An important first step is in place for what is undoubtedly the most anticipated post-season in Toronto Raptors franchise history: An opponent.
After the dust has settled in the East, the Raptors will face the Orlando Magic in round one. Here’s a closer look at Toronto’s opening-round matchup:
Season series: The Raps and Magic split their season series 2-2. As that record suggests, it was a bit of a mixed bag versus Orlando.
In their first contest, the Raps narrowly squeaked away with a win in a low-scoring (93-91) game in Orlando about a month into the regular season, with Danny Green establishing himself as a fan favourite — and the team’s best shooter — with this buzzer-beater:
Danny Green game winner against Magic pic.twitter.com/Qws4WXrjS1
— Raptors Nation (@RaptorsNationTO) November 21, 2018
Orlando would get its revenge as the Magic took the next two games off the Raptors in pretty convincing fashion, winning by an average margin of 22 points. Toronto was without one of Kyle Lowry or Kawhi Leonard in each of those two brutal losses, though.
In their final matchup, 11 days ago at Scotiabank Arena, the Raptors returned the favour. With a healthy lineup featuring both Lowry and Leonard, Toronto won easy, 121-109. Still, the two lopsided wins for Orlando surely give the number-seven seed some hope heading into a series in which the Raptors will be heavy betting favourites.
Key Stat: 92.6. The Magic have been on something of a tear since the All-Star break, matching the Raps with a 15-8 record, and won their way to a playoff seed thanks to some seriously stingy defense. Since mid-February Orlando is sixth in the league in plus-minus (Toronto is third) and on the season are fifth in blocks per game.
The Raptors are familiar with how effectively the Magic can shut down an offense; over their first three matchups, Orlando held Toronto, the NBA’s fifth-most potent offense, to a paltry 92.6 points per game — nearly 21 points fewer than the Raptors’ season average.
Frontcourt battle: The Raptors could have played either Brooklyn or Orlando in the first round (Detroit was a possibility too, but a longer shot), which would have posed far different challenges for Toronto. While Brooklyn runs a free-wheeling, three-point happy offense, the Magic brand of basketball is far more bruising and physical, with an emphasis on stopping the ball and protecting the paint, setting up an important series for the Raptors’ front-court who will have to contend with Orlando’s string of tall and long-limbed forwards.
Orlando’s trio of starting forwards — Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and all-star centre Nikola Vucevic — are one of the few lineups that can match the physicality that Raptor counterparts Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol/Serge Ibaka provide. In their prior matchup we saw Nick Nurse toy with an oversized lineup that featured both centres Ibaka and Gasol on the court, and don’t be surprised to see the Raptors’ head coach utilize those two together once more. That said, the Raptors have found success counter-punching Orlando by playing a smaller lineup with Leonard at the four.
Orlando’s size advantage has been a distinct problem for the Raptors — the Magic average more rebounds per game (over 53) against Toronto than any other team in the East.
However it plays out, one of the biggest challenges posed to Nurse and the Raptors will be figuring out how to attack and exploit Orlando’s size in the frontcourt.
The narrative: There are plenty of compelling storylines heading into round one, from Kawhi’s playoff debut as a Raptor and (finally) getting to see how this new-look version of the Raps will fare in a playoff run where expectations have never been higher for the franchise.
But this series will also feature a rematch with some familiar faces for Raptors fans. No, it’s not as dramatic as an encounter with Dwane Casey’s Pistons would have been, but this Raps-Magic matchup means at least four games pitting long-time Raptor Terrence Ross against his former team.
Ross has been electric for Orlando this season, developing into the kind of offensive weapon he showed plenty of flashes of during his four and a half seasons in Toronto. Ross, who was traded to the Magic in exchange for Serge Ibaka at the 2017 trade deadline, is in the midst of a career year, averaging 15.1 points in just over 26 minutes per game off the bench. He’s entering the playoffs on a roll:
— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 11, 2019
The series will mean a lot to those in the front office as well, given that Orlando’s president of basketball operations, Jeff Weltman, recently served as the Raptors’ general manager before being hired by the Magic in the summer of 2017.
Don’t sleep on: While this series will feature a trio of 2019 All-Stars in Leonard, Lowry, and Vucevic, it could be decided by the deep well of standout supporting cast members for both sides. Players like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell could play mammoth roles in the Raptors’ success.
When it comes to Orlando, Raptors fans know not to overlook starting shooting guard Evan Fournier. For whatever reason, the 26-year-old from France has posed problems and has an accomplished history carving up Toronto over the years. Over his career he’s averaged more points against the Raptors than all but one team in the East.
Vucevic is undoubtedly Orlando’s best player, and poses a legitimate problem for Toronto under the hoop — Gasol will have his hands full — and Gordon and Isaac are recent high-lottery picks, but Fournier seems to do damage against Toronto when these two teams meet.
Game one tips-off on Saturday at 5:00 pm. ET. Strap in.
|1||April 13||5 p.m.||Orlando||Toronto|
|2||April 16||8 p.m||Orlando||Toronto|
|3||April 19||7 p.m.||Toronto||Orlando|
|4||April 21||7 p.m.||Toronto||Orlando|