ORLANDO — The challenge was to live up to their best version of themselves, regardless of their opponent, the noise, the crowd or a man dressed in a dragon suit being lowered from the rafters of the Amway Center on a line – nothing says ‘playoffs’ like mascots dangling from great heights to entertain the fan base.
In an energized building against a team smarting from embarrassment, could the Toronto Raptors find a comparable level of intensity, focus and effort against the Orlando Magic in Game 3 that had allowed them to blow them out in Game 2?
The answer is yes. And if a team with championship aspirations is one that can find a level of consistency both in their effort and execution regardless of circumstance, this edition of the Raptors might be on to something.
Toronto’s taut 98-93 win hinged on a number of factors, but perhaps the most important as they head into Game 4 on Sunday up 2-1 in the best-of-seven first-round match-up was their ability to not take a single meaningful step backwards against an opponent that came out willing to battle for every inch.
That was the goal.
"I think it showed some toughness for us. It was really what I thought it was going to be tonight," said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. "I really thought this was going to be a tough atmosphere to play in. Again, this is a good team. Orlando, right? They guard you. All the things that they are, we’ve talked about it a hundred times. Again, I just liked the way we came out originally, like, we’ve got to impose our will in this game."
The Raptors served notice of their intentions early as, for the second game in a row, they tried to break the Magic’s spirit with a level of defensive energy that Orlando simply couldn’t solve with the offensive tools at their disposal.
But the young Magic club plays with heart and toughness and it shows on the defensive end, where they were the NBA’s best in that category over the last 10 weeks of the season.
And so a potentially pivotal game turned into a slugfest, with the Orlando crowd roaring at every blow landed. The Raptors led 26-21 at the end of the first quarter and 48-45 at half, still the Magic faithful’s energy remained, helped along by a half-court buzzer-beater from Terrence Ross.
But their biggest roars came midway through the third quarter when their all-star big-man Nikola Vucevic finally broke through for a pair of triples, the second one giving Orlando their first lead since in the series since D.J. Augustin hit their game-winner in Game 1.
The crowd was delighted. It was like a door in a dark room opening just a crack.
But the Raptors were quick to slam it shut and it was who pulled the deadbolt across that was most telling. It wasn’t Kyle Lowry, the team’s weathervane. It wasn’t Kawhi Leonard, the fulcrum. It was Pascal Siakam, who has emerged from role-player status to playoff game go-to-guy in the space of 12 months — making the kinds of big plays on the road that the big dogs do.
Siakam hit a three on the next possession to put the Raptors back in front – they would never trail again, although things got dicey — and scored 10 of his game-high 30 as part of a 21-6 run that allowed Toronto to take a 76-65 lead heading into the fourth.
Siakam is no longer an X-factor unless X stands for extra-large as he is proving that his regular-season success wasn’t simply the product of hustle and heart. Playing on the road against one of the NBA’s best defences Siakam took over on a night where Leonard faltered as he fought through some rugged treatment from Orlando and a touch of the flu.
It didn’t matter. Siakam had the Raptors’ back.
"He’s unbelievable," said Lowry (12 points, 10 assists, five rebounds), who was early on the Siakam train, helping launch his legend by throwing look-ahead passes that no human should catch. "He’s the most improved basketball player in the NBA this year. He’s going to continue to grow and get better. His personality is just to go play and have fun. I think he’s done that and we understand this year he has the mismatch a lot of the times … it’s pretty cool to see him come from where he’s come from … it was a great game for him, it’s fun to watch."
The Raptors weren’t quite as clinical as they were in Game 2 when they were able to shove the Magic over the edge in the fourth quarter and coast home. With a raucous crowd behind them Orlando kept pushing and former Raptor Ross kept chucking. He scored 13 of his Orlando-high 24 in the fourth. What was a 17-point Raptors lead with just under eight minutes to play was cut to three on a Ross triple with 42 seconds left.
Leonard missed a jumper – he scored just 16 points on 19 shots while finishing with six turnovers – but Lowry was able to bail him out by beating the Magic team to the loose ball; the kind of winning play that often gets lost in the box score numbers. A pair of free throws by Leonard and another stop and the night was done.
But for a team that’s still learning about themselves there were some useful lessons. One was that their defence can win them games – they held the Magic to 36 per cent shooting, the third time in three games Orlando has been at or below 40 per cent from the floor. The other was they can rely on Siakam in the most difficult circumstances.
The Magic were determined to make it that way, to make the Raptors find another way. After Leonard shredded them for 62 points on 25-of-40 shooting through two games, the Magic were no longer having it. They started 6-foot-10 Jonathan Isaac on Leonard and his length and quickness caused Leonard problems, but behind Isaac or whoever the primary defender was there was always another body or two ready to cloud his line of vision.
It didn’t help that no matter how hard Leonard tried to drive into bodies on his way to the rim, he couldn’t get his call. He went to the line seven times and in total the Raptors made just 10 free-throw attempts — compared to the 23 trips Orlando was granted.
Whether it was Leonard not feeling his best or the Magic’s relentless approach, Leonard looked harried all evening.
It was a strategy that worked and the Raptors can expect to see more of it.
"We had to do something," said Magic head coach Steve Clifford. "Just watching the second game where he was so comfortable [Leonard had 37 points] … helping isn’t enough with him. It’s hard because he made some good passes late as we’re scrambling around for stuff but I don’t know how else to do it. You have to give so much help to stop him, you might as well go and double, you know."
But that only left more opportunities for Siakam, and he made the Magic pay as he has been all season in a breakout year that will almost certainly earn him the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in the summer and a hefty raise come contract time, his pay commensurate with his ever-expanding confidence.
"It’s growing," Siakam said of his self-belief. "And it helps when I have guys like [Danny Green] and the team supporting me. When you have things going, they want to go to you and give you the ball. Just knowing and trusting my work. Every time I go on the floor it’s a blessing, and I trust my work, I work on things every day and try to get better."
That will be the next challenge. Chances are it will be Siakam the Magic will be game-planning for in Game 4 – Clifford was hinting at how they will be focused on taking away the number of dribbles Siakam takes and how much time he gets to set-up on the defender for his jump hooks and spin moves in the lane.
But based on how the Raptors approached Game 3, they will figure out something. They figured out how to win on the road without their best player in peak form and that Siakam can take them over the hump. In Game 4 they will be trying to prove they know how to put a stranglehold on a first-round series.