TORONTO – Scratch, claw, scrap, fight, win.
It’s a formula that travels well and rarely fails, provided it’s accompanied with enough talent to take a team over the top. But no matter how much talent a team has, little of significance has been won without the baring of teeth.
After a respectable effort in Game 1 earned them nothing but another series opening loss, the Toronto Raptors went tried and true in Game 2.
They didn’t so much set out to win a game over the Orlando Magic, they tried to tear them apart. Picture something in nature making another living being their lunch — the pack descending, blood in the air.
It was very Discovery Channel, and fun to watch, if you’re into that kind of thing, or a Raptors fan.
The Raptor nicknamed the Klaw was – appropriately enough – the most fearsome of all. He was less Raptor in the NBA sense than raptor in the literal sense – too fast, too big, too much.
“Leonard was, I mean, great,” said Magic head coach Steve Clifford after watching Leonard drop 37 points on 15-of-22 shooting with four assists and two steals. “What are you gonna do? He was great.”
The Raptors pretty much decided Game 2 in the first half of the third quarter as Toronto pulled away from the young Magic, who are game and not without talent but lack the kind of fire power to routinely overcome holes as big as the Raptors were digging for them.
A Kawhi Leonard steal and brute-force fastbreak, a wide-open Marc Gasol three as the Raptors whipped the ball faster than Orlando could recover and the Raptors were up by 24.
All hands were on deck. All cylinders were firing. This was the Raptors performing optimally in way they’ve shown at times since this version of the roster was bolted together at the trade deadline, but not for stretches this long or with this much at stake.
But make no mistake, the Raptors’ 111-82 win that evened their first-round series 1-1 as it shifts to Orlando for Game 3 on Friday was forged in the first five minutes of the game as Toronto went straight for the Magic’s neck.
It was as ferocious and complete a defensive effort as you’re likely to see on an NBA court. It will likely be held over the Raptors’ collective heads for the rest of the post season. As former Toronto head coach Dwane Casey used to say, “they told on themselves.”
For five full minutes every rotation was perfect. Second and third efforts were given. Plays were made. Fouls were hard.
“(It was) just all of us buying in. Just wanting to come out and win this game,” said Leonard. “We didn’t feel like we played our best basketball in Game 1, and just wanted to protect home court, really, that’s it.”
With two full days to stew on a Game 1 effort that fell short of their own expectations, the Raptors were on a mission in Game 2, and their mission was to vaporize Orlando. Victory wasn’t enough.
Gasol had a steal on the Magic’s first possession as he came over to double Game 1 Orlando hero DJ Augustin; he had another as he helped Pascal Siakam put the clamps on an overwhelmed Jonathan Isaac. The Raptors didn’t make a discernible mistake until Serge Ibaka failed to box out Aaron Gordon on a missed free throw and he scored Orlando’s first basket on a putback. The Magic didn’t take an uncontested shot until Gordon got open for a three on the weakside after 6:44 had passed.
The Raptors’ defence was outstanding for the entire game as they held Orlando to 37 per cent shooting (26.5 per from three) and forced 17 turnovers. And hey, it was pretty good in Game 1 given they held the Magic to 40 per cent from the floor.
But the attention to detail was there in a way it wasn’t in Game 1. The intensity was up several notches.
“It wasn’t flipping the switch, it was more being locked in on every coverage, everything we wanted to do, just being on the same page and communication,” said Kyle Lowry, who bounced back from his scoreless Game 1 with 22 points on 13 shots in Game 2, but just as important were a blocked shot and a charge drawn in the game’s opening minutes. “We made sure we helped each other and making sure that if someone went to help that someone helped the helper, and helped the helper helper. And basically just making sure that we just play hard.”
Augustin was very much on the Raptors game plan Tuesday night and it showed as the journeyman point guard — who hit the game-winning three on his way to a playoff-high 25 points on Saturday — was invisible. Augustin was held to a single field goal through three quarters as the Raptors led 90-66 heading into the fourth.
Former Raptor Terrence Ross briefly gave the Magic life with a 15-point burst in his first-half stint, but Toronto turned that tap off with some hard traps and Ross was held scoreless the rest of the way.
The easiest adjustment Nurse could make was to use Leonard more aggressively.
Leonard was magnificent – every inch the elite playoff performer the Raptors turned their franchise inside out to get.
He wasn’t alone. Lowry silenced critics as he rebounded from his Game 1 donut by being much more determined in looking for chances to attack the Magic’s tightly-packed paint. Chipping in with seven assists and two steals was welcome. He’s no +41 for the series. Gasol was at his understated best. Not many centres can control a game with nine points and three rebounds, but Gasol can because he helped swallow up Magic all-star centre Nikola Vucevic (held to six points) and triggered the Raptors attack with four steals and five assists.
But watching playoff Leonard unleashed should give the Raptors the most cause for optimism as the playoffs unfold.
Even chatting with Magic officials privately, they were incredulous Leonard had played just 33 minutes in a tightly contested a Game 1, coming off three full days rest with Games 1-3 spread out over a further seven days.
“Didn’t he play 38 against Miami?” someone said to me, referring to Leonard’s load in the final home game of the regular season.
Why yes, he did.
Maybe it was Nurse’s ‘heat-of-the-battle’ moment, when the first-year NBA head coach lost the forest for the trees or maybe the Raptors were being extra cautious with Leonard given the added intensity of the playoffs. But since no explanations were given and Leonard said he was good play more than what he did, the solution was obvious: load him up.
In the end, Leonard played only 33 minutes again, but that’s because the Raptors were up 31 midway through the fourth quarter. Nurse signalled his intentions when he left Leonard on the floor in the first even after he picked up two fouls 17 seconds apart before the game was three minutes old.
“I guess I had a decision to make there, right?” said Nurse. “I think at that point we were off to a good start and we were imposing our will on the game and I figured I’d roll the dice so our will could continue to be imposed.
“[But] it wasn’t an easy decision. It wasn’t that easy. I thought back and forth several times as we were going and decided we would go with it.”
Leonard ended up playing nearly 10 minutes in the opening quarter and was a big part of the Raptors’ dominant early effort. With the Raptors already up 9-0, and having forced the Magic to call a timeout and presumably invent a way to score, Leonard stuck the knife in a little deeper as he jumped the passing lane on the Magic’s first possession after the timeout and went the length of the floor for the score to make it 11-0.
The Raptors vice-like grip on the game loosened only marginally as the first quarter wore on, but not before Toronto had gone up 18-5 on their way to staking out a 26-18 first quarter lead by holding the Magic to just 6-of-17 from the floor while forcing five turnovers.
But Leonard was relentless. After picking up his third foul midway through the second quarter, he spent the final four minutes of the period on the bench. But he’d made his point as he helped stake the Raptors to a well-earned 51-39 halftime lead with 17 points on nine shots to go along with three assists. He came out in the third and scored 17 more and slammed the door on the Magic’s fingers.
In a game where the Raptors turned the Magic into their prey, Leonard was the leader of the pack, the ultimate predator, a basketball beast Toronto has never seen in their uniform before.