1-1 – WTF did we just watch?
Six – Liability: The Raptors also would have won if the bench didn’t finish with five total points. They don’t even need to make a positive impact – they just need to buy rest for the starters. Toronto cut a 13-point deficit down to one with three minutes left in the third, but the bench promptly allowed the Sixers to run it back up to 11 over the following five minutes. It doesn’t help that Nurse insists on playing four bench players at once while the Sixers finish and start quarters with their starters, but it’s really on the individual players to perform better.
As it turned out, the Raptors shifted only nominally from their Game 1 approach, particularly in terms of their rotations. The same issues presented themselves, some of which have been rearing their head since the Orlando series. Maybe they’re not egregious in isolation, but as a pattern of borderline dogmatic rotations – in the principles of those rotations, if not the exact personnel in each situation – it begins to add up.
To wit, Nurse continued to lean on his bench. Which, yes, he more or less has to do. You can’t play five guys in a playoff series, and each of Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell are better than they’ve been playing. Nurse also trimmed their minutes some here, playing them each between 13 and 19 minutes, plus a 90-second cameo for Jodie Meeks. It is not the presence of bench players that’s an issue. Using your bench for 49 minutes and playing three starters 40 or more is how a playoff rotation for a top-heavy team like this is supposed to look. Instead, it’s the combinations those bench pieces see their time in. That’s largely together.
Meeks’ minutes are instructive. All season, the Raptors have struggled without at least two starters on the floor, and yet a four-reserve lineup has played in all seven playoff games. Nurse swapped the starter in that group from Siakam to Leonard and its placement from the first quarter to the third, but the idea is the same, as was the result. Meeks failed to box out James Ennis III on one play, missed a good look at a three and then committed a turnover in his brief spell. It’s not to disparage Meeks, who can’t be expected to find any sort of groove one minute at a time, but it certainly highlighted the ineffectiveness of those groups. If Nurse feels the need to go nine deep to buy breathers, Meeks stands as a player type who is more complementary with better players around him to provide space for, not someone who can help a consistently shaky unit.
The other three aren’t much different, spending 13 minutes as a trio. They are not especially complementary parts, especially since they tend to rely heavily on VanVleet-Ibaka pick-and-rolls that are middling propositions when they’re on and produce nothing on nights like this where both players are struggling. Powell is a nice end-of-clock creator, but Philadelphia is treating him as a complete non-shooter to load up on whatever starters are on the floor.
This is how it goes for most teams, to be sure. Starters log heavy minutes together and transitional lineups – or full benches, if you’re the 2017-18 iteration of this team – bridge the gap to the next run of starters. Most teams, though, aren’t playing the 76ers in a playoff series. The 76ers are so thinned out that they’re additionally aggressive about keeping multiple starters on the floor, and that means they spend large chunks of time playing some sort of transitional lineup that’s heavy on firepower. The Raptors’ bench units, then, aren’t playing against comparable groups, they’re often playing against starting-calibre groups. The 76ers played one minute all game without at least three starters on the floor.
Most notably is the time Joel Embiid has been able to spend against Ibaka because of Embiid’s idiosyncratic rotation pattern. As knee tendonitis (and “the shits,” as he described postgame) requires shorter stints, it means a quick hook and quick reinsertions, something Brett Brown has used to help get him away from Gasol. Ibaka’s had a couple of better second halves than first, it’s just not really worth trying to see if he can figure out that matchup. In fact, earlier in the year Nurse spoke of the benefits of having dual centres and the ability to rotate them for shorter stints to keep them fresher. Matching Gasol to Embiid on its own might help here, and Ibaka has a large sample of success with the other starters.
It was an ugly game, right out of 1995 — minus the flagrant fouls — with smart, well-designed defence beating offence time and time again.
But in winning time, the 76ers scored just enough as they blunted a Raptors comeback from down 11 with 5:19 left in the fourth and down 19 just before halftime. It was Butler who dragged his team past Leonard and the Raptors for the 94-89 win as he scored eight of his Sixers-high 30 points the final three minutes to hold off the Leonard, who scored nine of his game-high total in the fourth.
“This was James Butler,” said Sixers head coach Brett Brown. “He was the adult in the gym.”
Said Butler: “My name isn’t James. Literally, it’s Jimmy.”
