With defense clicking, Raptors focused on deep playoff run


TORONTO (AP) — The Toronto Raptors have reason to believe this is the year their playoff run doesn’t end in failure and frustration.

Just ask the Orlando Magic, who have seen firsthand how good this Raptors team can be.

Kawhi Leonard scored 27 points, Pascal Siakam added 24 and the Raptors routed the Magic 115-96 on Tuesday night, winning their first-round playoff series in five games.

Toronto, which has made six straight postseason appearances, has reached the second round for the fourth straight year.

Buoyed by the offseason additions of Leonard and guard Danny Green, plus trade deadline pickup Marc Gasol, these Raptors are focused on a conference finals berth, and maybe more.

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“We know what we are and what we can be,” guard Kyle Lowry said.

So does Orlando coach Steve Clifford.

“To me, this is by far the best team they’ve had here in this stretch,” Clifford said of the Raptors. “This is a terrific team here. Terrific.”

Toronto lost 104-101 in Game 1 when Orlando’s D.J. Augustin hit a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds to play. After that, the Raptors clamped down defensively and held the Magic below 100 in each of the next four.

“As the series went on, they started playing much better,” Magic center Nikola Vucevic said. “They stepped up their game on both ends of the floor and we weren’t able to do that. It showed each game.”

Toronto set a team record with 34 assists in 41 made baskets in Tuesday’s clincher, and held the Magic to below 40 percent shooting for the third time in four.

“The consistent defensive intensity the last four games has been impressive,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “As long as we keep that defensive focus, we have enough guys to make enough plays on the offensive end.”

Toronto’s previous three postseason runs were all ended by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, including a six-game defeat in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, and consecutive second-round sweeps in 2017 and 2018. The most recent of those defeats led to the dismissal of Coach of the Year Dwane Casey last May, and laid the groundwork for last July’s trade that sent franchise icon DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio as part of a package that brought back Leonard and guard Danny Green.

“We’re getting better,” said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, a candidate for the NBA’s most improved player. “We’re just working hard to kind of gel together and figure things out. Obviously, we can always improve, but it’s starting to click a little bit.”

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Tuned in at both ends of the floor, the Raptors now have a few days to rest and get ready for Philadelphia in round two.

“They’re very talented,” Magic forward Aaron Gordon said of Toronto. “They have a great leader and great point guard in Kyle. They seem to be very balanced.”


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