There are two very compelling reasons why Orlando has Toronto’s attention.
Or 31 of them, perhaps.
The Raptors lost to the Magic twice this season. And Milwaukee, Toronto and Orlando all were tied for the Eastern Conference’s best record over the final 31 games of the season — all going 22-9 down the stretch. So when the Raptors play host to the Magic on Saturday in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series, Toronto expects a red-hot opponent.
“They’re playing very well,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Very well coached. They’ve got some metrics that speak volumes about who they are. They don’t turn the ball over, they don’t give up transition baskets, they don’t let you get offensive rebounds. They’re very methodical in their offensive execution. … And they’re long, man. They’re long and athletic.
“It’s a good squad we’re playing.”
Toronto came into this season with the highest of expectations, especially after getting Kawhi Leonard over the summer. The Raptors delivered in the regular season, managing Leonard’s workload — he played only 60 games — while still finishing with the second-best record in the NBA.
“Nothing matters until now,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “Now — this is what matters.”
The Magic were no playoff lock. They looked like the season was over at the end of January. But their turnaround has been stellar, and for the first time since 2012, the playoffs are their reward.
Magic coach Steve Clifford said he has a simple message to his team: “Play our game.”
“You don’t want to change,” Clifford said. “You play well for a certain reason. What you’re not going to do is reinvent yourself because it’s a playoff game. Play the way we play. Play the way we’ve played this last 31 games. That’s what we need to do.”
The Raptors won’t be at full strength for Game 1, and probably won’t be for a while.
Key reserve OG Anunoby had an emergency appendectomy Thursday night in Toronto, after being diagnosed with acute appendicitis. There’s no timetable for his return — and the Raptors are still without Patrick McCaw, who’s sidelined with a thumb injury.
But Leonard is full-go, and feeling good as well.
“We did a good job,” Leonard said of the season-long load-management plan for him. “Nothing flared up or got worse. The way I’m feeling today, I feel like we did a great job.”
Magic center Nikola Vucevic said he has sensed a real change in his team over the final 31 games.
“We’re more mature, in a way,” Vucevic said. “We just understand what it takes to win.”
Here’s some other things to know going into Game 1:
Toronto’s likely starting five of Marc Gasol (59), Pascal Siakam (12), Kawhi Leonard (87), Danny Green (100) and Kyle Lowry (62) have a combined 320 games of playoff experience. Orlando’s projected lineup of Jonathan Isaac (0), Aaron Gordon (0), Nikola Vucevic (1), Evan Fournier (28) and D.J. Augustin (4) have a combined 33 postseason appearances.
Toronto seems to be dogged annually for not yet breaking through and winning a title, or even reaching the NBA Finals. But 27 other teams would happily change places with the Raptors, at least in recent years. Toronto is one of only three franchises with a playoff series win in each of the last three seasons — with Cleveland and Golden State the others.
HEAD TO HEAD
Toronto and Orlando split four games this season, each going 1-1 at home. Orlando handed Toronto the biggest loss of its season, a 116-87 defeat on Dec. 28 — a game that was notable for two reasons. Nikola Vucevic had a monster 30-point, 20-rebound game and the Raptors (who went into that night with the NBA’s best record) gave Kyle Lowry the night off to deal with back pain.
The Magic have had six winning seasons in the last 16 years. Clifford has been part of all six — he was an assistant on five straight winning teams under Stan Van Gundy from 2007-12, and Orlando went 42-40 this season in his return to the organization. The Magic have won 11 series in franchise history and Clifford was on the staff for six of those victories.
Orlando’s Aaron Gordon is about to get his first taste of playoff basketball, and he’s hoping for a breakthrough against Toronto. Gordon — a 16.7 point-per-game scorer over the last two seasons — has played against the Raptors 17 times and has never scored more than 16 points in any of those games. He’s shooting 38 percent in his career against Toronto.
Associated Press Writer Ian Harrison in Toronto contributed to this story.
More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports