It’s hard not to look past the first round now given how the Toronto Raptors have played of late. With a sound 3-1 lead over the Orlando Magic following Sunday’s 107-85 win and an average point per game margin of +18.6 over their last three victories, the Raptors are rolling.
With a chance to close out the series on Tuesday at home, you can practically see the conference semifinals over the hill. Despite his team’s stellar play Nick Nurse isn’t ready to overlook the Magic.
“The main thing that’s in my head right now is that this team has come in and beat us on this floor once already,” the Raptors head coach told reporters on Monday afternoon. “So we need to do our best to take care of business.”
It’s what the Raptors have been doing during their three-game win streak, handling both ends of the floor. But it’s on the defensive end where they’ve been most impressive, holding Orlando to just 86.7 points per game in that span. Having adjusted nicely to the slower pace and physicality Orlando plays with, Toronto’s defence ranks third in the NBA in the playoffs and they’ve held the Magic to an average of just 33.5 points in the paint thus far.
With each passing game, it’s becoming clear that Orlando’s Game 1 upset win was an aberration — but it was enough to light a fire under the Raptors, and Nurse says it’s helped motivate the team to raise their game defensively.
“I dunno, man, our team was upset after Game 1. Watching guys driving from the rim from 30 feet away, laying it in or dunking. Decided to not let that happen anymore.”
When the Raptors are as locked in on the defensive end as they’ve been, the ceiling for what the team is capable of rises accordingly, and it’s left us watching the best version of the team yet.
“I think we saw some flashes of this kind of play at times [during the regular season],” said Nurse. “But now we’re serious about sustaining it and doing it more consistently. Let’s see if we can do it again”
While Orlando hasn’t been able to match the Raptors — particularly when it comes to the performance of each team’s star players — the Magic showed a ton of resiliency throughout the regular season and still present their challenges.
“It’s not easy, because this team fights,” Nurse said. “Their coaching staff are making really good adjustments and we’re having to think really hard about what they possibly might do to counter what we’ve been doing. And we have to do it again during the game several times. There’s a very experienced head coach over there, who’s been through this a lot,” continued Nurse, who, despite steering the ship for several playoff runs in the G-League and British pro league, is in the midst of his first post-season as an NBA head coach.
“It’s interesting for me to see. That’s what’s most interesting in the playoffs as a coach, is to watch the adjustment and how the chess game goes back and forth. It keeps you up at night sometimes.”
The Raptors head into Tuesday’s Game 5 with a significant opportunity for more than just a series win and restful sleep — one that Nurse hopes his team doesn’t squander.
“You just don’t want to screw around in this series,” he warned of Tuesday’s game. “If you lose this one, you’re back in Orlando. You’re adding miles, adding stress, whatever it is, to your team. It does make it important and hopefully, we’ll realize that.”
“Closeout games are probably the hardest ones,” said Danny Green, who has been on the winning end of more than a few during his ten-year career. “The other team has everything to lose, and they’re fighting for their lives.”
“The hardest part, mentally, is not getting too fat and happy, or too satisfied… We want that same sense of urgency we had in Game 2 when we were down 0-1.”
The Raptors are one win away from the second round, which would begin next weekend, and a few days in between series certainly won’t hurt. Pascal Siakam is averaging just shy of 40 minutes per game, Kawhi Leonard was battling illness in Orlando, and as much as it’s important to carry momentum into the next round, so too is the opportunity to rest and refine ahead of what is sure to be another extremely physical series should the Sixers advance past the Nets as expected.
Rest is nice, but what about a chance to exorcise some demons, to get rid of some of those skeletons remaining from blown opportunities in Raptors playoff lore?
“What’s happened in the past has no bearing or relevance to what’s happening now for me,” Nurse shot down that notion. “I’d like to steal Joe Maddon’s line and say, ‘We don’t vibrate on those frequencies of the past.’”
When one reporter began a question saying, “The team doesn’t have a history of closing out games,” Nurse interjected.
“This team doesn’t?” the coach was quick to distinguish. “Or this organization?”
“This team… Let’s go see if they can start their own history tomorrow.”