TORONTO — Of course it was Kyle Lowry setting the tone. Of course it was the Toronto Raptors point guard who started Game 5 of his team’s series-clinching win over the Orlando Magic like he’d been shot from a cannon. Of course, as the Raptors went up 19 midway through the first quarter, Lowry had scored a dozen of Toronto’s 22 points — a beautiful turn of cosmic poetry in light of the storylines surrounding his play following a scoreless series opener 10 days prior.
“It’s what you want to see this time of the year, that killer instinct, that killer mentality to just get it done,” said Fred VanVleet. “Everyone came out and put their foot on all the guys’ necks. Just try to give them no signs of hope. Just not let anything loose, no freedom out there. So, those guys did a good job coming out early and setting the tone.”
There are so many benefits to what the Raptors did Tuesday in deconstructing the Magic swiftly and decisively, removing any hope of the series returning to Florida for a sixth game. The Raptors will now enjoy at least three days off between competition, with the second round scheduled to begin no earlier than this Saturday. It’s no secret why that’s important at this time of year for a collection of athletes who have been playing extremely physical, extremely competitive basketball at the highest level for the last seven months.
But a finer point is placed on it when you see Lowry dart off to the Raptors locker room near the end of the second quarter with what he described as a finger that “popped out.” Evidently, Lowry had it popped back in, returning to play nine minutes in the second half and finish with a crisp, efficient 14-point, nine-assist, plus-31 night. But if Lowry or any of his teammates are playing through any kind of issue — you know many are — a 72-hour break can be extremely valuable.
“It’s very valuable any time you can get some extra rest,” VanVleet said. “The guys are a little banged up, Kyle got a little banged up. Obviously, guys have been dealing with things all year. So, to be able to get it done as quickly as possible is always the goal and give yourself a couple of extra days of preparation, treatment and therapy. That was a big sticking point for us.”
Plus, with the exception of Pascal Siakam — who, at only 25, can withstand a heavy workload — Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was able to limit his starters’ minutes throughout the series, keeping his veterans fresher for Round 2. That’s key for a lineup that features three players over the age of 31 in Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Danny Green.
Toronto Raptors starters minutes per game through round one
|Gm 1||Gm 2||Gm 3||Gm 4||Gm 5||Series avg.||Season avg.|
We don’t have to tell you anything about the importance of keeping Leonard healthy as he extends a season that’s now seen him play seven-times as many games as he did in his last. That he averaged the exact same minutes per game — 34 — as he did in the regular season is remarkable, considering how rotations shrink, and workloads grow for star players like him at this time of year.
And there are even minor ancillary benefits to the floor time deep roster players like Jodie Meeks, Jeremy Lin, and Patrick McCaw got to see during this series, keeping them active and ready to perform in case Nurse needs to break the glass surrounding them during a second-round emergency.
Nurse having all those players slotted into clearly-defined roles is a nice benefit, as well. Coming into the playoffs, it was still unclear what Nurse’s rotations would look like after a long season of endless experimentation. But he quickly found the right rhythm in the first round, settling into an eight-man unit, with the Raptors usual starters plus Serge Ibaka, VanVleet, and Norman Powell off the bench. Meeks also briefly factors in as an early-second-quarter bridge piece who plays a few minutes before returning to the bench.
Toronto’s starting lineup has thrived in particular under this scheme, and outright dominated Orlando’s starters over the final four games of the series. The Raptors starters have been one of the best lineups across the NBA playoffs, with a plus-46.3 net rating per 100 possessions, forged from a really good 127.4 offensive rating, and an even better 81 defensive rating. All they did Tuesday against Orlando was get out to a 28-7 lead through the game’s first nine minutes before Nurse made his first substitution.
There are plenty of positives to be found in the play of that group, from Lowry’s effortful work, to Siakam’s continued breakout, to Green’s dependable consistency, to Leonard’s utter transcendence. But the tough, determined job Gasol did on Nikola Vucevic, essentially removing one of Orlando’s best weapons from the series, has to receive special consideration. Not only for what just happened, but for the challenge that lies ahead with the Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid.
Coming into the first round, one of the main talking points was how the Raptors would contain Vucevic. The dynamic, floor-stretching centre wasn’t only an all-star, he was borderline all-NBA, averaging 20.8 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists per night during the regular season. Plus, he’d torched the Raptors two of the four times he played them this season. Vucevic’s 30-point, 19-rebound, plus-33 night against the Raptors in December was his strongest performance all year.
Of course, this is why the Raptors acquired Gasol. Jonas Valanciunas is a fine rim protector, but he simply doesn’t possess the same flexibility and instincts as Gasol does defensively. And it showed quickly, as Gasol thrived serving as Toronto’s go-to defender on Vucevic. Through the first four games of the series, Gasol held Vucevic to 34.5 per cent shooting — only 20 per cent from range — when serving as Vucevic’s primary defender on a possession. He forced the Magic centre into 11 turnovers and three offensive fouls.
And those numbers will only look worse for Vucevic once NBA.com updates its matchup data in the morning. Only 5:24 into the game, Gasol had already forced Vucevic into going 0-of-4 from the field while turning the ball over three times and committing three fouls. Magic head coach Steve Clifford pulled him at that moment, and Vucevic didn’t see the floor again until the second half. He finished minus-25 with only six points on 3-of-10 shooting.
“He’s big. He’s smart defensively. He knows how to use his body. He slaps the ball down a lot. He’s really good at that. He gave me trouble all series long. I wasn’t really able to get in a rhythm, get going,” Vucevic said of Gasol after all was said and done. “He’s a great player. I’ve played him a lot of times over the years, and it’s never been easy. He certainly made it tough for me again this series.”
Now, Gasol has to carry that physicality over into his matchup with Embiid. Gasol played Philadelphia only twice this season, both of them coming in 2018 when he was still a Memphis Grizzly. But he did an excellent job on Embiid in both games, holding the 76ers centre to 33.3-per cent shooting and 22.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than his season average.
Meanwhile, Gasol forced Embiid into seven turnovers and three offensive fouls over the 108 possessions he guarded him. Embiid missed all six three-pointers he attempted with Gasol on him. In a regular season full of phenomenal performances, Embiid’s two games against Memphis were among his worst.
Joel Embiid vs. Marc Gasol and the Memphis Grizzlies in 2018-19
|Nov. 10||14||16||5||26.7% (4-of-15)||0% (0-of-6)||6|
|Dec. 2||15||14||3||30.8% (4-of-13)||0% (0-of-2)||4|
|Embiid’s 2018-19 per game avg.||27.5||13.6||3.7||48.40%||30%||3.5|
Still, that was the regular season and this is the playoffs. Philadelphia was a different team. Gasol was on a different team. There’s plenty of work to be done between now and the time Gasol and Embiid go up for the tip-off this weekend.
“I’m going to start watching him tonight. And closely. Understanding how they’re trying to get him the ball, where he’s trying to get to,” Gasol said. “And get ready for Game 1.”