The Raptors completed the rare (for them) back-to-back road playoff win streak, plus the rare (for them) three-game playoff win streak, and are coming home with the never-before accomplished (for them) 3-1 series lead.
That’s a big night!
The team is firing on all cylinders, Kawhi Leonard is a beast, Pascal Siakam is a revelation, Kyle Lowry is running the show and Marc Gasol is anchoring the defense. Even the bench was decent last night.
It’s all happening just like Masai Ujiri drew it up.
Let’s get to the thoughts:
Overcome a Rough Start? Check
The Raptors had opened each game of the series quite well up to last night, taking early leads in each (and big leads in Games 2 and 3. Last night it was a different story, as they committed to two turnovers and a foul in the first 90 seconds, and found themselves down 5-0 before they’d even gotten a shot off. They then proceeded miss three straight, as the Magic started 6-for-6, and were down 9-1.
In the past I might have been worried. Heck, in the past the Raptors themselves might have been worried. Early struggles on the road? A scary thing. But not with these Raptors. Their defense kept them in it, as they got their hands on several loose balls and forced multiple Magic turnovers to get themselves back in the game. Before you knew it, the score was 14-13 Raptors, and they didn’t give up the lead again.
The ability of this group to overcome early struggles by locking on defense is absolutely huge, and something we’ve never seen from a Raptors team before.
Kawhi Leonard is The Answer
With apologies to Allen Iverson, who is and will always be The Answer, the way Kawhi Leonard responded to the Magic’s desperation in the third was absolutely brilliant. Orlando knew it was on the ropes, and Aaron Gordon was doing everything he could to keep them in it — and Kawhi just wasn’t having it. He answered every Magic shot by coming down to the other end, squaring up, and calmly putting the ball in the hoop. Just like that. He scored 12 of Toronto’s first 17 points in the third quarter, and when he did finally miss, on the very next defensive possession he deflected a pass that disrupted the Magic offense, forcing a late clock situation that led to a stop.
Gordon and the Magic hung around, but Kawhi just wouldn’t let them back in it. It was an incredibly strange feeling as a Raptor fan; I’m so used to that sense of dread with every lead, that feeling that every opponent bucket is going to lead to a run, that the Raptors are going to have a mental collapse... it’s jarring to feel otherwise. I’m not used to this! Leonard’s calm under pressure and willingness — and ability — just just put the team on his back and slam the door on the other guys is something new.
It’s taking some getting used to. But let me tell you... it’s a damn good feeling.
Second Quarter Block Party
The Raptors’ defense has been sensational all series, and last night was no exception. But typically, we think of that D as the kind that manifests itself on the floor — deflections, cutting off passing and driving lanes, timely double-teams, and forcing opponents into difficult shots. We don’t think of the Raptors as a great shot-blocking, rim-protecting team; Toronto doesn’t have a freak like Giannis or an above the rim centre like Gobert swatting shots away.
But the Raptors finished the season 9th in the league in blocks per game, and were fifth post-All-Star Break, despite acquiring a relatively ground-bound centre in Marc Gasol. Pretty good right?
Orlando was sure feeling that last night in the second quarter, as Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Leonard, and Gasol all blocked shots in the frame as the Raptors held Orlando to a mere 16 points.
Ibaka’s rejection of Gordon was certainly a highlight:
NO MÁS pic.twitter.com/oLq2zCKrJL— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) April 21, 2019
The Raptors are everywhere on defense, including at the rim.
What’s With the Entry Passes?
For all the Raptors have done well in this series, one oddity that has crept in has been their inability to throw entry passes into the post.
Siakam has had several mismatches (any time the Magic have anyone but Isaac guarding him its a mismatch) but the Raptors haven’t been able to get him the ball. Happened down the stretch on Friday, happened in the first half last night.
Kyle Lowry took a terrible angle on a pass to Pascal late in the second that sailed out of bounds, and in the third, he threw one off the dang rim!
It’s not something to worry about — at least not yet. But in the postseason, when Every Possession Counts (TM), the Raptors literally throwing possessions away on basic basketball plays is very odd.
The Slow Transition Game
The Raptors were one of the best fast break teams all season, ranking fourth in the league in fast break points, as Pascal Siakam because a transition terror. But they’re down to 10th in the playoffs, as the Magic are really damn good at defending in transition.
Last night, the Raptors still only had 13 fast break points (despite forcing 17 turnovers), but they ran a kind of “slow transition” game on several possessions that, while not really a fast break, was fast enough that it kept the Magic on their heels and led to several good shots. Simply by getting up the floor quickly, even though the defense was getting back, the Raptors still kept the pressure on — they forced the defense to try and get set before everyone was in position, before everyone had found their preferred matchups. It helped get Kawhi a couple of six-footers and a couple free throws, helped Pascal get a dunk, and got Danny Green two open threes (that he missed, unfortunately).
It was just another example of how the Raptors helped keep the Magic out of their comfort zone.
I’m still shaking my head at this game. It was so businesslike! The Raptors were so extremely professional, and I’m just not used to it. I like it... a lot. More please! Starting tomorrow night in Game 5, thanks.