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Tactical Issues: How will the Raptors and Magic adjust in Game 4?

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Has Orlando Magic solved their problem with Vucevic vs. Gasol? How did Siakam erupt for 30 points? Should the Raptors “bench” their problem? We dive into some Game 4 tactics.

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Pascal Siakam put the basketball world on notice on Friday night, and the Magic couldn’t do anything about it. Or, maybe they can, but they refused to mitigate it. That’s what we’re here to figure out.

Game 3 should not have been as close as it was, with the Magic coming close to stealing it had they secured one crucial rebound. Maybe the Raptors have to make some changes too, in that case. Let’s see what transpired in Game 3 and what advice we can offer to coaches Nick Nurse and Steve Clifford.

For the Magic

Coach Steve Clifford should see some silver lining in Game 3 after Nikola Vucevic was finally able to get going — at least for a stretch. There’s still some tinkering that needs to be done for Orlando, though, such as solving the Isaac-Ross-Fournier rotation.

Get Gasol into Foul Trouble to Free Vooch

Has Clifford found a way to free Vooch or was it a fool’s gold? Vooch’s best game of this series mostly went on when Gasol wasn’t guarding him. For Vucevic’s run against Serge Ibaka, he scored 18 points (in 36 possessions). However, he only managed to score two points each half (four points in 41 possessions) while being guarded by Gasol.

It’s also worth noting that even with Ibaka playing the majority of the third and fourth quarter — thanks to Gasol’s fouls — Vooch was held scoreless for a 12-minute stretch, going only 0-2 without Gasol on the floor.

Regardless, Vucevic was able to get his game going enough, and Gasol being attacked by other Magic players got him into foul trouble. It’s a simple idea, but considering how thoroughly Gasol has outplayed Vucevic for much of this series, it may be the Magic’s best bet.

Will We See It Again: Depends on Gasol’s adjustment to limit his fouls.

Failed Experiment: The Fournier + Ross Combo

The Magic tried to infuse more offense to their lineup, going with Ross and Fournier playing together at the same time. Coach Nurse saw this and exploited Siakam’s mismatch on either player, especially if one of them had to guard Kawhi.

Siakam scored 14 points off 22 possessions against Ross and Fournier. This is a far cry from Game 2, when he only had six possessions against these two altogether. Obviously Kawhi is still the centrepiece of Toronto’s offense, but if Siakam gets a chance to run at Fournier or Ross for another 30-point game, the Raptors would be foolish to not take advantage.

Will We See It Again: The Magic’s five-man lineup of Augustin-Fournier-Ross-Gordon-Vucevic was the catalyst of their late surge to get into the playoffs, so yes, we will definitely see these two on the court together again.

Multiple Defenders on Kawhi

We are not going to use the excuse of the runs for how Kawhi Leonard played Friday night. Sure, he looked off, but this wasn’t far off from how he looked after every first game back from some extended “load management.” Kawhi’s offense was just not there that night, but we’ve seen his tunnel-vision manifest throughout the year.

Nevertheless, we have to give props when they’re due. After seeing Kawhi cruise down the lane comfortably in Game 2, the Magic made sure that Kawhi saw plenty of bodies, and played him for the shot in following scenarios:

  • Gasol High Screen: Would draw both Gordon and Vooch double-teaming Kawhi while he danced around. In fact, in the first half he only passed the ball to Gasol once and Gasol made the bucket.
  • ISO: The Magic will send the nearest help defender, usually Vooch, as Kawhi makes his way to the basket, and if he gets past that, Isaac is waiting under the rim.
  • Post-ups: The Magic will collapse the paint, leaving the likes of Gasol, Lowry, Siakam open.

This defensive strategy seemed to have bothered Kawhi’s shot concentration, and it worked well because Kawhi barely passed the ball. For example, in the first half, there’s a least 15+ possessions where Kawhi got the ball to do something (shoot or play make). He only made a quick decision to get in the paint for the “kick-out” option early on about three times. The rest were mostly forced shots, turnovers, or a desperation kick-out with the shot clock running out.

While Kawhi made some adjustments in the second half — he was a willing passer in the third quarter — the first half Kawhi came back in the clutch and it almost cost the Raptors.

Will We See It Again: It worked, and coach Clifford won’t go away from this strategy unless proven wrong.

Potential Adjustments for the Magic

Call Ross’ Number Early

If not for the beloved former Raptor Terrence Ross, this series may be a cakewalk for the Raptors. Through three games, the Magic were only in it when Ross was doing damage on the floor. He’s the second player off the bench for the Magic — and he’s also their leading scorer in the series!

I honestly don’t get coach Clifford’s infatuation with Evan Fournier who logged the second most minutes for the Magic in Game 3. (Kidding! I wonder the same with Nurse and Fred VanVleet sometimes.) Ross playing 32 minutes compared to a guy that shot 1-of-12 yet played 37 minutes is just unacceptable.

What’s even more unacceptable if I’m a Magic fan, we all saw Fournier struggle out of the game in the first and third quarter, yet coach Clifford waited for a full eight minutes, sticking to his rotation when the team needed some scoring punch.

Will We See This: The Magic only have so many guys they can play, but it would make sense to lean on Ross more (and perhaps Fournier less).

