Magic out of tricks against Raptors' smothering defense

Aaron Rose

If you can't play defense, you can't be on the floor for the Toronto Raptors.

What the Raptors lack in offensive star power, they make up for in plenty with one of the stoutest and most versatile defenses in the NBA. That kind of lockdown defensive intensity was on full display in team's first two seeding games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, and Wednesday night was no different as the Raptors smothered the Orlando Magic in a 109-99 victory.

"It’s a matter of will," Gasol said. "Defensively, it’s like believing in what the coaches are telling you, and everybody having each other’s backs. It’s a matter of continuous effort. It’s not one effort that’s going to stop the play. It’s not two, it’s not three, we’ll continue to make efforts and make it as tough as possible for the other team and continuing possessions with rebounding. ... And I think, in our locker room if you don’t have the will, or the discipline, to play defense, it is going to be really hard for you to see the floor."

The first half was really all Raptors on Wednesday night, with Toronto holding Orlando to just 35 points on 30% shooting. It was the second time this season that the Raptors held a team to fewer than 35 points in a half this season, making them the first team in the NBA to reach that milestone this season.

Gasol and Serge Ibaka combined to lock down former all-star Nikola Vucevic who finished the game with just 12 points and a negative Net Rating.

"Marc and Serge are two really, really good defensive bigs," Raptors coach Nick Nurse. "You gotta kinda divide the game up, 24 minutes apiece for both of them and it gives them a chance to put great effort into the game and go after [Vucevic]."

Orlando did get things going a little bit in the second half, especially in the third quarter, when the Raptors looked a little sloppy out of the break, but any issues were quickly sorted out before things got really concerning. 

"We turned it over three straight times which doesn’t help your defense at all. You can’t play defense when you’re doing that," Nurse said. "We obviously weren’t as energetic and alert, etc., in the second half but I was super impressed with the first half, I ain’t tripping about the second half."

Offensively, it was once again Fred VanVleet who did the bulk of the work for Toronto. Unlike in his career-high 36 point performance against the Heat, VanVleet did most of his scoring inside the paint, a rare sign from the Raptors' 6-foot guard. He scored five of his eight buckets inside the paint and finished the night with a game-high 21 points. 

That kind of finishing ability has always been lacking from VanVleet, who shot just 52% inside the restricted area this season, one of the lowest marks in the NBA. Continued development in that area will be a big boon to the Raptors, and likely VanVleet's wallet when he hits free agency this offseason.

After going 6-for-21 in the Raptors first two seeding games, Powell broke out of his shoot funk with 5-for-10 performance including three 3-pointers. He had been getting to the rim and just been unable to finish with any sort of regularity, so seeing him scoring again was a welcomed sign for Toronto.

"I know the type of player I am. I know what I'm capable of, just getting the flow and feel back rolling off going in and out, a couple of layups getting funky on the rim, rolling off, whatever it is," Powell said.

Anunoby continued to show his offensive development. He flashed that spin move he used the other night against Anthony Davis to twirl around Vucevic for a bucket and finished the night with 12 points.

"You can tell that he’s working on it," Gasol said of Anunoby's offensive game. "He works on it every day, on his handle, on his shot, on his decision making. It’s a continuous effort, it’s a work in progress. It’s not by any means a final product yet. He can get a lot better but he’s a unique player."

With the win, the Raptors moved to 4-0 this year against the Magic and one win away from clinching the second seed in the Eastern Conference. They'll have an opportunity to do that on Friday when they take on the No. 3 seeded Boston Celtics at 9 p.m. Eastern.

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