The Toronto Raptors put a stranglehold on their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup against the Orlando Magic with a 107-85 road victory on Sunday, building a 3-1 series lead for the first time in franchise history.
Here are some takeaways from the Raptors' Game 4 win:
You'll often hear players and coaches talk about the need to be "on a string" defensively, but rarely do you see teams execute that concept as flawlessly as the Raptors are right now.
At the point of attack and on the perimeter, Danny Green and Kyle Lowry are wreaking havoc on D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier, making everything difficult for Orlando's starting backcourt. By the time the Magic even begin to run their offense, they've already been made to work for it.
Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam aren't exactly guarding knockdown shooters in Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, but their length and defensive IQ have allowed them to help and recover to perfection, while reserves Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell have quietly done an excellent job chasing shooters like Terrence Ross, Augustin, and Fournier around screens.
Marc Gasol, meanwhile, has continued to neutralize All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, who's now averaging a paltry 12.5 points, 3.5 assists, and three turnovers on 37.5 percent shooting in the series. Gasol has also done a masterful job of clogging passing lanes and partnering with Lowry to consistently snuff out pick-and-roll actions run against them; that duo's recorded 46 combined steals and deflections through four games.
Serge Ibaka isn't enjoying the same success in one-on-one matchups against Vucevic, but he's still making a tremendous impact on the defensive end. Magic players attempting a field goal against Ibaka have shot just 28.2 percent in the series, which is more than 18 percent worse than they've shot on average - a discrepancy that's best among all 69 players who've defended at least 30 shots in the playoffs. Ibaka also owns the fifth-best defensive rebounding rate among the 105 players who've logged at least 20 minutes per game.
With a collective effort like that - against an opponent that lacks the offensive talent or the shooting prowess to break a good defense down - the Raptors are dominating on the defensive end. In Game 4, the Magic scored only 85 points on 42 percent shooting from the field and 21.2 percent from downtown while turning the ball over 17 times. For the series, they've now scored just 96 points per 100 possessions.
Leonard bounced back from a poor Game 3 performance, which head coach Nick Nurse attributed to him feeling under the weather, with the type of dominance expected from a former Finals MVP.
Leonard finished Game 4 with 34 points on 12-of-20 shooting to go along with six rebounds, two assists, two steals, two blocks, and only one turnover in 34:43 of action, producing a whopping 1.36 points per individual possession.
"It's fun. This is what you play for all season long," Leonard told TNT in his postgame walk-off interview. "I'm just grateful to be out here on the floor again. I'm feeling good. It took a long time for me to get healthy, but I'm happy the way things are turning out now."
Ross emerged as Orlando's most dependable reserve this season and found a steady role as a bench gunner who could come in and pick on opposing second units.
The problem is that someone with his athletic abilities should be able to impact the game even when his shots aren't falling. Too often, that simply isn't the case for Ross.
On Sunday, the 28-year-old was called upon earlier than usual due to Isaac finding himself in foul trouble, but the former Raptor couldn't answer the bell for Orlando. In nearly 31 minutes, Ross scored just five points on 1-of-5 shooting, committed three turnovers and four fouls compared to three assists and one steal, and posted a game-worst minus-25 rating.
Siakam, especially, has feasted on Ross in this series, with the Magic swingman proving far too undisciplined and jumpy to guard an opponent who's bigger than he is and who can also match his athleticism. Ross' poor Game 4 showing with Isaac in foul trouble gave Toronto a rare bench advantage, and that simply can't happen for Orlando, which is already playing with a narrow margin for error.
Ross has turned himself into a fine contributor on a playoff team, but the postseason has a way of exposing players who might be better suited for lesser roles.
Since dropping Game 1 in dramatic fashion, the Raptors have outscored the Magic by 56 points over the last three games, with Orlando holding a lead for just 5:28 over the last 144 minutes of basketball.
With their first-round job still incomplete, the second-seeded Raptors won't be toasting their dominance over the East's No. 7 seed. Still, considering how well the Magic had been playing over the last few months and how sound a defensive team Steve Clifford commands, even the most optimistic Raptors fans probably didn't expect this type of wire-to-wire control after Game 1.
"I don't think he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, that he needs to get us 20 (points) for us to win." - Nick Nurse on Kyle Lowry becoming more of a playmaker than a scorer this season.
Lowry has only scored 10.8 points per game in this series, but he's also averaging 8.5 assists, five rebounds, and 2.3 steals, and he's posted a 48-40-78 shooting split since his scoreless series opener.
While neither team can afford to overlook their first-round opponent, both the Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers surely have wandering eyes right now.
Given how tight their potential second-round series is expected to be, every day's worth of rest advantage and preparation will be magnified. The Sixers can close out their East quarterfinal series against the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night in Philly roughly an hour after the Raptors attempt to do the same to the Magic. Should Toronto emerge with the win, it would mark the first time in franchise history that the team clinched a best-of-seven series in less than six games.