As it turns out, this series has settled into a nice rhythm for Toronto. The Raptors have a commanding lead, have blown the Magic out in two of their three wins, and have started clicking on all cylinders. For any other two-seed, this would be a matter of course. For the Raptors, it feels like a nice change.
Now, there have been some common trends in the series so far. Let’s quickly touch on them here, as there’s not much more to learn from this series if it continues as it has for Toronto. And there’s no reason to think it won’t.
Lowry’s Turn Again
Kawhi Leonard got all the individual accolades from Game 4, and they were well deserved. He dominated to the tune of 34 points on only 21 used possessions, and generally filled up the box score, leaving the Magic with no answer.
Kyle Lowry, meanwhile, put up a measly nine points, on 14 used possessions (thanks to an unsightly six turnovers). He still generated nine assists, and pulled in four steals, but overall: not an impressive individual performance.
But just like in Game 1, Lowry’s impact belied his individual performance. With Lowry on the court in Game 4, the Raptors had a 126 ORTG (best on the team), a 92 DRTG (third on the team among regulars), and a +34 RTG (best on the team). When he sat, the ORTG dropped to a team-worst 71, the DRTG climbed slightly to 95 (it was a very good overall defensive game up and down the roster), and the team’s net rating plummeted to -24, a 58 point drop off from his on-court numbers.
The team was a +26 overall when Lowry played, and -4 in the nine minutes he sat. This makes him the only player on the team with a negative off-court plus-minus on the night.
Never let Kyle Lowry’s boxscore fool you. He’s the engine for Toronto, and no matter what his shooting, scoring, or other individual numbers are, he’s driving this team’s success more often than not.
The Big Men
A well publicized story for this series that I haven’t focused on has been Marc Gasol’s impact on Toronto’s defense as a whole, and specifically when covering Nikola Vucevic.
Vucevic was an All-Star this season, with averages of 21 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in 31 minutes per game, and he powered the Magic to the playoffs for the first time in seven years. He was just as lethal against the Raptors in the regular season as he was against most opponents, averaging 20 points, 16 rebounds and 5 assists per game.
But Gasol (and the Raptors’ overall defensive approach) has done a number on him in these playoffs. When sharing the court with Gasol (a 100 minute sample), Vucevic has been held to per-36 minute averages of 10 points, nine rebounds and four assists (with four turnovers to match). He’s used 17 possessions per game getting those 10 points, a dramatic fall off in efficiency from his regular season per-36-minute production of 24 points on 19 used possessions. The Raptors have won those Gasol-Vucevic match-ups at a rate of 15 points per 36 minutes.
Meanwhile, in the 30 minutes Vucevic has managed to play without Gasol there to check him (that is, when matched up with Serge Ibaka), his per-36 minute averages have leapt to 27 points, 10 rebounds and five assists (against 1 turnover). He’s used 19 possessions per 36 to generate those numbers, meaning he’s being used more in line with the regular season, just to greater effectiveness. And the Magic have broken even in those minutes.
But one thing stood out in Game 4. After all his struggles earlier in the playoffs, Ibaka found a way to be effective when trapped in that match-up. He’d shown some signs late in Game 3 of managing that for a short stretch (an impressive run the team needed from him). But for the entirety of Game 4, the Magic completely failed to take advantage of that match-up.
Vucevic still saw an uptick in effectiveness against Ibaka compared to Gasol (who held him to a truly miserable 10 points, four rebounds and two assists per-36 line), but was far less effective. And that was great news for the Raptors as the two matched up for a full eight minutes in this game (after averaging only six minutes per game against each other in the first three games). Vucevic may have posted a per-36 split of 19 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, but with the improvement in performance from the Ibaka-based units in Game 4 (more on that in a second), it was not dominant enough to power the Magic. The Raptors point differential per-36 ended up being even greater with Ibaka facing Vucevic than with Gasol (+28/36 vs +19/36).
It helps that Serge had an incredibly efficient game himself, posting 13 points and eight rebounds on only five used possessions. All of which leads to our last point.
Those Darn Bench Units
This is a section we’ve had in pretty much every post where I’ve been forced to review those terrible one-star bench units that have struggled to survive their minutes. They cost the Raptors Game 1 (and almost cost them Game 3). Throw in the havoc the specific lineup selection has wreaked on Pascal Siakam’s minutes (he once again played the opening 15 minutes of the game to support those bench units), and this has become an ongoing concern.
Until Game 4, anyway. Lineups with all three of Norman Powell, Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet (and without Lowry or Leonard), across 12 minutes through the first three games, have posted a -22 net rating. And then, all of a sudden, in Game 4: a +11 net rating in five minutes. These are small samples, but in tight playoff games small losses and gains are important. And suddenly a fairly consistent loss was a gain. Why?
Well, that incredibly efficient Serge game mentioned above was certainly part of it. But the other bench players got in the fun as well. VanVleet put up nine points and four assists in 22 minutes. But most important might be the return of Playoff Norm.
Powell was everywhere in Game 4, with several big shots, a very efficient overall line of 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting, and no turnovers to boot, leading all bench players with a +14 plus-minus on the night.
While I have my doubts this Raptors lineup will see continued success, the bench players coming up with performances like that helped propel the team to the blowout win in Game 4. Here’s hoping we’ll see it happen again.
All stats per NBA.com