TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors are about to tip off perhaps the most-anticipated post-season run in franchise history. The Raptors rebuilt their team with a long playoff run in mind, but can't look past the Orlando Magic, who handed Toronto two of its ugliest losses of the regular season.
Here are five things to watch in the best-of-seven opening-round playoff series which tips off Saturday in Toronto:
REGULAR-SEASON BATTLE: The Raptors and Magic split their regular-season series. The Raptors were missing Kyle Lowry for one of those losses, however, and Kawhi Leonard for the other. The Magic are riding momentum from a strong late-season surge. They've gone 22-9 since Jan. 31, including an 11-2 finish to steal the No. 7 spot.
There was a sense the regular season was merely practice for the Raptors, who had 22 starting lineups as coach Nick Nurse tinkered with rotations and dealt with injuries, roster moves and Leonard's load management. The Raptors finally had a full lineup when they easily beat Orlando 121-109 two weeks ago.
A HEALTHY KAWHI: After playing just nine games with San Antonio last season due to a quadriceps injury, Leonard has played in 60 as a Raptor, and is happy with how he feels heading into the post-season. Acquired in the off-season with a championship appearance as the No. 1 goal, Leonard is the most talented player in franchise history, MVP of the Finals in 2014 and a two-time defensive player of the year.
A player who thrives when the lights are brightest, Leonard is expected to crank it up in the post-season, showing glimpses of another level down the stretch. Nurse and Raptors fans can't wait to see "playoff Kawhi."
THE SPANISH ACQUISITION: Shipping Jonas Valanciunas to Memphis for Marc Gasol at the trade deadline was a big blow to fans who loved the big Lithuanian. But the numbers don't lie. Ball movement has improved since the trade, with the Raptors recording assists on 65.5 per cent of their baskets — fourth best in the league, and up from 57.8 per cent (22nd in the league) pre-deal.
Gasol is also a big-game player. The 34-year-old won defensive player of the year in 2013, has two Olympic silver medals with Spain, and has made six consecutive post-season appearances with Memphis.
EXPERIENCE: The Magic, who are making their first post-season appearance since 2012, resemble the Raptors from previous playoff campaigns — young overachievers. Orlando's starters have just 33 games between them, 28 of them belonging to guard D.J. Augustin. Even all-star centre Nikola Vucevic has played in just one post-season game, in 2012 with Philadelphia.
The Raptors? Five of their key players boast 417 appearances combined: Serge Ibaka (109), Danny Green (100), Leonard (87), Kyle Lowry (62), and Gasol (59). Both Green and Leonard won an NBA championship with San Antonio. Ibaka made the Finals with Oklahoma City.
FAMILIAR FACES: As Terrence Ross walked off the Scotiabank Arena court after scoring 28 points on Toronto this past regular season, the former Raptor said to a teammate "That was one of my favourite wins of my career." The Raptors can't give Ross any more favourite nights.
The player who once famously scored 51 points in a Raptors jersey is having a career year, averaging 15.1 points in just over 26 minutes off the bench. Ross's scoring, however, has traditionally dropped in the post-season, part of the reason the Raptors traded him for Ibaka in 2017.
Jeff Weltman, Orlando's president of basketball operations, also returns to Toronto. He was the Raptors' GM under president Masai Ujiri before being hired by the Magic in 2017.