No one would blame the Orlando Magic -- in the playoff for the first time since 2012 -- if there was a “mission accomplished” feel to their season. For the Toronto Raptors, meanwhile, things are only getting started.
What the Magic did down the stretch -- going 22-9 since Jan. 31, including an 11-2 finishing kick to pass both the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons -- was remarkable. It’s a foundation to build on for next season, but with a demonstrated level of success to instill confidence in the players and perhaps earn coach Steve Clifford some Coach of the Year votes.
Toronto, by contrast, has been navigating six months and 82 games to get to this point. Most of what people remember about recent Raptors history has focused on the spring, with their two first-round ousters, two in the conference semis and one in the East finals over the past five seasons.
That frustrating pattern cost coach Dwane Casey his job and saw DeMar DeRozan get traded. But DeRozan was shipped out for Kawhi Leonard, Casey was replaced with new coach Nick Nurse and Toronto has arguably its deepest and most versatile team yet.
Leonard was a big upgrade, giving the Raptors one of the league’s top two-way players. Lowry had a moody but effective season, with the team less reliant on his scoring. Forward Pascal Siakam emerged as arguably the NBA’s most improved performer and center Marc Gasol, acquired from Memphis at the trade deadline, provides size, smarts and skills.
The pieces fit better than ever, with the Raptors hoping for a finish (Finals or better) to match.
Three things to watch
1. Experience really is going to matter. If you add up the number of playoff games in which Orlando’s regular starters have appeared, you get a modest 33 (28 for D.J. Augustin, four for Evan Fournier, one for Nikola Vucevic). The Raptors can go with a starting five -- Gasol (59), Leonard (87), Lowry (62), Serge Ibaka (109) and Danny Green (100) -- in which each man has more career postseason appearances than the Magic’s starters en masse. Combined, that five has 417 career playoff games.
2. A rested Kawhi is a dangerous Kawhi. That is Toronto’s hope, at least. Three Raptors teammates and five Orlando starters all have logged more playing time this season than the well-rested and load-managed Leonard. The 22 games he didn’t play in the regular season might cost him Kia MVP consideration and All-NBA votes. But Leonard totes some gaudy offensive and defensive ratings in his playoff career, as well as a strong win-share record.
3. The season series might have been revealing. These teams split their four meetings, with Orlando outscoring the Raptors by 30 points cumulatively. And it was an awfully representative sample, with the games scattered from November to April. The Magic took and made about two extra 3-pointers per game, a fine trade for the 1.5 point deficit it ran from the foul line.
The number to know
65.5 percent -- After adding Gasol, the Raptors recorded assists on 65.5 percent of their field goals, the league's fourth-highest rate and up from 57.8 percent (22nd) before Gasol joined the team. In the 26 games he played, the rate was higher with Gasol on the floor (67.1 percent) than it was with him off the floor (63.8 percent), but both rates were higher than that before his arrival. In regard to overall efficiency, the Raptors saw greater improvement on defense than they did on offense after the Gasol addition. But the improved ball movement that he has brought should help against an opponent that had the league's best defense after Feb. 1.
-- John Schuhmann
It’s a nod to Orlando’s excellent play and conscientious defense over the season’s second half that we expect them to win at least once in this showdown. The Magic can play as if they have nothing to lose. But then, so can a renewed Toronto team. That massive physical and psychological block between them and postseason advancement -- that man, LeBron James -- is nowhere to be found this spring. Mentally, the Raptors should feel free ‘n’ easy and play that way in this series. Raptors in 5.
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