Five Thoughts: Toronto Raptors vs. Orlando Magic
John Raoux/ AP Photo
The Toronto Raptors have taken a commanding 3-1 lead in their first round series against the Orlando Magic, and are primed to wrap up the series in Game 5. After losing the opening game, the Raptors have blown out the Magic in two of their last 3 encounters, leaving little doubt among viewers as to which of the two teams deserves to move on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The following are five thoughts based on the action we've seen thus far.
Kawhi Leonard makes these Raptors a true playoff threat. Over the course of 4 games, the Klaw is averaging 28.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals on elite shooting splits of 53/43/86 (FG%/3PT%/FT%). His superstar level play and consistent production stick out on a Raptors team that often relies on bursts of offense from various rotation members. He represents the unifying crown jewel on a team built around ball-movement, ancillary scoring support, capable shooters and myriad wing defenders. In his few playoff outings with this Raptors team, Kawhi already ranks among Toronto's best postseason performers in franchise history; should 'Playoff Kawhi' continue to dominate in Game 5 and in the following rounds, the Raptors have to like their odds of making their first ever NBA Finals appearance.
The Raptors have figured out the Magic defense. The Raptors have outscored the Magic by 53 points after 4 games, failing to crack the 100-point threshold just once, and by a single bucket (a 98-point win in Game 3). Orlando's defense ranked 8th in the league during the regular season; their young, motivated, long-limbed roster did indeed pose a problem at first blush for Nick Nurse's Raptors, but despite their rocky start to the series, the Raptors righted the ship by finding holes in the Magic's paint-clogging schemes and vastly outscoring them from the perimeter (35.4% as a team from beyond the arc for Toronto, compared to 30.7% for the Magic). Leonard and Siakam can consistently find and isolate mismatches, and the Raptors are all too happy to clear out the half-court, letting their star duo go to work on their overmatched counterparts.
Aaron Gordon is Orlando’s best player, but is nonetheless overpaid. In his first-ever playoff series, Aaron Gordon is averaging 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.3 steals on rather remarkable shooting splits of 51/50(!!)/58. While his all-around performance paces the Magic's roster, so does his contract - he is due $18-20 million over the next three years, and will undoubtedly hamstring Orlando's roster flexibility should they decide to retain key free agents (as will be discussed later). Put simply: Aaron Gordon is getting top-four-player-on-a-perennial-contender money while performing considerably worse than Pascal Siakam, a player who has less league experience and far fewer expectations placed upon him considering his salary. Gordon's spike in long-range shooting accuracy is promising, but he continues to profile as a disappointing value for the Magic, who may find themselves in another playoff drought before long.
Nikola Vucevic may have played himself out of a lot of money this postseason. As previously stated, the Magic do not have many avenues toward substantial improvement, and yet their decision to not trade Vucevic for draft assets at the deadline speaks volumes of their intentions this offseason. While the Magic may lose him for nothing in the summer, that might actually be better for them from a financial perspective, as Vucevic is presumably going to land a relatively lucrative deal based on his regular season performance. Orlando should pause before handing him a competitive offer, however, as he has all but disappeared during this opening round against Toronto; his scoring, rebounding, and shooting efficiency have fallen off a cliff when matched up against Gasol in the paint. If Vucevic cannot thrive in his current setting, the Magic shouldn't pay top-dollar to keep him around - and if Vucevic is hinting at deeper struggles against quality front-court competition, then pseudo-contenders should be wary of pining for his signature.
Siakam’s emergence may be Toronto’s greatest bargaining chip during Kawhi talks. Siakam has been the second-best player on the court in this series, trailing only his teammate, Kawhi Leonard. His 30-point, 11-rebound, 4-assist performance in Game 3 made him the only Raptor to post such numbers in a playoff game. Chris Bosh is the only other Raptor in franchise history to post at least 30 points and 11 rebounds in a post-season performance. Pitch that to Kawhi, and see how the Clippers (or any other team, for that matter) respond to what is basically an iron-clad promise of star support for years to come. No other team can currently match Toronto in terms of roster construction around Leonard, and Siakam's coming-of-age performances this post-season serve to solidify that fact. The only piece remaining in Kawhi's free agency puzzle is the length of the run the current roster can make - should the Raptors make at least the Eastern Conference Finals, his decision will be made all the easier, thanks to the incumbent star budding on Toronto's roster.