TORONTO — Something had to give.
After beating the Toronto Raptors in two out of their three prior matchups — both convincing wins, and the lone loss coming as the result of a Danny Green buzzer-beater way back in November — the Orlando Magic seemed to have Toronto’s number.
On Monday, the Raptors shot that narrative dead thanks in large part to another big night from Green, who scored 29 points on a white-hot 7-of-9 from beyond the arc, securing a convincing 118-109 victory.
The Raptors’ prior struggles against the Magic were potentially worrisome for anybody eying the standings.
Orlando came into Scotiabank Arena at 8-4 in their last 12 and climbing up the standings, with recent wins against playoff teams like Indiana and Philadelphia on their resume over that stretch.
After a typically disappointing start to the season, Orlando finds themselves sliding in and out of the East’s eighth seed. The Magic entered Monday’s game just a half game back of the cross-state rival Miami Heat and one game back of the seventh-place Brooklyn Nets.
This is where we remind you that the Raps are almost certainly finishing second in the East, meaning that whichever team finishes seventh will face Toronto when the playoffs begin.
The Magic took control early on, using their oversized frontcourt and frenetic energy to cause problems for Toronto. With the Raptors’ starters struggling out of the gate — Green accounted for 13 of the Raptors’ first 20 points — and Orlando’s cavalcade of long athletes forcing Toronto into tough situations, the Magic took a seven-point lead into the second quarter and had laid the groundwork for another impressive win against a higher-calibre squad.
The stunted start wasn’t a huge surprise for Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “We’ve been playing some teams that haven’t been playing with a lot of intensity and been guarding us very tough or very well,” he said following the game, “that it was such a big adjustment to make to get the juices up.”
By late in the second quarter, however, once the team had settled in, the Raptors’ best players took over.
It was a sequence with two minutes left in the first half that began with a four-point play from Marc Gasol, who swished a three while falling to the floor and converted the free-throw to give the Raptors a 53-50 lead with 1:49 to play in the first half. On the next play, Gasol, who has finally been playing as-advertised, snagged the ball on defence and tossed a great outlet pass over the elastic arms of Orlando that resulted in an easy Kawhi Leonard bucket. A rebound from Gasol on the next play led to a Kyle Lowry three-pointer that put Toronto up eight, and, just like that, Toronto entered halftime with a ten point lead.
The Raptors quickly showed why one team is eying a deep playoff run and the other is still fighting to get in.
Orlando is an unlikely playoff contender, but is the kind of young, hungry team that have shown they can put any opponent to the test.
Elsewhere in the NBA on Monday, the league’s four-worst teams and chief contenders for the services of presumptive first overall pick Zion Williamson — the Knicks, Bulls, Cavaliers and Suns — played one another in an epic tankathon night.
At the beginning of the season you would have thought — or, I would have, at least — that the Magic would be a part of the lottery race instead of eyeing their first post-season appearance in seven years.
The Magic feature an unlikely cast for a potential playoff team. Sure, they have a star at centre in Nikola Vucevic — who made his first all-star appearance in February — and shooting guard Evan Fournier has always torched the Raptors (Vucevic already had a double-double early in the 3rd quarter, while Fournier added a team-high 21 points in the loss). Former 4th overall pick Aaron Gordon never lived up to his draft spot but can cause fits on both ends with his physicality.
But beyond that, Orlando’s roster of journeyman and under-construction young players hardly screams playoff-calibre. D.J. Augustin, Jonathan Isaac, Khem Birch, Michael Carter-Williams, Wes Iwundu, and Terrence Ross aren’t exactly a murderer’s row. But they’re clearly effective.
One of Orlando’s primary weapons is their size; the Magic went big while the rest of the NBA went small. It’s caused fits for opponents and proven to be a distinct advantage. This season, the Magic rank sixth in the NBA in blocks per game and own a top-ten defence that was MIA in Toronto.
“We’ve got to know who we are,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said after a disappointing effort stopping the ball on Monday. “We ain’t scoring 115 a night…we have to defend…that’s why we’re in this position.”
On a night when Montreal’s Chris Boucher was awarded both the G-League’s MVP and Defensive Player of the Year trophies, you can’t help but think of the Boucher-Mo Bamba matchup we were robbed of (Boucher played four minutes, all in garbage time, while Bamba — seven-foot-nine wingspan and all — is out with a leg injury).
The Magic’s frontcourt of Gordon, Isaac, and Vucevic is flat-out problematic — Isaac, who is spindly but towered above the likes of Serge Ibaka, played a role on Monday in limiting Pascal Siakam to one of his quietest nights of the season.
Orlando’s size advantage has been a problem for the Raptors — the Magic average more rebounds per game (over 53) against Toronto than any other team in the East — and is an issue they’ll encounter against other potential playoff opponents like Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
Nick Nurse combatted Orlando’s size by, at one point, playing Ibaka and Gasol alongside one another, but ultimately found success in the second-half with a smaller lineup that featured Fred VanVleet in the backcourt with Kyle Lowry flanked by Green and Leonard, with the seven-foot Spaniard at centre.
On Monday, the Raptors took care of the Magic and overcame their size advantage thanks to a dominant second half fuelled by their stars, and, of course, Danny Green’s seven-three pointers — a pretty good formula for success, no?
Monday’s game was supposed to be a bona fide challenge for the Raptors, who had wrapped up a week of basketball against the NBA’s bottom-dwellers and were prepared to face a much tougher challenge in the form of a team actually playing for something — in Orlando’s case, their season.
That theme will carry over for the Raptors’ next stretch of games, which will feature matchups against teams Orlando is trying to overcome in the Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat. Hopefully, those contests provide tougher tests that can help Toronto sharpen its blade heading into the most crucial playoff run in franchise history.