Coming into the game, it was easy to admit to having no clue who’s still on the Orlando Magic team — outside Toronto’s old friend Terrence Ross. However, for tonight’s contest against the Raptors, we did know we’d see Fred VanVleet back. And that that alone would have have been enough talent to get past the Magic on Friday night. As it was, VanVleet was only one small part of the outcome, even as the Raptors went on to a comfortable 113-102 win.
While the Magic did put up a fight over the first two-and-a-half quarters before packing it in, they let Paul Watson Jr., in his first NBA career start, explode for a career-high 30 points by way of eight made threes. On top of that, Yuta Watanabe came out aggressive off the bench to set the tone for the Raptors early on. He scored nine quick points to end the first quarter, en route to the best offensive performance of his NBA career. Watanabe finished with a career-high 21 points and six rebounds.
VanVleet’s first game back was a rough one, with rust and conditioning certainly a factor. On a bit of a side note, he went 0-of-6 from behind the arc which unfortunately snapped his streak of at least one three-pointer per game. Meanwhile, VanVleet’s backcourt partner, rookie Malachi Flynn, had an off-night offensively too — but was a wizard passing the ball, netting eight assists for the game.
Watching this game, it’s hard to fathom how the Chicago Bulls lost to this same Orlando Magic squad. In all, the Magic’s Disney kids were the only ones who put up a fight. Wendell Carter Jr. dropped 20 points and nine rebounds, and Cole Anthony had a solid 19 points, seven rebounds, and five assists for the night. Good for them!
To begin with, the Magic also made sure to let VanVleet know he was not dropping 54 points again, as they immediately double-teamed him on the Raptors’ first possession of the game. The Magic’s defense on VanVleet was decent, but it was clear Fred was still playing his way back into rhythm. He struggled off the bat in the first quarter, going 1-for-7 with no other contributions. Meanwhile, Khem Birch, for his second straight start for the Raptors, was the lone bright spot early on, showcasing a beautiful midrange game and the expected rim protection on the other end. Orlando did go on a 9-0 run early though, so it wasn’t all fun times to start.
The Raptors continued to struggle on the offensive end early — missing eleven straight shots in the first, until a jumper from Flynn broke the cold snap. Fortunately for the Raptors, the Magic were not really capable of pulling away, despite their activity on the defensive end. Also, it looked like Watanabe woke up feeling dangerous, as he either scored or assisted on the Raptors’ last 12 points of the opening frame. In the process, Yuta hit a running banker, a three-pointer, a dunk off a curl, and a floater as part of a two-for-one possession. That was perhaps the finest offensive stretch of basketball in Watanabe’s entire career. And it got Toronto back into a tie with the Magic at 24.
But then the Raptors went away from Watanabe to start the second quarter, with Stanley Johnson, DeAndre’ Bembry, and Rodney Hood slowing the team’s momentum. That was a cue for Flynn to take over, as he followed up a midrange floater with three nifty assists to put the Raptors up 36-31. The Magic kept it close via a balanced attack led by Cole Anthony, and took the lead, 46-45, with one minute left until the end of the half. The Raptors’ horrible run of basketball to end the half was capped by a perfectly executed tank move by Stanley Johnson. He jumped in on the quick inbounds pass intended for Flynn and promptly bull-rushed in for an offensive foul. The Magic led 51-47 at the half.
The Raptors opened the third quarter the way they ended the previous one: by executing some horrible possessions with Flynn missing a midrange and VanVleet turning the ball over. Despite this, the Raptors went on a 10-0 run, thanks largely to Watson, who scored eight in a hurry. The Raptors and the Magic would then exchange not just buckets but also plenty of bad possessions, before Watson’s back-to-back trifectas — he had 14 in the quarter — pushed the Raptors’ lead to 70-61. That spurt forced the Magic coach Steve Clifford to feign alarm and call for a timeout, but in reality: they were ready to go belly up.
How do we know this for sure? Because Watson came out of the huddle and immediately hit two more three-pointers. As a result, Toronto’s lead grew to as much as 15, while the Orlando Magic went on to turn into the Lakeland Magic for the rest of the quarter. Not to be outdone, Nurse had the Raptors countering with an all-bench, no-point guard lineup of Johnson, Watanabe, Freddie Gillespie, Hood, and Bembry. As expected, the rest of the quarter went uneventful at best, with the Raptors holding an 85-70 lead to close out the third.
The fourth quarter became something of a glorified open gym run. Sometimes Clifford would gesture something from the sideline — whatever it was, we’ll never know. Meanwhile, the Raptors looked to be enjoying themselves as both teams got up and down to shoot mildly contested shots, at best. In all, it was nice pressure-free basketball, with Toronto’s bench players have a ball — not exactly the worst thing to have happen on a day like today.
With the Raptors winning against Orlando and the Bulls losing to the Grizzlies tonight, the Raptors are now a few percentage points ahead of the Bulls for the last play-in spot. Chicago has two games in hand and they own the tiebreaker, so the Raptors will have to finish ahead of them in the standings to get the play-in spot. Fortunately, their next game is at home on Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder.