If this enjoyable ride through the playoffs continues deep into May and perhaps further, we may all look back on the Game 1 loss to the Orlando Magic and sing the praises of D.J. Augustin.
From the moment Augustin torched Toronto’s defence to the tune of 25 points, Toronto’s fortunes have turned.
Those straight-line drives to the tin are few and far between these days as the Raptors’ defence has settled in, particularly the starting unit, and have been making things particularly difficult for the Orlando Magic in general.
Augustin has a total of 24 points in three games since he dropped 25 on him in the opener.
And for the first time all season it feels like the Raptors have settled on an identity: A team that refuses to make anything easy on the offensive end for an opponent and we can all thank Augustin for that.
Head coach Nick Nurse, in the midst of his first playoff run with this team comfortably ahead 3-1 and looking to close out the series with a win tonight at Scotiabank Arena, believes that Game 1 loss set the wheels in motion for the three-game defensive clinic the Raptors have put on to take charge of the series.
“I don’t know, man, I just think that our team, they were upset Game 1 watching themselves up there (on film), guys driving to the rim from 35 feet away, laying it in, dunking, and decided not to let that happen anymore,” Nurse said.
And they haven’t.
Over the past three games the Raptors own a team defensive rating of 92.5 (points allowed per 100 possessions). That is first among NBA playoff teams. But throw in that first game and the Raptors slip to third at 96.0 behind both the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks, two teams that will square off in the other Eastern Conference semifinal.
This kind of defence has been the plan since Nurse sat down and looked at his team as they went into training camp.
Some load management and some injuries kept them from achieving this kind of consistency early on, but the signs were there that it was coming even as they played out the final month of the regular season schedule.
“Late summer, early fall when (we) were looking at what we had, I think you saw some length and toughness, some defensive players, and then midway through the season, obviously, we made some adjustments to our roster and probably strengthened it defensively even more,” Nurse said. “It was just a matter of actually going out and doing it and being that identity, instead of talking about it, being it.”
Marc Gasol’s addition at the trade deadline was the final piece to his defensive puzzle, giving the Raptors two former defensive players of the year (Kawhi Leonard is the other) and a trio of other starters that do not shy away from their defensive responsibilities in Kyle Lowry, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam — an underrated defender.
Green said he felt things starting to fall into place in the final month as the injury bug subsided and Leonard’s load management days petered out.
“There were a couple of games towards the end of the season where we had mostly everyone healthy and obviously against teams that were trying to make the playoffs which was a good test for us coming into the playoffs,” Green said. “I think we kind of felt we had a pretty good rhythm there during that time. Obviously we weren’t playing playoff minutes as a group, but I think the last month or so of the season we had a pretty good feel for each other.”
Green has liked what he has seen from the Raptors these past three games. It’s hard to argue with the success they have had, just the second time in team history they have won three playoff games in a row. But Green believes there is still more to get for the Raptors.
“I think mentally we are pretty close to where we want to be and physically too,” he said. “But chemistry-wise I don’t think we have reached our full potential. We know we can play better. Obviously we can shoot better. I don’t think we have shot the ball well all series.
“We’ve had a couple of guys shoot the ball well here and there, but as a group we haven’t shot the ball well. Defensively I think we took a pretty good turn on who we can be. But i think we have a lot of room for growth and we have to take each game, regardless win or loss, and get better and try to reach the best we can be as soon we can be there.”
The next step in that process is taking care of the Magic one final time to end their season and move on to the second round.
It might not be a bad idea to thank D.J. Augustin before he gets out of town.
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