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Lean on me, when you’re not strong (or like, whenever) – Raptors Stars Dominate Game 1

Lots of conversations were had, “experts” were consulted, analysts chimed in, and former players deliberated. Any talk before this series usually ended up at the same conclusion: The Raptors are going to win, and they’ll do it handily. Because they have Kawhi Leonard, and Marc Gasol is a great matchup for Joel Embiid.

Well, jeez, it didn’t have to be that obvious did it? The Raptors took it to the 76ers in Game 1, and Leonard did a considerable amount of damage. So much so, that the LeBron James recruitment campaign started a few weeks earlier than I would’ve guessed he wanted. (Uncle Vernon voice: He will NOT be going!”)

Leonard poured in 45 points and consistently made a vaunted perimeter defender (Jimmy Butler) look like TJ Ford. He shredded the 76ers initial scheme in the pick n’ roll and off DHO’s, forcing Embiid (mostly) to shift from “drop” defense into stepping out to the perimeter. Which actually has some real repercussions in relation to Embiid’s health and workload, two things that loom large for the 76ers future in this series and beyond.

*the drop defense. Good screen from Gasol, easy downhill pull-up from Leonard. No contest from Embiid.

*rub screen from Lowry at the start, then the DHO. When Embiid is forced to step up – because of Leonard’s proficiency in the mid-range – it forces Ennis to step (or stunt) into the lane, this means that Green was open for a three-pointer just one pass away, had Leonard chosen not to take the shot. 

Leonard’s physicality and clinical shot-making left the 76ers with no effective recourse to stop him. He is what everyone wants on their team: An unstoppable, relentless, walking bucket. After facing the Magic in the first round – and their noticeably better defense at the rim – Leonard looked as if he was gliding to the rim. He rarely met a second line of defense, and he followed that play to 45-points on 70-percent shooting. Terrific.

There were two players that hit double-digits for the Raptors in Game 1, which is mildly surprising because the Raptors – even though they have Leonard – deliver their scoring through quite a few players. It’s a testament to how dependable Leonard and Siakam have been in the playoffs, that they were both so comfortable with eating up all (or most) of the shot-making responsibilities.

No Tricks, Just Production

When it came to Pascal Siakam’s offense against the 76ers, they didn’t go the route of switching his coverage. Mostly because he seemed to shred whatever coverage came his way. It is a big deal to put up 29-points on 80-percent shooting in the playoffs. What Siakam did last night was absurd, it was rude, it was cruel, and we love him for it. Siakam mixed and matched the essentials of his game last night, and that’s not exactly rare for him. In the playoffs it feels like we haven’t had a game that didn’t have his beautiful mix of flair, physicality, grace and outrageous loping, world-ending transition presence.

He outclasses everyone that lines up opposite of him. If there’s a guard under 6’8″, Siakam will finish at the front of the rim with his elbows in their face, he’ll bust their a** under the rim and he’ll score. A bigger guy? Siakam will work his way around so fast, Private Christian Schools will want to ban him on the grounds of witchcraft. Even guys who have a decent physical profile to deal with Siakam were brutalized by him.

When you consider that the 76ers already have to contest with Kyle Lowry’s constant probing and elite pot-stirring, Kawhi Leonard’s inevitable and soul-crushing scoring, it becomes clear that Siakam won’t have to handle the 76ers like he did the Magic. There is no Jonathan Isaac matching his every step, and meeting him at the rim. Based on Embiid’s health it doesn’t even look like he’ll be meeting Siakam at the rim. What Siakam is looking at, is the spare parts of the 76ers defense, leftovers from dealing with a top-5 player, and my god is he going to eat.

Boring, Old Excellence

After Marc Gasol demoralized Nikola Vucevic in round 1, his impending matchup with Joel Embiid started to look very good to Raptors fans. Calling back to the first thing I wrote in this piece: “Marc Gasol is a great matchup for Joel Embiid”. That rings true after Game 1, and in the wider scope, there may be an asterisk next to Embiid because of his health, but in the very tangible profession of collecting wins, Gasol was instrumental in helping deliver the Raptors their third Game 1 victory ever. 

Basically, when the Raptors had the pleasure of matching Gasol’s minutes with Embiid, the Raptors scorched the earth. When Embiid got to play without “Big Spain” waiting to make him uncomfortable, they beat the Raptors handily. Secondly, it’s a big tactical error – even though the Raptors won handily – to let Embiid skirt Gasol for 13 (almost half) of his minutes in this game. The 76ers will counterpunch, and Nurse should think long and hard about the Gasol-Embiid matchup when it comes.

Outside of his defense, Gasol banged a triple in Embiid’s eye and constantly forced him to step out to the perimeter to defend him. Gasol is a cog in the Raptors 5-out offense, and it’s a real problem for how the 76ers defense would like to operate. Having Gasol screen above-the-break without any resistance meeting the offensive player once they clear the screen is backbreaking for the 76ers defense. The Raptors are operating with loads of breathing room, and that’s reflected in their outstanding offensive performance.

The playoffs are where teams morph and change to beat who’s across from them. They’re also where the elite step out farther away from the usual crowd, and the teams that have those players lean on them heavily. This year, the Raptors have got Somebooooooooody to leeeeeeean onnnnnnn.

*Kyle Lowry is also very lean-worthy and good, I just didn’t happen to write about him in this one.

Have a blessed day.

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