It has been the year of unusual circumstances, and that continues Wednesday night as the Toronto Raptors play as the home team versus the Magic in Orlando.
The Disney bubble has been magical so far for the Raptors after a couple of statement wins — one over the Los Angeles Lakers, who have the best record in the Western Conference, and another over an extremely talented Miami Heat team (who just defeated the Celtics).
During the early success of the restart a lot more people, specifically American media and fans, have begun to take notice of the Raptors and their legitimate shot at repeating as champs. That’s largely because those aforementioned victories have come on the backs of the Raptors’ defense, which first held LeBron James and Anthony Davis to 34 points on 9-of-22 shooting; then, against the Heat, Toronto made two strong defensive plays to save the game. First, Kyle Lowry making it difficult for Jimmy Butler to catch a pass, therefore forcing a turnover (which the NBA said on Tuesday that it should have been called a foul) and second, a Fred VanVleet deflection that led to a steal sealing the game.
Tonight, the Raptors are in for an easier task with the Magic coming in having played the night before, picking up an 11-point loss at the hands of the Indiana Pacers. They’ve also lost their most dangerous player, Jonathan Isaac, to injury.
The Magic come into the contest with a 2-1 record in the bubble and sit a half game behind the Brooklyn Nets for the seventh seed. It’s unlikely the Magic will lose the playoff spot to the Washington Wizards, but the former still have a magic number of four to clinch a playoff berth.
Although the Magic are not in the Lakers’ or Heat’s tier, they’re still coming off a blowout loss and with potentially something to prove against the Raptors. As per usual, nothing can be taken lightly in the bubble.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet One, 8 PM ET
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Orlando – D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, James Ennis III, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic
Toronto – Patrick McCaw (knee – out), Oshae Brissett (knee – out)
Orlando – Jonathan Isaac (torn ACL – out)
It’s tough enough having one point guard who can create scoring opportunities for teammates, score at a high-rate himself, and also defend the top guards on the opposing team. So far, the Raptors have two that are playing at that All-Star level: Lowry and VanVleet.
In the two games so far, the Raptors starters have an impressive net rating and it seems as long as Lowry-plus-another-starter are on the court, the Raptors are in good hands.
In the first couple games, Lowry and VanVleet together are +35.7 — fourth among a two-man lineup that’s played more than 40 minutes together in the two games for the Raptors. The other top duos are Lowry/Anunoby, Lowry/Siakam/ and Gasol/Anunoby.
Focusing back on Lowry and VanVleet, they each have a 30-point game and a double-double. There are also only three teams with at least two players in the top-30 (min. 30 minutes) in player impact estimates (PIE) and that’s the Lakers Davis and LeBron, the Clippers Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and Lowry and VanVleet for the Raptors.
PIE takes into consideration the defensive end as well, which both players have been major factors. VanVleet has averaged 4.2 deflections per game this season, which has increased to five per game since the restart, while Lowry leads the league with 32 drawn charges (two in the bubble).
With a backcourt of Augustin and Fournier on the opposing side tonight, the Raptors backcourt may only provide a bigger offensive explosion than what we’ve already seen so far through the first couple games.
Absent Magic Bigs
During the regular season, before the COVID-19 suspension, the Raptors went 3-0 versus the Magic — two of the games did not include Lowry, and the Magic played one without Nikola Vucevic.
The Magic’s offense was held under 100 points in each of those contests, and forward Isaac, who averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds in those three games, won’t be available tonight. Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, the Magic’s two big men were completely taken out of the games by the Raptors’ bigs.
In the three games, Gordon and Vucevic both averaged four points, while the former shot 20 percent and the latter 10 percent from the field. Vucevic still averaged 8.5 boards in his two games, while Gordon averaged five in three games. And in the 24 minutes in the two games on the court together, the Magic duo had a net rating of -16.3.
It’ll be key to see if Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam can keep the two Magic players in check once again.
Homecourt advantage doesn’t mean much in the bubble since there’s no crowd and it’s a neutral zone. That said, the Milwaukee Bucks could have clinched the first seed in the East on August 1. Instead, the Raptors are rolling and the Bucks have lost two straight — and that clinching has not been achieved yet.
The earliest the Bucks can clinch now is August 6 with a victory over the Heat.
For anything drastic to happen — the Raptors to get the one-seed — the Bucks would have to lose their remaining games while the Raptors go undefeated in their remaining six. It’s unlikely to happen with some easy games left on the Bucks schedule, but it’s something to enjoy and keep an eye on as we watch the bubble season progress.
Could the wheels fall off for Milwaukee and the Raptors finish first in the east for the second time in three years? Crazier things have happened in 2020.