Raptors ready to play through the hits, even if the calls never come

William Lou
NBA reporter

ORLANDO — The Toronto Raptors carefully kept their emotions in check, and their money in their wallets, when asked about the officiating.

The numbers through three games are rather lopsided, especially in the wake of a head-scratching Game 3 in which Orlando spent 18 minutes in the bonus. The Magic hold a 67-41 edge in free throws, and Toronto ranks dead last among all playoff teams in free-throw attempts.

Pascal Siakam, who’s sitting at just four total free-throw attempts through three games despite averaging 41 minutes and 20 shots per game, smartly sniffed out the bait and avoided a fine. Siakam offered “no comment” but it was clear that the 23-10 disparity in foul shots in favor of the Magic in Game 3 was fresh on his mind.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was more diplomatic as he pleaded his case without writing a cheque. He noted that the Raptors have been attacking the rim - they’re fourth in drives per game as a team - but officials have turned a blind eye to Orlando’s physicality down low.

“Our style is to take the damn thing downhill to the front of the rim, and we do that. That usually results in us getting to the line a bit more,” Nurse said.

Siakam being stuck on four free throws is a strange case. Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player to average more points in the paint than Siakam throughout the playoffs, and yet Siakam has toed the line fewer times than Orlando’s offensively-challenged center Khem Birch. How does that add up?

Kawhi Leonard has an even bigger gripe. Leonard ranks third behind James Harden and Russell Westbrook with 19.7 drives per game, but his attempts are down from 7.1 per game in the regular season to 4.3 in the playoffs. Leonard takes contact on every trip down the floor, yet Terrence Ross has matched him in free-throw attempts in the series largely by scissor-kicking his legs out on his jumpers.

Nurse even made the whistle a focus of his pre-game reports. His advice was to anticipate the help, gather your balance, and go up strong around the rim - don’t expect anything from the officials and don’t let the lack of calls affect your play. The Magic committed the second-fewest fouls of any team in the regular season, and the Raptors just have to find some way around it.

“Play through the hits. You can’t let it bother you. You have to keep on playing. I thought we did a great job of that for the most part,” Nurse said.

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

However, even Nurse admitted to being frustrated by the inconsistency. It’s one thing to call it loose, but that only seems to go one way. Nurse noted how strange it was that his veteran roster - which includes two Defensive Player of the Year winners and an All-Defensive wing - is suddenly picking up fouls at absurd rate while anything goes against Leonard and Siakam on the other end.

“The hardest part has been that we don’t deal with it in the regular season. Like you are hardly ever in foul trouble, and all of a sudden when we’re playing in the game that mean something, we’re in deep foul trouble two games in a row. So it’s a little bit interesting,” Nurse said.

Game 3 was a delicate balancing act for Nurse. Marc Gasol held Nikola Vucevic to just four points in the first half, but Gasol was benched with just nine minutes left in the third after he picked up two fouls within the span of four seconds. Vucevic promptly capitalized by by scoring 14 points against Serge Ibaka the rest of the quarter while flipping a seven-point deficit into a one-point lead.

A similar pattern played out in Game 3. Leonard, the prodigal defender who famously has more steals than fouls in his career, was slapped with three fouls in his first 11 minutes of play. Nurse took a gamble by keeping Leonard in the game - and he was rewarded with a 37-point explosion - but Nurse did make a concession by switching Leonard onto the Magic’s weakest threat.

It wouldn’t be an issue if it the whistle was consistent both ways. Toronto has been whistled for 11 more fouls than Orlando, and that discrepancy just doesn’t exist in the other seven match-ups. Boston and Indiana are tied in fouls at 55 apiece, as is Oklahoma City and Portland at 77. Philadelphia holds a 101-100 advantage over Brooklyn, Los Angeles is up 81-80 over Golden State, and San Antonio is narrowly ahead 82-79 against Denver. Detroit has committed seven more fouls than Milwaukee, but that makes sense considering that they’ve been outscored by 72 in three games. There’s also a 68-63 differential between Houston and Utah, but that’s par for the course with James Harden.

For now, Nurse and the Raptors are biting their tongues in hopes that the officiating corrects itself throughout the course of the series. But if this pattern continues after costing the Raptors another game, then expect a different tune.

“You have to keep on coaching, keep on playing, and then just believe that some of this stuff will even itself out,” Nurse said.