Before each game of the Magic/Raptors series, we are going to get the perspective of someone from the North.
Aaron Gordon has developed into a pretty solid isolation defender and it made no difference against Kawhi Leonard in Game 2. Based on what you’ve seen in games where Leonard “struggled” this season, can you please offer some advice on the best way to defend him? (Pretty please?)
This answer might be a cop-out, but when Kawhi gets going, stopping him becomes a futile exercise. At his best, Kawhi operates methodically either out of the pick-and-roll or in isolation situations. He’ll use his tight handle to dribble a defender out of position and use the space he creates to take (and make) deadly midrange jumpers. As the year progressed, Kawhi tended to operate outside of the Raptors’ offense less and less. When Lowry initiates the offense, Kawhi loves to pop off a screen on the perimeter, pulling up from three.
Kawhi’s passing is by far the weakest part of his game, though he has improved over the course of the season. If the Magic want to force turnovers, they may opt to double him, forcing Kawhi to make difficult passes. Of course, this opens up other Raptors who excel at cutting to the rim like Pascal Siakam and to a lesser degree, Norman Powell. Unfortunately, stopping Kawhi likely results in getting one of those other guys going.
Marc Gasol is proving to be a very difficult match-up for Nikola Vucevic. In what ways has he been an upgrade for Toronto over Jonas Valanciunas, and which areas does Gasol most impact the game defensively?
As much as Valanciunas is loved in Toronto, his inability to make quick decisions as a facilitator really hindered the Raptors’ ball movement. Gasol provides another elite passing presence to pair with Lowry, which consistently results in great looks for cutters and shooters off screens.
Defensively, Gasol has been stifling Vucevic by anticipating his motion within the offense and getting to those spots before Vuc has a chance to set himself. When Marc becomes aggressive on defense, he excels at stealing (despite lacking the foot speed of a few years ago) and swiping the ball out of his opponent’s hands.
Ultimately, an elite court awareness is the biggest difference between Gasol and Valanciunas on both ends of the court. He’s conscious of, and capitalizes on both teams’ rotations, understanding his optimal position on the floor. Far too often, Valanciuas allowed backdoor cutters to get behind him for an easy slam, which rarely occurs with Marc.
The Magic not only missed shots in Game 2, they were mostly unable to even get into their offensive sets. What is the Raptors’ defense doing so well against Orlando to keep them so out of sync offensively?
Like Gasol, the Raptors’ starters (especially Kawhi) did a great job of aggressively getting to the Magic’s planned spots on the floor. With active hands (and the occasional double team – looking at you, Terrence Ross), the Magic often didn’t have a chance to start the flow of their normal offense. Rather, the Magic’s elite players were forced to either take rushed shots or settle for an outside jumper from decent/subpar shooters (Jonathan Isaac and Evan Fournier combined for just 2-13 from three).
The Magic are a young team; defensive pressure often derails inexperienced players when the playoffs roll around. Despite the Raptors getting the short end of the whistle last game, I expect them to continue their aggressive strategy on the defensive end. It’s important to point out that Kawhi averaged just 1.5 turnovers per game this season. Last game, Nick Nurse showed us that he trusts Leonard’s defensive acuity enough to leave him on the floor, despite his foul trouble.
Thanks again to Dylan for chatting with us. Be sure to visit Raptors HQ for some great content about the Magic’s opponent, including a story on Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol being the dads the Raptors have been searching for.