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Magic vs. Raptors preview: It’s the “War on I-4” against the Tampa Bay Raptors

The Magic take on their newest Floridian neighbor in a battle of two struggling teams

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Magic were slated to be the third best professional basketball team in Florida this season.

When it was announced the Raptors would be playing their home games in Tampa, it sure seemed like the Magic added another upper-echelon Eastern Conference neighbor to go along with the Miami Heat.

As it turns out, all three teams have disappointed so far, with the shorthanded Magic holding the best Floridian record at 8-12. Right behind them in the lottery-bound portion of the standings are the Raptors and Heat, both with 7-12 records.

Sunday the Magic begin a home and home against the Raptors in the so-called “War on I-4.”

The shorthanded Magic, coming off an ugly loss to the Clippers on Friday, have lost 10 of their last 12 games. Toronto’s struggles have come as more of a surprise.

Part of the downfall of a Raptors team that went 53-19 last season, has been defensive inconsistency. The Raptors have had a top-five defensive rating in each of the previous three seasons, topping out at second last season while allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions in the post-Kawhi Leonard follow-up to their championship campaign. This season they are allowing 110.3 points per, which ranks 17th in the league. That was capped by an ugly performance against the Kings, in which they allowed 104 points through three quarters en route to their third consecutive loss.

The Raptors still do a good job of protecting the paint, but there’s good news for Nikola Vucevic: Marc Gasol is no longer on the team. The Vucevic-whisperer took his talents to Los Angeles after years of haunting Vooch with his physical defense and ability to push Vucevic out of his comfort zone. The Raptors replaced Gasol in the middle with Aron Baynes, who has been...well, not good, especially on the offensive end where he is posting a true shooting percentage of 44.2% and a net rating of -10.0. He slowly seems to be finding his role of late, after a multi-game benching, and appears to be building chemistry with Fred VanVleet in the pick-and-roll. He contained Bam Adebayo in a recent matchup with the Heat, so we’ll see how he fares against Vucevic, who is coming off his quietest game of the season after facing another former pesky Raptors defender who went West in Serge Ibaka.

Pascal Siakam has had some early-season offensive regression, scoring 18.9 points per game (down from 22.9 last season) and shooting just 25% from deep (down from 35.9% last season) on 4.6 attempts per (down from 6.1 last season). Siakam, though, is coming off a season-high 32-point performance against the Kings, with all of his damage coming from inside the paint and at the free throw line (season-high 14 attempts).

Interesting subplot, this will be the first time that Kyle Lowry and Aaron Gordon share a court since the two exchanged words following Lowry’s unnecessarily hard foul on Gordon in the NBA bubble that ultimately prevented AG from playing in the postseason with a lingering hamstring injury.

Gordon is in need of a strong performance after struggling the last two games, being held to 9 points on 4-for-13 shooting with 6 turnovers against the Clippers, and 3 points on 1-for-9 shooting with 4 turnovers against the Kings. It was an ugly game all around for the Magic against the Clippers as they were held to 90 points, with Vucevic limited to a season-low 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting.

We’ll see if he can rebound against the Gasol-less Raptors in this I-4 two-game set.

Who: Orlando Magic (8-12) vs. Toronto Raptors (7-12)

When: Sunday at 7 p.m.

Where: Amalie Arena - Tampa, Florida

TV: Fox Sports Florida