They aren’t ghosts like Game 7, Boston Bruins ghosts. Shoot, they’re not even LeBron James Game 1 or any other game ghosts. I mean, it’s not like the Toronto Raptors haven’t won a playoff series before. Even losing Game 1, which they’ve done 12 times in 14 series including this one, just concluded, they’ve still managed to have success.
But, as Orlando Magic head coach Steve Clifford said Tuesday after a game that had his team down 37 points in the fourth quarter en route to elimination in five games, this is the best iteration of the Raptors he’s seen in recent years. The best post-Vince, surely.
The Raptors have now won a best-of-seven series in less than six games for the first time in franchise history and it was largely drama-free. Kyle Lowry’s Game 1 shutout and Kawhi Leonard’s puzzling first-game load management seem like they occurred centuries ago. This was a series in which, after much kvetching on social media and call-in shows for a few hours, Raptors fans stood and roared in Game 2 as Lowry made early free throws to end the drought. Raptors fans were ready for an easy ride. They got one.
“I thought we had the kind of team defensively that could start here and make it more difficult for them as the series went on,” said Clifford. “We could not do it. The more guys you have that make the game easier for everybody else, the better your team will be. They certainly have a bunch of those guys.”
This one was done early, a combination of turnovers and dead-eye Raptors shooting increasing the already long odds faced by the Magic, odds that worsened when Nikola Vucevic picked up his third personal foul just 5:24 into the game. Aaron Gordon, who has come so far this season and made his mark as a dependable two-way player a franchise can use as a cornerstone, took his third at 5:12 of the second quarter: An offensive foul when he lowered his shoulder into Serge Ibaka driving to the hoop with the Raptors up 50-29.
Gordon was minus-32 when the game was done; Evan Fournier, minus-42 and Vucevic, minus-25… despite the fact that the All-Star sat out the entire second quarter. Vucevic’s first points didn’t come until 2:06 of the third.
Former Raptor Terrence Ross wouldn’t bite when asked for a preview of a Raptors-Philadelphia 76ers series.
“I don’t know, man,” he said. “Different guys than when I was there.”
Clifford said all four remaining East teams were strong. Gordon lauded the Raptors’ balance.
“They’re very talented,” Gordon said. “They have a great leader and great point guard in Kyle (Lowry,) pieces in Pascal (Siakam) and Danny (Green.) Marc Gasol. I mean, we didn’t play the other teams that are still left four straight times, so it’s tough to tell in that way …
“Man, it’s a fight,” Gordon said of his first playoff series. “We needed more fight is what it comes down to. Each night. We weren’t scrappy enough and weren’t fighting hard enough. I know all their plays like the back of my hand, you know? But it comes down to one-on-one matchups. As we get nearer to teams like this, maybe we can close that discrepancy.”
Like just about any cliché or old ‘saw’ about any league or any sport – defence wins championships, home-field or court or ice advantage is huge, goaltending wins championships, you have to put your best player in the best positions to excel (take heed, Mike Babcock) – the notion that having the best player on the court gives you a pretty good start toward winning an NBA game seems often exacerbated by recency bias. But, for the first time in a long time, we might get a chance to test that theory out here.
No disrespect to DeMar DeRozan: He isn’t Kawhi Leonard. And he has company. When Masai Ujiri landed Leonard in the off-season, savvy NBA observers noted the team had never had a player with his combination of physical and mental skills; the ability to dominate at both ends of the court. Several times this series, Clifford and Raptors head coach Nick Nurse commented on how Leonard was able to impose his will physically on the Magic.
This is not to say that Siakam and Lowry are passengers. But work with me on this: Leonard was the best player in terms of reputation going into this series. By far. He will be against the 76ers, too – as in, even up you wouldn’t trade him for anybody on the other team.
It gets tough in the next rounds, because Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kyrie Irving have a bit of pedigree, but it’s an argument you might not have been able to have in this city before. Neither of them have been a Finals Most Valuable Player. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until a potential meeting against the Golden State Warriors (deep breath, here) that the case could be made that an opponent has far-and-away the best player out there; somebody better than Leonard.
At any rate, at least he’s still playing, which is more than can be said for another much-ballyhooed MLSE off-season acquisition.
One ghost-buster found wanting. Another is stepping to the forefront against a team that wrote one of the most bitter moments in Raptors history: May 20, 2001. Vince Carter picks up his degree then misses his shot. The Sixers pick up an 88-87 win over the Raptors in Game 7 of their semi-final series.
Oddly, that was a series in which the Raptors actually managed to win Game 1, but nobody in these parts would complain if Leonard just re-wrote the damn thing from top to bottom. Or be surprised.