Increase Isaac’s Minutes

Siakam went 4-of-10 against Isaac in Game 3, inefficiently scoring nine points. However, he dropped 21 points against everybody else. It’s not like Isaac’s a shutdown defender on Siakam, as Pascal has figured out he has a better shot at making the basket if he’s doing his move with half-step advantage via cuts or PnR/DHO situations. However, one-on-one, Isaac does a better job forcing Siakam into either misses or tough shots.

Will We See This: Siakam is playing around 40 minutes per game, and coach Clifford prefers putting more scoring options on the floor. This is why Isaac hits the bench in crunch time in favour of Terrence Ross. As it stands, we won’t see Isaac in crunch time, but maybe an extended run during the first three quarters — if not, there’ll be more Fournier.

For the Raptors

The Raptors did not come out with the same defensive intensity and aggressiveness compared to their masterful Game 2 performance (they did enough). If they had, everyone would have fouled out by half time.

Coach Nurse and the Raptors also experienced one of Kawhi’s lesser post-season games, for sure. While his offensive struggles were mainly rooted in illness, I still have to question some of Leonard’s decision-making with the ball in his hands.

Coach Nurse also has some decisions to make, as some of his moves were questionable, on the basis of both data analytics and even the eye test. Let’s go over some of the things that worked and didn’t work for Toronto.

Free Siakam

Game 3 will now forever be remembered as the Pascal Siakam game, and he got it with some tweaks to when and where he would attack.

Jonathan Isaac’s been a pest against Siakam on 1-on-1 situation, with his length and quickness enough to make Siakam go for higher degree of difficulty shots. It’s not like Siakam can’t make a basket against Isaac, it’s just not as efficient.

To counter this, the Raptors had Siakam getting the ball on the move, whether cutting towards the basket or getting the dribble hand-off. Siakam on the move feels like he’s at least a step ahead of anyone — including Jonathan Isaac. The Raptors also targeted ISO situations where Siakam got smaller Magic wings switched onto him. As we saw all night, Siakam cooked them into BBQ chicken.

Will We See It Again: Yes, and more of this, please!

Fred VanVleet’s Utilization

Fred VanVleet has been by far the worst rotation Raptor in this series and his inadequacies have been under the spotlight each and every game. Some questionable uses:

  • VanVleet on Ross: The Raptors are scared of putting him on D.J. Augustin as he’ll die off the screens and make it harder for Gasol. But is Ross the only place to hide him?
  • VanVleet and Lowry combo: The Raptors loved using this pairing in the regular season, as far back as VanVleet’s emergence during his rookie year. However, against the Magic, Nurse is now facing a dilemma between FVV and Lowry on who will cover Ross.
  • VanVleet’s Decision Making: He does not recognize mismatches fast enough — especially the big man on a small defender — and takes his time surveying the floor.
  • VanVleet as the Main Initiator of the Offense: I understand this part because he’s a point guard, and he’s usually the best playmaker on the floor. The main issue is when FVV is out there with multiple playmakers (any two of Lowry, Siakam, or Kawhi), he still maintains the playmaking duties. And in this series so far, he more often than not ends up taking the shot.

Will We See It Again: Won’t be surprised to see all three points, hoping for just two — if not none.

Potential Adjustments for the Raptors

Fix the Bench Unit

Here are the issues with coach Nurse’s bench unit:

  • Jodie Meeks is a bad defender, his man tends to beat him forcing Serge Ibaka to help, which frees up Nikola Vucevic.
  • Ibaka playing with three players who are 6’4” and under while also playing against tall and long players puts a lot of stress on the Raptors’ interior defensive presence.
  • The Magic would have no one under 6’4” out there if Augustin was not on the floor.
  • The bench lineup is, not surprisingly, bad offensively, but it has been even worse defensively.

In the past, Lowry was the band-aid fix here, and more recently, Nurse has been using one of (if not both) Lowry and Siakam to help the bench unit. However, as I alluded to earlier, having Lowry and Siakam in there is useless if FVV keeps calling his own number.

Maybe, just maybe, put Malcolm Miller in instead of Meeks for that 2-3 minute bench run in the first half, to provide additional length, shooting, and defense. (A returning Patrick McCaw would also work, obviously.) What could also work is having an Ibaka-Siakam-Chris Boucher frontcourt (assuming the latter isn’t still injured, and see if that does something). Oh, and if Lowry and Siakam are on the floor, don’t give the decision making to FVV too much.

Will We See This: Unlikely, but if Game 4 turns into a Game 2-esque blowout...

Coach in Crunch Time

When the Magic made their run around the sixth-minute mark, it took coach Nurse a long time to realize that he needs Danny Green in there and that FVV is a liability. Before that realization, there were no successful offensive execution for the Raptors, except for the times Siakam bailed out their possession.

Toronto’s offense became so predictable, and Kawhi was very predictable that night. Coach Nurse should have had the guts to call Siakam’s number in crunch time instead of Kawhi, who was clearly fading down the stretch.

That said, here’s hoping Kawhi is better for tonight’s game, as the Raptors don’t have many other options in the 3-4 spots in the rotation besides Siakam. Toronto needed to have him out there in crunch time, they just maybe should not have relied on him as much, given his health.

Will We See This: Kawhi as the number two option? Probably not, because he’ll be awesome next game.