TORONTO – For 12 minutes in their series opener the Toronto Raptors looked every inch a No.2 seed; they looked like a team that won 58 games and still had a lot left in the tank.
That doesn’t do them a lot of good as they head into Game 2 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic.
They weren’t that team for the other 36 minutes in Game 1 and so they head into Tuesday night’s rematch needing a win to avoid putting themselves in a hole that most teams don’t recover from — according to WhoWins.com the team that goes up 2-0 in a best-of-seven NBA series wins the series 93.4 per cent of the time.
"We’ve got to bounce back," said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam. "We’ve got to bounce back. Simple as that. We’ve got to bounce back."
What they have to bounce back from is an opening-game performance that was good but not nearly good enough. The list of boo-boos is long. There was Kyle Lowry going scoreless, and there was Raptors head coach Nick Nurse inexplicably over-managing Kawhi Leonard’s playing time — holding him to just 33 minutes, less than his season average — and don’t forget Leonard and Marc Gasol and the three Defensive Player of the Year awards they represent screwing up their coverage on the game-winning three by Orlando’s D.J. Augustin.
But the Raptors would be wrong to declare a crisis. As Lowry pointed out: "For me, I play the game the right way and missed some shots, and we lost so it looks worse."
Still, they did lose, and so now the challenge is to make sure things don’t start looking bad.
They don’t have to look far for inspiration. The Raptors can review what they were able to do in the third quarter when they suffocated Orlando and nearly broke the game open as an example of what they can do when they lock in defensively. For as much as has been made about the Magic’s defensive acumen the Raptors were the better defensive team over the course of the season, finishing fifth in the NBA in defensive rating compared with Orlando, who were eighth.
At times Toronto has shown themselves to be even better than their numbers suggest as they’ve been able to raise their game with moments of sheer dominance. The third quarter was one of those times. When you hold a team to 5-of-18 from the floor and force four turnovers and win out on the scoreboard 27-18, there are a lot of positives to draw on.
"I think we just played harder," said Lowry. "I think that was a big key, we just played harder, more physical. Our defence fuels our offence. When we’re going on defence, our offence is really good. When we’ve gotta take the ball out of the net [after the other team scores], things are a little bit stagnant, a little bit slower. But when we can get stops and push and run and change the momentum and the tempo, we’re really talented, we’re really good."
The Raptors played smarter, too. One of the key adjustments they made was to have shooting guard Danny Green start covering Augustin. The one-time Raptor – Augustin played 82 minutes for Toronto during a brief stint in the 2013-4 season – had ripped the Raptors for 10 points on four shots in the second quarter as Orlando sprinted out to a 16-point lead.
Something needed to be done. It was Green’s task to pick up Augustin earlier and more aggressively, making him earn every inch of floor.
"I think pick-up points are sometimes used to make a statement of, ‘We’re coming to get you!’ You know, a little bit of ‘We’re coming to attack you a little bit’," said Nurse after his club practiced on Monday. "I like it. I have a European background where everyone picks up full court all the time, right? Point guards are up there all the time, hounding them back and forth. I like that a little bit."
The challenge for the Raptors is that having Lowry chase Augustin around for 94 feet reaches a point of diminishing returns. Toronto needs Lowry to be sharp offensively – his zero-point outing in Game 1 notwithstanding – and his strengths defensively at this stage of his career are more off the ball as a help defender where he can make timely digs or step in for charges.
Green was happy to take over and give Augustine problems, using his 6-foot-6 frame to compensate for the quickness advantage held by the 6-foot Magic guard.
"[I] just try to slow him down," said Green. "Use my length to my advantage. Make it tougher for him. I try to pick him up a bit full court, make them slow the offence a little bit … just bother him a little bit, make him wear down, tire him out, we know they don’t go deep in the rotation. But it ended up we didn’t go very deep, either. We got a little gassed as well. Just slow him down, tire him out, use my length to be able to bother him, his shot, his movements a little bit. I could have done a little better job, and I’m going to continue to try that."
With Green bothering Augustin the Magic point guard managed to get up only two shots in eight minutes and was held scoreless. Behind the ball the Raptors were able to be more aggressive too. The Raptors picked up a pair of steals and scores six points on the fast break – no easy feat against one of the best transition defences in the NBA.
"For the most part, to be honest with you, it was them getting in the passing lanes more," Magic head coach Steve Clifford told reporters on Sunday. "They were very aggressive; they had us pushed out away from the scoring areas."
Whatever they tried worked, including simply trying harder. By the time the quarter was over the Raptors had flipped the Magic’s 16-point first-half lead to a six-point advantage. And it could have been an even bigger bulge. Gasol and Lowry each came up empty at the free-throw line — the Raptors as a team missed four-straight free throws. They turned the ball over five times, with three of them coming on offensive fouls.
A tweak here, a little more luck elsewhere and the Raptors’ night might look a lot different, and the outlook going into Game 2 would as well.
But after turning in one dominant defensive quarter in Game 1, they know where to look to get things rolling.