ORLANDO — They’re the better team and they looked determined to prove it.
The result is the Toronto Raptors are doing what good teams do in the first-round of the NBA playoffs – putting themselves in position to get it over with quickly on their way to bigger and better things.
No one wants to say it – why get into a war of words at this stage? But the Raptors know what lies in front of them and what a win on Tuesday night in back in Toronto means.
“We’re going to try and play extremely hard at home,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, moments after playing his butt off on the road again. “We want to protect our home court.”
Do that and the Raptors can move on the second round. Do that and the Raptors can take aim on doing things this franchise has never done before.
There were some brief doubts about the Raptors resolve after they played just an average game to open the series and got beaten on a late three, dropping to Toronto to a hard-to-believe 2-14 in the first-game of playoffs series.
The ‘same old Raptors’ narrative was just too handy, even if Lowry was the only starter left from the previous five years of playoff stumbles.
But Toronto’s Game 2 beatdown of the Magic followed by a hard-fought win in Game 3 against an energized Orlando club playing their first playoff game at home in seven years signaled that this version of the Raptors – veteran, playoff-proven and capable of lock-down defense on command – had a higher ceiling than anything that has come before.
The Raptors 107-85 dismantling of the Raptors in Game 4 only cemented that idea. The only remaining question is if Toronto can close Orlando out in Game 5 on Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena and best position themselves to ease into what will be a difficult second-round series rested and properly prepared.
The Raptors have never won a best-of-seven series in less than six games, but that’s for Tuesday.
Sunday night they won three straight games in a single series for just the second time and it was another example of why the Raptors can dream big this post-season. Coming off a weak outing in Game 3 where a hint of the flu and endless line of Magic help defenders saw Kawhi Leonard make six turnovers compared to five field goals, Leonard once again showed why he’s the best playoff performer the Raptors have ever had. After the Magic jumped out to quick early lead Leonard took over, scoring eight points in a two-minute spurt, all on aggressive moves to get his feet into the paint, a theme for the whole night. He had a similar spurt in the third quarter, sapping any energy from a potential Magic comeback.
“These series and even in the game in the series is a lot about imposing your will on the team,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “They make a run and Kawhi goes down and gets those three buckets in a row and it’s a little bit of imposing your will … I think psychologically that has an impact on a game.
Leonard wouldn’t take a backwards step the rest of the game on his way to a game-high 34 points on 12-of-20 shooting with just one turnover.
“It’s just really just every possession, just trying to win. My teammates, I feel like my teammates had a big part … I feel like we all played well tonight, we all had our hands on the game,” said Leonard. “Once you make shots everyone is looking at you, saying, ‘You had control of the game,’ you can do it on both ends of the floor and it’s everybody. It’s not just me out there.”
The Raptors were up 28-26 after the first quarter and they were just warming up for a nearly perfect second quarter where they seemed to get the ball into the paint on every possession from where they’d either score at the rim or whip it back to the perimeter and around again for an open three or another attack on the paint against a fractured Magic defense.
The Raptors finished shooting 53.3 per cent from the floor and 11-of-28 from deep while making just 14 turnovers.
They got contributions from virtually every corner of their nine-man rotation. If the Raptors have had one weak spot in the series it’s been their bench play, which has given the Magic life in each game, it seems.
“There’s some drop-off, as there probably should be, from our starting five, which is probably one of the best five-man units I’ve seen in a while,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet who had nine points and four assists in 22 minutes. “There’s gonna be some drop-off. It’s our job to minimize that and play a little better and understand we’ve got to help those guys out. We can continue to play better, and we will. There are gonna be big games coming up for us when we need to play well. But as long as we’re winning and heading in the right direction, those are things we can fix along the way. It’s not gonna be perfect. We’ve just got to hold the fort down when we’re out there a little bit better. I think that we can do that.”
They did in the second quarter as a bench group with Lowry leading them helped put the Raptors up six midway through the second quarter before the starters came back in and finished the half on a 13-3 run on their way to a 58-42 halftime lead fueled by a pair of kickout threes by Pascal Siakam who seemed to handle the prospect of additional defensive attention from the Magic without any trouble as he finished with 16 points and six rebounds. Later on Serge Ibaka and Norm Powell provided some key buckets as the Magic kept trying drag themselves back into the game. They combined for 19 points on 11 shots and grabbed 12 rebounds as well, and Ibaka had a highlight-reel block on the Magic’s high-flying Aaron Gordon who was their best player with 25 points on 17 shots.
“They were both great,” said Nurse. “I just think Serge’s activity is a problem. It’s a problem. They turn the corner on us and head down to the basket and he’s down there taking a swat at it, getting a piece of them, maybe not getting them but altering shots.
“… And then I thought Norman played with great force tonight. Man, he was a rocket to the rim, he got strong and he got strong and got up and finished and a couple of those were big baskets.”
Toronto started the third quarter leading 82-70 and kept building on their advantage. A steal and a pair of free throws by VanVleet put the Raptors up 15 with nine minutes left. Their next score came when Leonard blocked Magic youngster Wes Iwundu at the rim and then carried him into the basket at the other end of the floor to put Toronto up 17 with 8:21 to play. In Game 3 it was at that point where the Magic launched a furious comeback, but this time the Raptors kept their foot down.
Midway through the period they were up by 21 on an as Ibaka grabbed an offensive rebound and scored. The Raptors forced the Magic’s 17th turnover as Marc Gasol and Lowry trapped DJ Augustin in the corner. The result as a fast-break alley-oop finished by Siakam that finished the Magic.
The Raptors even seemed to get some consideration from the referees. A sub-plot gathering some momentum is the notion that the Raptors had been getting a ‘bad whistle’ through the first three games of the series. And it’s not just the outer fringes of the fan base that are beginning to wonder if the league’s only Canadian NBA team somehow gets treated differently — there have been some internal grumbles as well and the Raptors have made their frustration known to the league office.
Whatever the reason the numbers don’t seem to add up. In Game 3 the Raptors shot just 10 free throws to 23 by Orlando. Leonard shot just four.
In the regular season the Raptors averaged 22 free-throw attempts per game, which was 21st overall, while the Magic averaged 19 attempts, which was last. In their first three games against the Magic the Raptors were taking just 13.7 free throw attempts – last among the 16 teams in the playoffs and notably well-behind the Magic, who were averaging 22 free throws through three games. No other series had anything close to the 8.6 disparity in attempts per game.
Now, keeping opponents of the free-throw line has always been a staple of Steve Clifford-coached teams. The Magic were the fifth-most stingy in that regard during the regular season.
“All I know is that, in our league — and it’s been like this for a long time by a lot — the best possession you can have is to shoot a free throw,” said Magic head coach Steve Clifford. “Last year, when you shot a free throw, it’s 1.52 points per possession. The next best one is a layup, which is 1.31. Just by the numbers, a guy who is a 2.0 – barely — at [University of Maine] Farmington, I can figure out … We don’t do any drills on it or anything like that. They know.”
But it’s not liked the Raptors haven’t been attacking – Leonard was third in the playoffs with 19 drives but 15th in free throws attempted on them. Siakam had had earned one free-throw attempt on his 11 drives.
Something had to give. It wasn’t like the Raptors lived at the line in Game 4, but they got there 18 times, making 16. Leonard was 8-of-9. Maybe most importantly they played through it rather than letting it change their approach or attitude. They played through everything. The looked like a team that plans to keep doing just that.