ORLANDO, Fla. – Moments after Pascal Siakam led the Raptors to victory Friday night, a reporter began to ask the Game 3 star about the fact he’d only played seven years of organized basketball.
Danny Green stopped the reporter mid-sentence.
“What?” Green said, with a look of disbelief. “Sorry. I didn’t know that.”
In a season that Siakam has been touted as the league’s most improved player, he played like the Raptors’ MVP on Friday, scoring 30 points and hauling down 11 rebounds to lead Toronto to a 98-93 victory over the Orlando Magic.
The Raptors take a 2-1 lead into Sunday’s Game 4 of their best-of-seven opening-round playoff series.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s the most improved basketball player in the NBA this year and he’s only going to get better,” said Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, who had 12 points and 10 assists and hustled to grab a big offensive rebound with 15 seconds left in the game.
Kawhi Leonard, who missed the previous couple of days because he wasn’t feeling well, had 16 points and 10 boards, while Green chipped in with 13 points.
Former Raptor Terrence Ross had 24 points, while Nikola Vucevic added 22 for the Magic.
Siakam shot 13-for-20 on the night, including a shot with 1:33 to play in the midst of a fierce Orlando rally.
The 25-year-old forward has been one of the brightest stories of the Raptors’ season, a player who worked his way up through Raptors 905 — the team’s G-League affiliate — to become a cornerstone of the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
How confident is he?
“It’s growing, and it helps when I have guys like Danny and the team supporting me,” Siakam said. “When you have things going, they want to go to you and give you the ball. Just knowing and trusting my work. Every time I go on the floor it’s a blessing, and I trust my work, I work on things every day and try to get better.”
The Magic, meanwhile, are back in the playoffs after a seven-year drought, and the Amway Center was a noisy sea of 19,367 blue and white — the arena’s second-largest attendance in history. The Magic hadn’t lost at home in nine straight, stretching back to Feb. 22.
But the Raptors were riding momentum from a decisive 111-82 victory in Game 2. And picking up where they left off, they raced out to an 11-point lead.
The Magic caught a break when Marc Gasol picked up two quick fouls early in the second half to make it four, and had to take a seat.
Vucevic, who’d been rendered a non-factor by Gasol through the series’ first two games, took advantage, draining a three-pointer to give Orlando its first lead since early in the game with 6:58 to play in the third. But the Raptors responded with an 18-2 run — Siakam scoring nine of the points — and closed the quarter with a 21-6 run to take a 76-65 advantage into the final 12 minutes.
“I think it showed some toughness for us. I really thought this was going to be a tough atmosphere to play in,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse.
Lowry, in a humorous moment late in the third quarter, raced onto the court during a time-out to vigorously rub Serge Ibaka’s knee when the big man went down hard.
Lowry hit a three-pointer with 7:48 to play that gave Toronto a 17-point lead, but Ross followed up his three-pointer with a finger roll to cap a 21-10 Magic run that pulled Orlando to within four points with 1:55 to play.
A Ross three-pointer cut the difference to three, but Lowry grabbed a rebound off a Leonard miss that Magic coach Steve Clifford called “critical.” A pair of free throws by Leonard with 12.9 seconds clinched the victory for Toronto.
“I liked the way we came out … we’ve got to impose our will in this game,” said Nurse. “And then I liked us, how we answered.”
Orlando had upset the Raptors to win Game 1, 104-101.
“”It’s 2-1,” Clifford said. “It’s not like it’s 3-0. It’s 2-1. Handling disappointment is a huge part of NBA basketball and it’s a bigger part of playoff basketball.”
Leonard had an off-night offensively, shooting 5-for-19 from the field. Coming off a 37-point performance in Game 2, the Magic threw several defenders at Leonard, including energetic 21-year-old Jonathan Isaac.
“Listen, that was a gutsy performance by him,” Nurse said. “He didn’t practise the last couple days. . . and for him to go out there and fight through that and still play 37 minutes . . . I’m most proud of his 10 rebounds, he was just battling, it wasn’t easy for him out there tonight.”
The Raptors dominated the first quarter, forcing seven Orlando turnovers, and Leonard’s dunk late in the frame had Toronto up 20-9. The Magic replied with a 12-4 run to pull within four points. The Raptors led 26-21 to start the second.
Orlando continued to chip away at Toronto’s lead in the second, and pulled to within a point when Ross hit a three about five minutes before halftime. Then Ross threw up a shot from halfcourt at the buzzer. The crowd roared, and the Raptors went into the break with a narrow 48-45 lead.
The series goes back to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday. Game 6, if necessary, would be Thursday at Amway Center.
© 2019 The Canadian Press