'He's a force in the paint': Poeltl shines to push Raptors over Magic

Toronto's move to acquire a "true centre" at the trade deadline seems to be paying off.

Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam combined for 56 points as the Toronto Raptors cruised to a 123-113 win over the Orlando Magic at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

A masterclass from Jakob Poeltl pushed the Toronto Raptors to a 123-113 win over the Orlando Magic.

The newest addition to the Raptors dropped game-highs with 30 points and six blocks, to go along with nine rebounds, as he anchored the team on both ends of the floor. The 30 points is the second most he’s scored in his professional career and came on an efficient 15-17 shooting.

It was a highly efficient night in general for the Raptors, who finished shooting 60 percent from the field, the highest clip they’ve had all season. But it was also Poeltl's defensive intensity in the fourth quarter that helped push them over the top, especially with five of his six blocks coming in the final frame.

Poeltl's arrival at the NBA trade deadline has helped bring unity to the Raptors, acting in a way as a lighthouse in a sea of chaos that’s at times come to define their season thus far.

“I think that was the goal of the trade that I can fill that true centre position. I feel like I've been just getting more comfortable with every game out there,” said Poeltl in his third game for the Raptors in the 2022-23 campaign.

His presence and decision making as a towering big man has been what's missing from the Raptors the past few seasons, as he acts as a connective piece. On defence, he's taken on other true big men, while providing rim protection to complement the team's switch-heavy, wing lineups, which oftentimes includes their two more unorthodox big men in Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher.

On offence, his screens have provided spacing for a Raptors team that's desperately needed it, especially when he crashes to the rim to collapse opposing defences. When he gets the ball down low, it's his simple post moves as a true centre that provide a sense of calm, compared to the at times frantic play Toronto has resorted to in the half-court.

Head coach Nick Nurse notes that Poeltl was a “little nervous” in his first game back with the Raptors, but he’s improved with more time on the floor. What’s helped is his familiarity with Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, who all started their careers together with the Raptors, before Poeltl was eventually traded in 2018.

Since he’s been back with the Raptors following the Feb. 9 trade, it’s given Toronto a new look, as he tries to continuously make the “right play” through simple reads.

“His rolling in the screen and roll was huge because they were trying to put multiple guys on Fred and Pascal,” said Nurse post-game. “And every time we hit him it seemed like something good happened.”

Nurse notes the team will continue to get used to the plays that Poeltl can make from the elbow and high post, which should give them more opportunities to cut. On Tuesday, in what Poeltl calls a “support role,” he was able to make the right reads when the opportunities presented themselves. But maybe more importantly, he credits VanVleet for finding him down low when he would get matched up with a smaller guard, allowing for simple shots in the paint with his 7-foot-1 frame.

“He made it look easy tonight,” said Nurse on Poeltl’s ability to attack.

Jalen Suggs, who finished with 24 points off the bench for the Magic, was one of the guards who felt Poeltl’s presence.

“He's crazy. He's a force in the paint,” said Suggs.

“He's really strong and physical in there. He fits what they want to do: he's a physical big, he’s gonna hit you in your mouth, you know, and have no remorse about it. I think I can respect that a ton. … it hurt us tonight … he had a great game.”

Suggs credits the Raptors’ ability to up their intensity and physicality in the second half that allowed them to come away with the game.

Despite the Raptors shooting 71 percent from the field in the first half, it was their defence that saw them fall behind 70-65 to the Magic, who were shooting 61 percent themselves.

Nurse says that the team really had to focus on transition and take away cutting lanes — while he also credits the 10 blocks the team had in the second half, six of them from Poeltl. The Raptors ultimately limited the Magic to 43 points in the second half.

Suggs and Markelle Fultz gave the Raptors fits in transition, with the latter finishing with 19 points and five assists, and perhaps the highlight of the game.

Along with attacking the paint, the Magic's guard duo found Wendell Carter Jr. down low and around the perimeter, as the centre finished with a team-high 26 points on 11-15 shooting and 3-6 from distance.

When it wasn’t their defence that they could rely on, the Raptors at least had their offence. VanVleet finished with a season-high 15 assists — all by the third frame — as he found his teammates for great looks. Siakam really didn’t need anyone’s help — instead, it was his midrange game that cooked the Magic, as he finished with 26 points on 10-15 shooting, after being presented with an All-Star ball pre-game.

“He certainly deserves it,” said Nurse. “He's played like an All-Star this year for sure."

The Raptors now head into the All-Star break having won five of their last six games — a first for this season. Their 28-31 record is good enough for the ninth seed in the Eastern Conference, which qualifies them for a play-in spot.

After a tumultuous past couple weeks, which included the trade deadline, Nurse feels like it’s the right time for a break.

“Our guys need a breather,” said Nurse, noting all the “polishing” and “fixing” the team has had to do in order to catch some rhythm. "I think it's probably a decent time for us to have a little time to have fresh air and come back and make a push these last 20 plus games.”

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