Like we said, the guy couldn’t miss down the stretch.
The Raptors couldn’t make a meaningful three-pointer for most of the game until Pascal Siakam hit one and Kyle Lowry hit two in the last 2:41 to eventually cut the Sixers lead to one with 46.7 seconds left. But a pair of wide-open misses from deep by the usually reliable Danny Green – the last with 10 seconds left on a perfect kickout by Leonard — prevented the Raptors from forcing overtime.
It was one of the storylines of the night as the Raptors shot a miserable 10-of-37 from deep even after their late flurry. They gave themselves a chance because even as their offence ran dry their defence remained stalwart, holding Philadelphia to 39.5 per cent shooting, although the Sixers returned the favour, limiting Toronto to 36.3 per cent.
“It was a fist-fight, a grind, the whole game,” said Brown.
The Raptors struggles were largely connected to strategic moves made by Philadelphia, which was desperate to go home for Game 3 on Thursday with a split in the series.
The Raptors knew the adjustments were coming. The question was if they were going to make the first move or stick with what worked in Game 1 and wait until the Sixers showed their hand.
The Sixers didn’t mess around. Right out of the gate they changed their defensive matchups so Simmons would cover Leonard, who had obliterated both Butler and Tobias Harris in Game 1 but was a tolerable 4-of-9 (from the Philly point of view) against the quick feet and hands of Simmons.
They also decided to cover Siakam with fellow Cameroonian Joel Embiid. Although having the 7-foot, 300-pound Embiid on the slippery 6-9 Siakam might have seemed odd at first glance, the logic was clear: under no circumstances was Siakam going to get the easy looks at the rim or in the paint he had when we was 12-of-15 in the series opener. And if that meant surrendering the odd wide-open three to Siakam, so be it.
It paid off as Siakam was 2-of-7 from deep on the night, though he did come alive in the fourth with seven of 21 points in the final five minutes.
Despite the 76ers great effort, missed opportunities and turnovers made a 13 point lead at halftime feel uneasy. Unfortunately, those fears came to fruition as the Raptors stormed back on coattails of one Kawhi Leonard. Leonard was near unstoppable as he made tough basket after tough basket through and around contact. Ben Simmons played valiantly tonight as Leonard’s primary defender. Make no mistake, Simmons’ defense was legitimately amazing. But Kawhi Leonard is a former Finals MVP for a reason. For most of the 2nd half, it felt as though the Claw was the only thing pulling the Raptors back into the game.
When the fourth quarter hit, the score got uncomfortably close. A double digit game shrunk to one possession. Then, “The Closer” arrived.
When the 76ers made the early season trade for Jimmy Butler, it was with this type of game in mind. Butler was steady throughout the night, ending with 30 points on 22 shots (4 of 10! beyond the arc). But when the 76ers needed their closer, he delivered in the fourth answering Kawhi’s big baskets with some of his own. What looked to be a dagger 3 came off an impossible Embiid pass to Butler at the wing. Up 7 with a few minutes to go, the 76ers got this right?
No, we’ve been trained for this. Kyle Lowry hit 2 clutch 3 pointers of his own down the stretch. For a moment, it looked like the 76ers were going to blow this game, only up 1 with under a minute left. And then…
Joel Embiid, who struggled all night on offense, made up for it all with one huge spin move and lay up. One defensive stop later and the 76ers have tied the series up 1-1.
All things considered, this felt like a huge team win. Despite some struggles from guys all over the line up, everyone stepped up at some point in some way or form. Whatever it takes!
The Raptors chipped away at the lead but could never get over the hump thanks in large part to Butler. It seemed like every time Toronto would make a run, Butler would come down the other end make a huge bucket.
“To tell you the truth, I just happened to make a couple a shots,” Butler said. “Everybody told me to come out aggressive, take the shots that are there.”
And it’s a damn good thing for the Sixers he did.
Butler finished 9 of 22 and scored 12 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter. He also added 11 rebounds and four assists. Of the eight other players in franchise to score at least 30 and put up 11 rebounds and four assists in a playoff game, Joel Embiid is the only one that’s not a Hall of Famer.
The aggressiveness in general was a positive for Butler, but his willingness to take threes also stood out. He went 4 of 10 from distance. It was the first time in Butler’s eight NBA seasons that he reached double digits in attempts from three.
