Last Sunday, the NBA world was blessed to see an amazing two-way performance by Kawhi Leonard, a Toronto Raptor. Whatever strategy that may have worked for coach Steve Clifford and his Orlando Magic on Friday night in Game 3, it didn’t bother Kawhi one bit in Game 4.
Kawhi also followed up his lacklustre defensive showing in Game 3 with perhaps his first full game playing serious defense this season. In fact, the sight of him closing in was enough for Terrence Ross to give up a wide-open three-point shot.
So then, what else did we see in Game 4 from the Raptors and the Magic? What kind of adjustments should we expect from coaches Steve Clifford and Nick Nurse? And what can we suggest as well?
For the Magic
It’s boom or bust for the Magic if they can’t free up Nikola Vucevic. At least, that’s their mentality, and they’ve focused all of their resources throughout four games to get him going.
Getting the ball to Vooch has been a problem for the Magic, and when he does get it, what he’s to do with it poses another problem. It’s not even a Marc Gasol problem anymore; the Raptors are laying off shooters and clogging the lane, forcing Vucevic to see multiple Raptors jerseys everywhere he turns.
Are the strategies of Clifford too predictable, and that’s why Nurse and the Raptors have been able to shut down everything that’s supposed to be in the Magic’s arsenal? Maybe it’s time to focus on their other players.
Could it be that since Vucevic is so ingrained into their offense, they’re lost and don’t have anything else if their Vooch-wagen engine is not working? That could very well be it.
Push the Pace
After coach Clifford pretty much tried everything legal to get Vooch going in Game 4, Vucevic rewarded him by losing his cool and picking up his fourth foul in the 3rd quarter. That meant an extended run for Khem Birch, a stretch which gave Aaron Gordon opportunities to push the pace and get to the rim.
It wasn’t pretty all the time: Wesley Iwundu made a bad business decision by trying to go coast-to-coast with Kawhi Leonard that didn’t end well, for example.
However, that was probably the only stretch in Game 4 where the Magic didn’t look rattled since giving up their early lead. They were able to generate easy transition buckets, including a pull-up three-pointer by D.J. Augustin, and they were able to create mismatches — especially for Gordon.
Unfortunately for the Magic, it was short-lived.
Will We See It Again: If coach Clifford can re-create it, maybe.
Hey, Let’s Not Use the Augustin-Vucevic Pick-and-Roll Anymore
Did D.J. Augustin and Nikola Vucevic get into a fight or something? Or is this a coaching decision by Steve Clifford? What I’m getting here is how the Magic went away from Augustin on getting the ball to Vooch via various pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop/dribble hand-off actions.
Unfortunately for the Magic, the Raptors had a surprise waiting as they blitzed any PNR involving Vooch plus one of Ross and Evan Fournier. Heck, there was even one possession where Isaac tried to initiate a PNR with Vooch and he got smothered by the blitz and turned the ball over.
It took over a quarter and a half until the Magic went with an actual Augustin/Vooch PNR. Up until then, Clifford was trying in vain to get Vooch the ball via various PNR/PNP/DHO actions using Evan Fournier, Gordon, and Ross. Every time Vooch would appear to set a screen to Augustin, Augustin would reject the screen by trying to beat his defender going the opposite way for a layup.
Coach Clifford eventually went back with D.J./Vooch actions more frequently in the second half, but given the outcome, I guess it was a failed experiment.
Will We See It Again: I doubt it.
Potential Adjustments for the Magic
Do they have any left? Just kidding, I believe there should be a few available for them, such as:
The Magic should see how far they can go with an offense centred around Aaron Gordon. He’s had the most success thus far for the Magic, which is impressive given the degree of difficulty, defense-wise, he’s had to face and score on (unlike, say, T-Ross going against Fred VanVleet — which has been straight up too easy for Terrence).
We’ve seen flashes of Gordon being able to lose Kawhi on PNR actions with Vooch, as long as he has the space to operate. Getting Gasol to switch could get Gordon to the line more as well, and that might be enough to get Gasol into foul trouble.
Will We See This: Most likely, as Clifford has exhausted the Almanac on how to free Vooch.
For the Raptors
Remember when Nick Nurse was supposed to come in labelled as an “offensive coach”? The defensive beatdown that the Raptors are laying on Orlando is insane. I don’t think the Raptors have ever been as masterful at eliminating what works for their opponent as we’re seeing right now.
Despite that, you’re telling me the coaching staff still hasn’t removed Fred VanVleet from the agony of guarding Terrence Ross? Well, we finally saw the answer to that in Game 4, which is one of the adjustments I’ll discuss below.
I actually have a feeling that coach Nurse has had all of these counters all along, but he's been keeping the majority of them in his fancy blazer pocket to roll out one by one, or as needed.
Gasol Rolling Back for a Blind Screen
This is a very subtle adjustment that doesn’t look like a big deal, but if you watch Gasol on his PNR actions with Kawhi, it does have a profound effect.
As seen on the video above, Gasol would roll down the lane but would go up to meet Kawhi’s double team and screen one of them. Now, I’m not sure if there’s a preference or a pattern, but Kawhi and Gasol seem to be in-sync on which defender to target.
This move allows Kawhi the momentary lapse of defense to take his midrange jumper.
Will We See It Again: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Take Ross Out of the Game
Game 4 was when coach Nurse stopped indulging former Raptor Terrence Ross and finally did something more than the token defensive scheme of putting VanVleet on him.
The Raptors coaching staff went savage and killed off all of his options, such as:
- Pin down action where Ross would try to get rid of his man via a screen, and he would get his catch-and-shoot over a smaller defender. The Raptors responded by making sure that whoever is guarding the play initiator (point guard in most cases), would jump to Ross’ spot so Ross would be catching the ball against a double team, forcing him to give up the ball; and
- Any PNR action would be met by an instant hard double team, forcing Ross to make a decision to pass the ball.
In fact, the only comfortable shot that Terrence Ross took was the buzzer beater!
Unfortunately for Ross, he grew up in front of Toronto’s eyes. The entire city knows his strengths, and his weaknesses — and they got exposed Sunday night.
Will We See It Again: It’s a shame the Raptors have to make their old friend T-Ross look bad, but it’s something that must be done to move on to the next round. So yeah, for one more game we’ll see it again.
Potential Adjustment for the Raptors
Everything seems to be clicking offensively and defensively recently, with the exception of a few possessions involving VanVleet running the offense. However, we also have to recognize that VanVleet is working really hard trying to defend Ross, making it uncomfortable every second that he’s nearby.
It’s a tough task for the undersized VanVleet, and through four games — with the help of new defensive schemes being rolled out — VanVleet doesn’t look unplayable anymore, at least defensively.
Get Gasol Going
If there’s anyone that’s under-used in the Raptors’ offense right now, it’s Marc Gasol. He’s played his best “I came in the middle of the season, so I’ll try my best to fit in” mode, but moving forward, the team will need his offense and some more aggressive play-making from the elbow to succeed.
Maybe it’s too much to ask Gasol to do this right now, given the workload that he has in keeping Vucevic on his lap the entire time he’s on the floor. But still, it wouldn’t hurt to see more activity for the big Spaniard.
Will We See This: I hope so.
Let’s see if the Raptors can close out the Magic tonight!