By the time Genghis Khan first led the united Mongol army in the field at the Battle of Yehuling, his power was already overwhelming. The Mongol cavalry was so strong, so fast, that the Jin Empire was helpless in each engagement. Genghis Khan did not plan the assault for decades, scheme ways to capitalize on Jin weaknesses. The Mongols were simply more powerful. And as they fought in increasingly further flung lands as the Mongol empire grew, their tactics changed little; they were so good at fighting, why would they fix what wasn’t broken?
Toronto entered the Philadelphia 76ers series with an outwardly blasé approach. The Raptors knew what worked in their last series against the Orlando Magic, so they decided they would at least try the same and see. What’s the worst that could happen? The team does not believe in game one curses that have extended over the course of the franchise. And sure enough, despite altering their tactics little, the Raptors triumphed in the field of battle because they were simply a better, more powerful force. The Raptors won game one 108-95, despite only seven Raptors even scoring on the night.
Several coaching decisions were delayed coming into the series, as Nick Nurse decided instead to kick the can down the road and see how far it would bounce. The defensive matchups were basically bar rail, other than putting Pascal Siakam on Jimmy Butler to erase him from the court. (More on that later.) The substitution patterns against Philly were almost identical to the first round, including the bizarre end to the first quarter that features Siakam as the lone starter and Jodie Meeks playing a symbolic one minute. It was theorized pre-game that Nurse might tie Gasol’s minutes to Embiid’s, altering his prior substitution pattern to allow the big Spaniard to bully Embiid for every second Philadelphia’s superstar was on the court. That did not happen. Why would Nurse fix what isn’t broken?
“I really, really liked our rotations when we got to ’em in the last series,” said Nurse before game one. ”But in knowing that this is coming, we may change it tonight and try to get maybe three of our five starters out there, or we may see what it looks like first before we do that in the second half.”
Nurse actually implemented incredibly similar macro tactical choices against Philadelphia as he did against Orlando. And why wouldn’t he? Toronto spent years of playoff series adapting to inferior opponents before it was necessary. Toronto is the favourite against Philadelphia, and Nurse acted like it. Let Philadelphia prove it can hit the fastball before you throw a change-up.
And the rotation decision to end the first quarter that was questionable against Orlando and head-scratching against Philadelphia still, somehow, ended up fine. The VanVleet-Meeks-Powell-Siakam-Ibaka lineup only lost its 73 seconds by three points, which is liveable, if not ideal. Eventually, that lineup will be beaten by something like eight points in one minute. When that happens, I’m sure Nurse will change something.
The few changes that Nurse did implement were irreproachable. Siakam defending Butler was a bold decision, as Butler had just spent much of the first round as Philadelphia’s primary initiator. Siakam is, nominally, a power forward. It didn’t matter, as Siakam completely dominated Butler throughout the game. Butler finished with 10 points on 12 shots, as Siakam was both quick enough to wall him from the paint and long enough to contest his patented midrange pull-ups.
It wasn’t so long ago that I believed trading Siakam for Butler would be a positive for Toronto. What a fool Siakam has made of me. He finished with 29 points with 3-for-4 shooting from deep. It cannot be stated enough – but Raptors’ pundits like myself are certainly trying to test that – how meteoric and unexpected has been Siakam’s rise this season.
“There’s never enough nice things to say about a guy that you really appreciate and that you care for,” said Lowry after the game. “It’s unbelievable. He’s just growing, man. The talent is there. He’s fantastically just understanding how to play and his confidence level just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
Toronto didn’t need to scheme and plot to beat Philadelphia because they dominated their individual matchups. Toronto’s forces were simply superior, in practically every way, to Philadelphia’s. Siakam and Kawhi Leonard combined for 74 of Toronto’s 108 points. They had one fewer point at half than the entire 76ers roster. Even Sixers with reputations as defenders, like Butler, were helpless to stop either. Leonard was especially brilliant, setting a new playoff career high with 45 points. He blazed his way to 70/43/91 shooting splits.
When Leonard decided to attack one-on-five, disrespecting defenders with his handle, before whirling to the rim for a layup, it was clear where this game was headed.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but that was pretty cool to watch tonight,” said Nurse of Leonard’s performance.
Marc Gasol swallowed Joel Embiid as capably as he did Nikola Vucevic in the last round, holding Embiid to 16 points on 18 shots in the game. Embiid did finish a +4 despite the loss, but much of his scoring came when Ibaka was in the game instead of Gasol. Embiid could not move Toronto’s bulwark, no matter how hard he tried. Is it possible that Gasol is just stronger than Embiid? If he can dominate Embiid to such a margin, this series is over.
As is tradition, Toronto’s starters won their 21 minutes by an absurd 17 points. Their defense was as connected as it was against Orlando. It’s almost impossible to lose when your most-used lineup is so dominant.
It wasn’t perfect. Toronto had some problems, including their sharpshooter backcourt connecting on one of eight triple attempts. Philadelphia dominated the glass with 13 offensive rebounds, and they even out-shot Toronto from deep. Toronto’s bench scored 10 points total, fewer than James Ennis. The bench crew remained shaky, not only creating little on offense, but also fouling jump-shooters, and generally making Toronto’s lives harder than necessary. Some elements did swing towards Philadelphia, despite the lopsided score.
Philadelphia’s bench was the biggest question mark. Boban Marjanovic is entirely unplayable. Toronto outscored Philadelphia by 17 points in his 10 minutes, as Lowry and Gasol ran him through continual pick-and-roll gauntlets. The Sixers have no better options. Furkan Korkmaz and Jonah Bolden are entirely overmatched. Mike Scott is in a walking boot. There are no other options at the 4/5 spots for Philly of the bench. The Sixers may have to play all of their starters 40+ minutes to have a chance in this series, in which case, then Nurse could adjust. Even when the going got tough, comparatively, he chose not to.
A few minutes into the final quarter, the Sixers cut the lead to 11. Embiid was rolling against Ibaka, and it was Gasol’s traditional time to rest. Nurse called a timeout. If Toronto was ever going to alter their ordinary substitution pattern, this would be the time. Gasol would surely have to re-enter the game. Instead, the same lineup returned to the game with Ibaka at center. Toronto fought to three consecutive stops, as on the other end a Lowry-Ibaka pick-and-roll produced a layup and Leonard hit a pair of jumpers. Toronto now led by 18, and the game was, for all intents and purposes, won. Gasol never had to re-enter the game.
Why should Toronto adapt? Over decades of dominance, the Mongols didn’t much change their battle tactics. They simply overwhelmed their various opponents with vastly superior skill in battle. So far through this playoff run, so too have the Toronto Raptors.