The list of Sixers to score 30 points, pull down 11 boards and hit four treys in a playoff game: Jimmy Butler.
“This was James Butler. That was the adult in the gym,” Brett Brown said. “I get as excited at the volume of threes that he sought as much as anything. He was just a tremendous sort of rock. He willed us to a lot of different situations.
“He was a great teammate on the bench. Jonah [Bolden’s] three-point shot that he made in the corner, on the way to the court coming out of a timeout, he told him, ‘Young fella, if you’re open, you have to shoot it.’ Ironically, he was open 40 seconds later and he made it. He was a stud. He really was an adult in the gym. “
For the record, Butler’s legal name is actually “Jimmy.”
“My name isn’t James,” Butler said. “It’s literally Jimmy.”
The Spurs never get emotional and shipped Leonard to the Raptors. The deal frayed Toronto’s feelings, or at least Kyle Lowry’s. Leonard healed the wound. The Raptors are as good as ever, which is saying something given where Toronto has been the last couple of years. Yet Leonard hasn’t so much has hinted he’ll stick around, no matter how perfect the supporting cast or how committed Toronto is to providing whatever he needs, whether rest or power or anything.
But now the bud of blossoming narrative is poking through Ontario’s frost. It’s that Leonard is a disruptor of this NBA generation’s dynasties.
Excised from the narrative of the Spurs’ next perfect-for-Pop quiet giant, Leonard’s role in beating the Heat in 2014 takes on this tone. It wasn’t so much a continuation of San Antonio preeminence, but a monkey wrench named Kawhi thrown into Miami’s gears on the eve of three-peat.
After that title, the Heat broke up and the Warriors rose to replace them. By 2017, with Duncan retired and Leonard on his second contract, the Spurs were poised to invite themselves to the standing tea party the Warriors and LeBron James’ Cavaliers had organized. San Antonio had won 67 games and led Golden State by 20 in the first game of their highly anticipated West finals match-up. Then, Leonard landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot and only played nine total games for the Spurs until he was traded. We don’t know whether Leonard could have truly disrupted the Warriors’ dynasty then, or whether that Game 1 was a fluke. But it didn’t feel like a fluke at the time.
Zaza Pachulia’s play on Kawhi Leonard was reckless, whether he meant it or not
Now we’re here. There’s a long way before a Raptors vs. Warriors Finals — for both teams. Toronto will have its hands full with the Sixers before all is said and done, no matter how omnipotent Leonard looked in Game 1. The Bucks or Celtics would loom anyways. Plus, the Warriors have their own hands full with the Rockets, who just might have been an untimely injury from disrupting Golden State’s golden age this time last year. There’s a lot at play.
But if you’re searching for a rhyme to put with Leonard’s reason — if you need a story to tell yourself about what motivates Leonard as he plays with the most intense cool we have in this league — this might be it. Just as he’s turned so many opponents’ possessions on their heads by sticking his hand in the play, he could be wrecking another franchise’s storied run by leaping in.
And heck, maybe he’ll do that and still leave for Los Angeles (wearing Clippers black), or Los Angeles (wearing Lakers gold), or wherever this summer. Such a chaotic sports league needs chaotic actors. Why shouldn’t one of them also be one of the best players?
It fits his style. Let’s see if it fits his narrative, too.
“They did a good job, honestly. Got to give them credit,” Leonard said. “[Simmons] is long.”
In addition to contending with Simmons’ size, Leonard saw multiple bodies on Monday night — sometimes immediately on the catch, at times when coming off a screen and almost always when he made his approach to the rim. The Sixers’ coaching staff empowered defenders to help unpredictably, encouraging them to make judicious defensive reads.
For example: If Siakam were parked in the corner, where he was a 42 percent shooter in the regular season, be careful. But if he were above the break, where he converted only 26 percent? By all means, let him take it.
“I think Ben did a really good job on him, and we tried to have different looks at times where we doubled him, and we did,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “By and large, it was Ben’s assignment, although other people inherited him if he got switched out or Ben was out of the game.”
For all of the damage exacted by Leonard in Game 1, the Sixers were bludgeoned by Siakam as well. On Tuesday, Brown handed Siakam off to center Joel Embiid, who was administered an IV drip pregame for a stomach ailment he shared with scatological glee in his postgame media conference.
