There’s more than just experience on the side of the Raptors as Game 1 of the opening-round series against the Orlando Magic tips off Saturday, which more or less describes the huge advantage Toronto will enjoy.
Throw away the 2-2 season-series record, the well-documented Game 1 struggles when spring arrives and the various strengths and weaknesses when breaking down the matchup, the first between the teams since Dwight Howard dominated the paint in Orlando.
For the Magic, the playoffs represent the team’s first post-season appearance since 2012.
Orlando hasn’t won a post-season series since 2010 and its chances are pretty daunting.
“Obviously it won’t be easy,” all-star centre Nikola Vucevic told reporters. “Toronto is going to take it a step forward. Obviously they have guys who have a lot of experience in the playoffs, who have played in big games, meaningful games. But I believe that we know what it takes It won’t be easy.”
Orlando has been in playoff mode for the past few months, the team finding its rhythm and chemistry at the right moment.
For guys such as Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, Orlando’s two primary scorers, this will be their first foray into the playoffs.
Steve Clifford, who was hired by former Raptors executive Jeff Weltman last May, has done a wonderful job in his first season with the Magic.
Clifford won’t win coach of the year honours, but any coach who helps improve a team by 17 wins from the previous season must be recognized for a job well done.
“Play our game,” said the coach, whose emphasis is on defence and protecting the basketball, two tenets of post-season play. “You don’t want to change, you don’t want to reinvent yourself.”
There’s length and explosiveness with the Magic, but the obvious disparity in playoff experience can’t be overlooked.
Here’s how the matchup shakes out:
Kyle Lowry vs. D.J. Augustin
Augustin briefly played with the Raptors in 2013 before he was waived, a streaky scorer who will get up on his man and make like uncomfortable for opposing ball handlers.
Augustin will have to make shots when looks are presented on the perimeter and attack the paint.
With the likes of Vucevic and Gordon, the gic will run its offence through the team’s best two players.
Lowry enters a playoff series with a much better surrounding cast, no longer forced to shoulder the load.
In theory, Lowry won’t have to do as much as he once did in past playoff battles.
And as long as he plays within himself, the Raptors will be fine.
Lowry has to lead, play defence and provide that toughness the Raptors require.
Edge: Raptors Shooting Guard Danny Green vs. Evan Fournier Green is an NBA champion who will come off stagger screens and pin downs, a catch and shoot scorer who poured in 29 points when Orlando visited Toronto two weeks ago.
Fournier plays hard and has had some good stretches against the Raptors.
Kawhi Leonard vs. Aaron Gordon
Arguably the most intriguing matchup, assuming the stage does not get the best of Gordon, who has the size and strength to battle Leonard.
Leonard is a former NBA finals MVP and he’s suited for this moment, admittedly approaching the regular season as a tuneup for the post-season.
Edge: Raptors Power Forward Pascal Siakam vs. Jonathan Isaac Another potentially intriguing matchup, at least based on how Isaac used his length to contain Siakam during the regular season.
Isaac was cleared Friday after the second-year player entered the league’s concussion protocol.
Siakam had a breakthrough season, the presumptive winner as most improved player, but there’s no playoff pedigree to speak of given his past role as a reserve.
Marc Gasol vs. Nikola Vucevic
Gasol’s passing, IQ, feel for the game and ability to swing the ball has been at the forefront of Toronto’s three-point shooting.
Vucevic is younger than Gasol, but like Gasol the Magic use Vucevic as a playmaker. Vucevic sat out the season finale because of a stomach virus, but he’s fine to go.
Edge: Magic Bench Terrence Ross is Orlando’s primary reserve, a wing player who enters the post-season riding a hot shooting hand.
Michael Carter-Williams has been a presence in the backcourt, but Orlando is pretty thin in frontcourt reserves.
Hard-luck small forward OG Anunoby underwent an emergency appendectomy, while Patrick McCaw (thumb) remains out.
Still, there’s plenty of bench depth with the likes of Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Norm Powell.
Nick Nurse gets his first taste as head coach and the microscope will intensify the deeper the Raptors go in the playoffs.
Steve Clifford has extracted a lot from his team, but he’ll somehow need to get more in a series that favours the Raptors.
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