Raptors learn nothing will come easy in paint vs. Magic’s big men

D.J. Augustin hit a dagger three in the final seconds to give the Orlando Magic a 104-101 win over the Toronto Raptors in Game 1.

TORONTO — There are a million little reasons the Toronto Raptors dropped their first game of the playoffs Saturday night, 104-101, to the visiting Orlando Magic. A million little micro decisions — to shoot this, to pass that, to help off him, to run under the screen, to go after that board, to leave your feet on the jumper — that all combined to make up the macro result: a loss. No one misplay matters more than another. But it sure does stand out when it happens with four seconds remaining.

So, there was D.J. Augustin, the 11th year veteran playing for his eighth franchise since 2012, the utterly ordinary NBA athlete nonetheless starting at point guard for a playoff team, the last guy the Toronto Raptors were worried about coming into Saturday night. There he was dribbling the ball just inside the half-court with the game tied and the shot clock running down above Toronto’s basket. And there he was initiating an action with Orlando’s all-star centre, Nikola Vucevic.

Vucevic set a soft screen on Kawhi Leonard who was guarding Augustin, before spinning out and sidestepping towards Toronto’s basket. Marc Gasol, who was on Vucevic’s hip, went with him. The problem was that Leonard went with him, too.

That left Augustin unguarded at the very top of the arc and, boy, he couldn’t have drilled that three much more crisply. The net barely moved. Orlando’s bench erupted, Toronto’s deflated, and in front of the Raptors basket, both Gasol and Leonard stood there stunned, looking at each other with arms out wide.

“There was a mistake made on that play,” Gasol said afterwards. “We miscommunicated, and [Augustin] made a good shot. That’s what happened.”

What should have happened is Leonard going over the top of the screen, sticking with Augustin as best he could. Meanwhile, Gasol was meant to help if needed, and possibly even switch if the screen was firmer, while staying close enough to the basket to recover and get in Vucevic’s way if Augustin got him the ball.

There wasn’t a right and wrong play to make, per se. It’s up to Gasol and Leonard to know how each other are going to react and make a coordinated decision on which player to stick with. Ultimately, they each believed the other had Augustin. Just one of those million little things.

“We were in our coverage. And our coverage was to get over the top of the screen and have Marc be up and help on that and stay home,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “I just saw the highlight quick coming through on TV, I haven’t watched the game film. But it looked like Kawhi thought it was a switch and went under to hold up Vucevic, and Marc was still in the up position but not the switch position, so it gave him the room to get it off.”

That’s not why the Raptors lost, but it’s miscues like those that broke their backs Saturday. A missed assignment here, a lack of a box out there, a defender lost in rotation as the Magic whipped the ball around. These are the more concerning elements than Kyle Lowry’s poor shooting night or Leonard’s minutes. Those things are easily corrected. Lowry isn’t going 0-for-the-playoffs. And Nurse admitted he could have played Leonard more than he did. But if the Raptors don’t play crisper and more coordinated at both ends, Orlando has the talent to capitalize on gifted opportunities.

“They obviously made quite a few shots. Some of them were contested. Some of them we kind of got lost in rotations and stuff. And they got a couple offensive rebounds early in the game. We’ve got to be better,” Gasol said. “Our offence got a little stagnant at times. We played a lot of one-on-one. We’ve got to keep the ball moving. Obviously, they’re pretty long and athletic. Making it simple for them and not shifting their feet and stuff is kind of what they want. Load up the paint and use their length. So, we’ve got to do a better job of moving that ball and setting better screens.”

The long and athletic part certainly isn’t going away. In Vucevic, Jonathan Isaac, and Aaron Gordon, the Magic start a trio of extremely stretchy, springy, and switchy bigs who clogged up the paint throughout Game 1 and altered any attempt the Raptors made when they penetrated.

If the Raptors aren’t hitting three’s — they finished 12-of-36 from distance Saturday after going 6-of-21 in the first half — they’ll be in for some very tough scoring nights in this series. Because nothing will come easily in the paint.

“We understood that coming into the game,” said Pascal Siakam, Toronto’s best player on the night. “We missed a lot of open shots, a lot of them went in and out. We wish we had a couple of those. But that’s the game. We understand that. We’ve just got to do a better job. “

Of course, if the Raptors had scored four more points than they did, the conversation would be much different, and it would likely centre around Siakam. He was sensational. He played more minutes than anyone in the game, hit half his 24 attempts, and was the only Raptor with more than eight points in the paint (he had a game-high 20).

Siakam was hesitant to shoot the three at times, and didn’t look great on the ones he did take. But that’s the only flaw his game had. He played energetic, relentless defence, he created for himself off the dribble, and he turned the ball over only once despite a 25.8 per cent usage rate that was second to only Leonard’s 31.5.

Most pointed to the battle between Gasol (plus, to a lesser extent, Serge Ibaka) and Vucevic as the premier matchup in this series. And that may still play out. But in Game 1, the most crucial, competitive, and downright entertaining contest was Siakam vs. Isaac. And despite giving up plenty of size, Siakam still got the better of it.

After the game, Isaac admitted as much, saying he had to be better at matching Siakam’s energy and intensity. What will Siakam look to do when the two meet again in a couple days? What all the Raptors will try to do: hone in on all those little things.

“For me, it’s just coming in and taking my time, understanding what they’re trying to do defensively against me. Just use that, and use my advantages,” Siakam said. “We’re going to go back and look at the film and see where we can improve. We had good stretches of defence. We just didn’t have enough of those. We’re going to get back, watch it a little bit, and figure it out.”

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