If not for his foul trouble, he might have finished the quarter.

Kawhi also played the entire third quarter, which just so happens to have coincided with the Raptors blowing the game wide open. In retrospect, I’m not sure if Leonard has played an entire quarter as a Raptor during the regular season. (He must have at least once, right?)

Rough estimate of the minutes distribution in Game 2

Potential Adjustments for the Raptors

Regardless of how the Raptors destroyed the Magic in Game 2, we still have yet to see the team’s offense really get going. VanVleet and Green’s offensive contributions are still flaky at best, and Toronto hasn’t gotten much from Powell.

On top of that, Siakam hasn’t hit a 3 in the post-season yet, and Gasol still looks passive in the offense. Yes, he’s been making plays for others, but he’s also literally passing up shots. If the Magic will leave him open on “pop” situations, Gasol should let those shots fly.

Since the Gasol trade, the Raptors are shooting better from behind the arc, but they also increased their three-point makes from 11 to 14 per game. Suffice it to say, if they don’t hit 14 threes, their record is so-so (4-6 with less than 14 3PM vs. 14-2 with 14 or more).

Sputtering Bench

Is this just a matter of guys hitting their shots? “Playoff Powell” hasn’t made an appearance yet, and VanVleet’s shot is shaky at best. Siakam was supposed to help anchor the bench lineup together with VanVleet, but it hasn’t had the effect that Nurse or Toronto would like.

Could this be Lowry’s window to shoot more with Kawhi sitting? Or are the Raptors a floor spacer, like Green, away from opening up the lanes for VanVleet/Siakam to do some damage? How about if the Raptors bench pushes the pace instead to create situational mismatches?

Let’s see what happens on Friday.