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Raptors have point to prove in playoff road tests ahead


Rise to the occasion.

That’s the challenge the Toronto Raptors will be faced with when they play their first playoff road game since getting swept out of last year’s playoffs by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers — the moment that triggered a sequence of events that have led to this being the franchise’s most critical post-season run in history.

Game 1 showed that for all the roster turnover there are still past demons lurking, as history repeated itself in another dramatic opening game loss. Over the past five seasons the Raptors have gone 5-18 on the road despite being the higher seed in seven of the nine series played.

The Orlando Magic don’t possess a generational talent or a dynamic all-star duo, but they’ve won nine straight at Amway Centre and 13 of 14 overall. They are psyched about the opportunity to play in front of their home fans in a playoff atmosphere.

“The house is gonna be rocking, louder than it’s ever been in seven years,” Aaron Gordon said after Tuesday night’s loss. “So, it’s gonna be beautiful just to have the whole city of Orlando behind us. We feed off the crowd, we like their energy and it’s a beautiful thing. It was nice coming here and stealing one, all in all, and now we get to go back to Orlando and have a chance to protect our home court.”

The Raptors won more games on the road (26) this season than they’d ever won in franchise history, pulled off impressive wins in Golden State, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City, and sprinkled in a few clutch moments in Miami and Orlando, too.

While that deserves acknowledgement and respect, one can’t help but get the sense that this group still has some growing up to do away from the friendly confines of Scotiabank Arena.

Twice in Boston the Raptors came up short when it mattered most. In Texas, they were punched in the mouth by both San Antonio and Houston. Head coach Nick Nurse admitted he didn’t have his team ready for the hostility Spurs fans would bring, with all the emotion of the Spurs’ newly adopted son DeMar DeRozan going up against the one who got away, Kawhi Leonard.

The Pistons also seemed to thrive in the battle of intangibles when hosting the Raptors, twice winning close games despite getting a 30-piece from Kyle Lowry in one and from Leonard in the other. Does Toronto have the requisite road mettle for post-season contention?

It’s hard to say, really. There is still much to learn about the latest iteration of the 2018-19 Raptors, one that’s only been together for 28 games including the post-season. If Game 1 showed they couldn’t flip a playoff switch at a moment’s notice, Game 2 provided a taste of their ceiling. Which team shows up Friday night is open for debate but they will undoubtedly need to be a version closer to the latter to not only regain home court advantage, but earn a chance to clinch the series next Tuesday.

“Playoffs, from a player’s standpoint, they’re not that emotional,” Marc Gasol said during his first scrum in Toronto. “They’re really detail oriented and aggressive and assertive basketball, it’s kind of, more of — not a chess match — it’s more mind over emotion.”

Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) tries to protect the ball from Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, left, and center Marc Gasol right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Toronto on Monday, April 1, 2019. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

In the short time Gasol has been around, Toronto has only played four games on the road against plus-.500 teams. Looking at the entire sample size, though, the road Raptors have fallen short of the conviction the Spaniard speaks of in crunch time.

At home they have been juggernauts, outscoring opponents by 20 points in 48 minutes worth of regular season data from games within three points in the final four minutes. They’ve shot an incredible 59.6 per cent from two-point range and 34.4 per cent from three. But head over to enemy territory under the same scenario and the script flips. The Raptors were outscored by 14 points in 54 minutes, shooting 40.6 per cent inside the arc and 25.7 per cent beyond it.

So, what gives?

The Raptors’ transition game is completely put to bed on the road in those high leverage situations. They have 12 steals to 11 turnovers in crunch time (as previously defined) at home, but five steals to 16 turnovers on the road. Considering the road sample is just six minutes larger, this is a clear area of concern when remembering just how important getting out on the break is for Toronto.

They finished the season as the most efficient fast break team at 1.19 points per transition possession, but their pace of play drops from 105.57 possessions per 48 clutch minutes at home (about league average) to 98.65 possessions per 48 minutes on the road (fourth-slowest). The Raptors’ inability to force turnovers late in close games away from home is having a double-impact: they’re losing a source of offence that’s been critical to them all season and their half-court possessions are allowing set defences to regularly contest their shots.

The good news is that when they’re able to avoid this type of late game drama, they’re 19-5. *Insert street smart guy meme*

With Orlando expected to throw their best punch in one of the next two games, there should be an opportunity to see what head coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors have up their sleeve in the post-season. If not, those tests will be sure to arrive in the second round and beyond.

After having to stew in the frustration of everything that went wrong in the series opener that dropped Toronto to 1-9 in Game 1’s, Nick Nurse has a pretty good idea of the mood Orlando will be in on their home court and the potential haymaker to come.

“I would imagine they’re extremely pissed off this morning,” Nurse said after practice on Monday. “I would imagine they’re gonna be pissed off for the next 48 hours until the ball goes up and that’s playoff basketball.

“Can you not get too happy after a win, can you understand how determined a team’s gonna be after a loss and bring the energy you need to bring?”

Can they?

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