Raptors’ Florida road trip off to shaky start after loss to last-place Magic

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam, right, draws a foul from Orlando Magic's Moritz Wagner as he looks to pass the bal during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (John Raoux/AP)

ORLANDO –  The Toronto Raptors were hoping to come to central Florida, get warm and gain some momentum in what has been an uneven start to their season of high hopes. 

But the Orlando Magic had no interest in playing the friendly host. The team with the NBA’s worst record jumped on the Raptors early and held them off late and sent Toronto back to their hotel to figure out a 113-109 loss that dropped them back to .500 at 13-13. 

Toronto was down 20 midway through the third quarter but came back to tie the game in the final two minutes on a pair of free throws by O.G. Anunoby. But Orlando took the lead on a putback by Franz Wagner with 27 seconds left and Fred VanVleet couldn’t get a high-arching jumper to fall with five seconds to play as the Magic closed it out and improved to 7-20 on the season. 

Toronto got 36 points – 11 in the frantic fourth quarter – from Pascal Siakam, who also had eight assists and nine rebounds.  VanVleet added 19 points and six assists but was 2-of-9 from three. Wagner was every bit their match as he put up 34 points, out-playing his 2021 draft mate, Scottie Barnes, who had six points and six rebounds in 32 minutes and was a team-worse -24 for the game. Magic rookie Paolo Banchero added 23. Together Banchero and Wagner were 20-of-26 from the floor and seemed to live in the Raptors’ paint. 

“We weren’t executing very well [on them],” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of the big, physical wings’ forays to the Raptors rim. “They were getting too good of a head start, and lots of room in the middle and not enough [resistance] at the end.”

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The Magic shot 59.2 per cent from the floor which was enough to overcome the 20-7 edge in turnovers for Toronto, which was the primary reason the game was even close. 

The two teams play again Sunday night at the Amway Center. 

The visit to Orlando – on paper the NBA’s worst team with a 6-20 record – was supposed to represent a little lull in the schedule the Raptors could use to build some momentum. 

“That’s one way you could look at it,” said VanVleet before the game. “I look at it as a team that plays very good at home and has got some talent, and we’ve got to get the first one. Tonight’s our focus. You can’t really worry about anything else. Obviously in a perfect world you would like to leave the city with two wins. But it hasn’t went that way for us all year when we play these double-headers, and we’ve got to just lock in and take care of business tonight …. If we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll go home feeling a lot better about ourselves.” 

They didn’t and the mood in Raptors’ room was predictably sombre after and what might have been an off day in the Florida sun will instead feature a practice in the middle of it. 

Getting off to a better start in the first and third quarters – especially on the road, where Toronto is now 3-10 – should be near the top of the agenda.

“When you’re playing on the road you have to be more attentive, more ready to go and we haven’t been able to do that this year,” said VanVleet who is shooting 10-of-49 from three over his past six games, the longest slump of his career. “And you know what? We’re .500 and we’re playing like it.” 

It was the start of the third set of games where the Raptors were playing the same opponent twice in a row. So far the Raptors have split games against the Heat in Miami and at home against the Philadelphia 76ers. 

In theory, the move towards baseball-style series is supposed to cut down on travel and build some rest into a busy NBA schedule. Normally the Raptors would fly out after the game and often not arrive at their next night’s hotel until the wee hours of the morning. This way the Raptors get a solid rest, a practice day and an early (6 p.m.) start on Sunday which should mean better sleep and health, and presumably better player availability. 

The jury is out on the net effect of all of that but having to play the same team in consecutive starts creates a new set of problems, such as, how to beat a team twice in a row. That Raptors – who did beat the Magic at home last Saturday — haven’t done that yet. 

“You gotta be able to handle [the schedule] and get ready to execute the game plan,” said Nurse.  

The Raptors put themselves in 37-25 hole to start the game, which is hardly anything new for Toronto who are 24th in the NBA in net rating for the opening 12 minutes.

The Magic are a better team at home — they are now 6-9 in Orlando — but they don’t lack talent. 

Their starting lineup featured the No.1 pick from 2022 in Paolo Banchero, the No.1 pick in 2021, Mo Wagner and Markelle Fultz, the No.1 pick in 2017 who is showing some signs of fulfilling his promise after being held back by injury. Bol Bol, who was taken 44th in 2019 because of injury concerns rounds out the lineup and has been one of the breakout stories of the young season. The lanky 7-foot-2 forward with the skills of a polished guard keeps making highlight-type plays on a nightly basis. The Magic bring another high lottery pick off the bench in Mo Bamba, a seven-footer who can blocks shots and shoot threes, and are waiting for Jalen Suggs – the big, rugged point guard was the No.5 pick in 2021 – to recover from injury. 

Presuming they end up at or near the top of what is a potentially star-laden draft class this summer, buying some proverbial stock in the Magic now wouldn’t be a back idea. 

As an advertisement: the 11-2 run the Magic used to go up by 10 midway through the first quarter was started when Bol grabbled a defensive rebound and took it the length of the floor and into the Raptors’ paint before pitching it to the corner. From there, the 6-foot-10 Franz Wagner shot faked and quickly passed it to the 6-foot-10 Banchero who broke his man down off the dribble and collapsed the defense again before hitting Fultz for the wide-open three in the corner. 

The Raptors like to call themselves ‘vision 6-9’ because of their size and length, but the Magic are significantly bigger at every position.  Experience, depth, and basketball IQ are supposed to bridge that gap, but the Raptors looked the more flustered team more often over the course of the game. 

“At the end of the day it’s like this: for everyone, it’s ‘we’re supposed to win’ [vs. the Magic],” said Siakam. “But this is the NBA, there aren’t games you’re supposed to win. We’re all professionals and they play hard, and they want to win, and we got to have the same mentality.”

Orlando’s lead was up to 14 early in the second quarter before the Raptors began squeezing them a little more tightly defensively. The Raptors took advantage of six Magic turnovers and a 28-8 run helped them to pull even with Orlando before heading into the half trailing 67-63. Orlando was able to get whatever it wanted offensively, shooting 66.7 per cent from the floor in the first half and 8-of-17 from three. 

The script would have called for the Raptors to put their phones down and get to work in the third quarter, but Franz Wagner wasn’t having it. 

A lot of words were spilled in the lead-up to the 2021 draft on whether the Raptors should take Suggs or Barnes with the No.4 pick and the Raptors looked smart when Barnes went on to win rookie-of-the-year and Suggs struggled, but the younger Wagner was by far the best player in the class of 2021 on Friday night and is on his way to being the steal of that exceptionally deep draft class. 

Not only did the big German outplay Barnes who started the second half but found himself watching most of the third quarter from the bench, but Wagner out-played Siakam for long stretches too. The second-year wing scored 14 points in the first half of the third quarter with a mix of full-court attacks, half-court slashes and a reliable looking three-point stroke. The Magic were leading by 20 by that point. An 18-5 Raptors run fueled by another flurry of Magic turnovers, and some determined play from Siakam and VanVleet allowed the Raptors to start the fourth within striking distance and 94-87. 

The Raptors couldn’t get the game over the hump and have sputtered yet again in their stop-and-start season. “At some point we’ve got to turn it around,” said VanVleet. “We think we’re a great team, so we got to go out and do it, and we haven’t done that yet.

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