Raptors’ win over Magic first step in moving back up NBA food chain

February 1, 2021 0 By boss

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The hole the Toronto Raptors have put themselves in through the first quarter of the NBA season is not so deep that they can’t see daylight.

But neither is it so shallow that they can assume fate will intervene and inevitably see them rise to their accustomed position among the Eastern Conference’s elite.

Baby steps are first steps, and for the Raptors that means separating themselves from the bottom feeders in order to move up the food chain.

That’s what Toronto’s 115-102 win over the Orlando Magic Sunday night was about, as much as anything.

The Raptors might have the best record in the Eastern Conference over the past seven years, but they were a half-game behind the 10th-place Magic when the ball went up and in 12th place through 19 games — not to mention they were trying to avoid losing their fourth straight for the first time in three years.

Now they’re a half-game ahead and in 10th place, and just a game out of eighth as they get set to travel to Orlando for a return meeting on Tuesday night.

Toronto (8-12) controlled the game from the opening moments and never let up in the fourth quarter despite being without Norman Powell (thigh bruise) for the second-straight game and OG Anunoby (calf strain) missing his third start.

Toronto led by 16 in the third quarter and the Magic cut that to eight with 8:33 to play, but the Raptors — who have blown more than their share of double-digit leads this year — responded with a 20-7 run to bury their injury-ravaged opponent, who fell to 8-13.

Pascal Siakam played his second strong game in a row as he followed up a 32-point effort in a loss Friday to the Sacramento Kings with 30 points on 23 shots, once again forgoing the three-point line — he’s taken just three triples over the past two games — for attacks on the rim.

Kyle Lowry posted a season-high 15 assists while Aron Baynes added a season-high 16 rebounds and did more than his part to keep Orlando big man Nikola Vucevic wishing the Raptors didn’t exist — Toronto once more held him well below his season averages as he finished with 15 points but went 5-of-18 from the floor, a big reason why the Magic shot just 40.2 per cent for the game.

Which isn’t all that surprising — the Magic are a poor offensive team. But the way the Raptors have been defending lately — giving up an average of 123 points a game over their losing streak — they’ll take it.

The most interesting moment of the game might have come midway through the second quarter when the Magic’s Aaron Gordon blindsided Lowry with bodycheck away from the play as the Raptors were transitioning from defence to offence.

It wasn’t an accident. When the Raptors and Magic met on Aug. 5 in the bubble, Lowry took a hard foul on Gordon as the Magic forward was launching for a dunk. Lowry never came close to the ball and instead seemed to grab Gordon’s arm and send him awkwardly to the floor. Gordon strained his hamstring on the play and the two exchanged words as he left the floor. Never one to shy away, Lowry had possibly gotten under Gordon’s skin with a hard box out the play immediately before.

Regardless, Gordon was assessed a Flagrant 1 foul for his hit on Lowry but maybe deserved some credit for injecting some life into a game between a pair of sub-.500 teams on a Sunday night without any fans in the building.

The Raptors got on a roll early as they jumped out to a 27-15 lead mostly on the strength of their defence as they held the visiting Magic to 28 per cent shooting in the first quarter and forced four turnovers. It was a group approach, which is how it has to be for a short-handed team that is still figuring out how to defend without the luxury of their big-man tandem of the past two years — Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka — directing traffic behind the defence.

Nurse’s rotation had gone nine deep before the game was 10 minutes old as he made sure to get the likes of Yuta Watanabe, Stanley Johnson and DeAndre’ Bembry on the floor early. Those three were part of the crew that put the clamps on the Kings as the Raptors’ fourth-quarter comeback fell short.

Before the game, the question was how Toronto would manage Vucevic, the Magic’s all-star big man who is averaging what would be a career-best 23 points a game but who has been completely neutralized by Toronto since the first-round of the 2019 playoffs. Vucevic averaged just 6.7 points a game on 20 per cent shooting in three starts.

The Magic — missing Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz for the season due to knee injuries — have the 30th-rated offence in the league so far, so keeping their leading scorer in check seemed like a wise plan.

Could they do it without the centre tandem that they have relied on in the past?

“I just stressed in the walkthrough, it isn’t just about guarding him, it’s about how he gets it, where he gets it, etc. So, a lot goes into that,” said Nurse. “Can we maybe deny some of those reversal passes that they’re looking to send right in there? Can we push those out? Can we disrupt the timing? Can we fight him off the block? Can we muck up some of the cross-screens in the lane and make those less easy passes in? I think that’s where it starts: Can we make the catches hard for him out there.”

Leading the way was Baynes, who had his best game since signing with Toronto in the off-season, but he had help.

The Raptors’ defensive effort carried on into the second quarter and they got some offensive punch too, as Bembry had seven points in 10 first-half minutes, Watanabe hit a corner three and Paul Watson hit a pair of threes in his six-minute stint — including one just before the half that allowed Toronto to take a 58-44 lead into the locker room.

This time Toronto didn’t take a step back for the rest of the game. Given the way their season has gone so far, that in itself is a big step forward.

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