Brown was inspired to make the swap by Embiid’s comparative success defending Giannis Antetokounmpo in recent matchups with the Milwaukee Bucks. Like Antetokounmpo, Siakam is an agile, lanky and explosive forward whose long strides propel his dribble attacks. Forced to contend with Embiid’s size in Game 2, Siakam was tempered, missing 16 of his 25 attempts from the field. Whether he was rerouting Siakam left or providing traditional big man services in the basket area, Embiid anchored Philadelphia’s defense.
“That was my job to slow him down,” Embiid said. “We feel like we followed whatever we had planned.”
Nurse probably did not know it, but the first answer and the second answer should have been related in his mind. Philadelphia’s game plan, as it turns out, was to take the Raptors out of their comfort zone piece by piece. Gasol has been hesitating to shoot? Well, downsize on him and beg the Raptors to post him up against a smaller matchup. Pascal Siakam using his length and quickness to get a step on smaller defenders, finishing off the glass on impossible angles? Throw a big man on him, and make him absorb some physical punishment before drives turn into shots. Kawhi Leonard is roasting smaller defenders? Put the burly and long Ben Simmons on him, and then show him plenty of extra bodies, daring him to pass, which he can do, and to do so quickly and accurately, which is sometimes where the process gets a bit ugly.
The focus after the Raptors’ disappointing 94-89 loss will be on the lack of help Leonard got from his teammates. The bench scored just five points, while the Raptors shot 10-for-37 from 3-point range. However, the 76ers shot 10-for-35. If the Raptors missed their share of open looks, their opponents were not far behind them. Leonard was awesome, with 35 points, seven rebounds and six assists, and none of his teammates except for Kyle Lowry scratched efficiency in support.
No, the problem was a lack of anticipation to those changes by the coaching staff and a poor job of recognizing and adjusting on the fly by the whole team, pretty much the inverse of the story in Game 1. Composure was a problem — the Raptors took two technical fouls in the second quarter, and temporarily lost their minds with the officials, who we do not have to talk about every time a team loses a close playoff game. It was the Raptors’ stylistic composure that was the bigger issue.
“I thought we got better as we went,” Nurse said of the team’s offence. “Didn’t start out very good with flow and rhythm and stuff. I thought we were a little stand-aroundish and (we were) trying to play mismatches a little more than just continuing to play and let things come to us.”
That was evident in the Raptors’ 17-point first quarter, which devolved from frustratingly but understandably missing shots at the start to a rhythmless, motionless mess as it went on. If Dwane Casey had been here, he’d have said the Raptors were stuck in mud.
It is great to create mismatches — hell, the 76ers’ changes pretty much did that for the Raptors, sticking Tobias Harris on Gasol — but that does not mean you halt everything in those scenarios, and pound away at those mismatches as the shot clock starts to work against you. The Raptors were late to exploit a few Gasol post-ups, and Gasol was unable to protect the ball well enough against quicker players. On one possession, Lowry got a favourable switch with Greg Monroe on him, but dribbled the ball for so long at the top of the key that the clock started to cut away at his leverage. Siakam had an unbelievable spin move with his first take against his countryman Joel Embiid, but then settled into awkward floaters and jumpers. Those are shots he can hit, but not with the same frequency that he can when he gets to the rim.
While the Raptors were disappointed with their Game 2 loss to Philadelphia, Josh Lewenberg says that Toronto isn’t overreacting and that win or lose, they are focused now on Game 3.
Toronto had as many points in the first 12 minutes as Kawhi had on his own 48 hours before. Leonard is not a natural distributor, so when the Sixers doubled it’s not that Leonard couldn’t make the right pass: it was that it was a beat slow, or a little imprecise. So Green’s corner threes were crowded, and nobody else was in sync, and the Raptors were just … hesitant. And at halftime, they were lucky to be within 51-38.
The Sixers had to do it, because Leonard has been going to places nobody had ever been. Among even relatively high-usage players — say, using 20 per cent of a team’s possessions, while stars tend to be closer to 30 — nobody had ever scored more efficiently than Leonard. And since he became a primary offensive option in 2014-15, Leonard had played 37 playoff games, averaging 25.2 points on .520 shooting, .458 from three and .877 from the line. Nobody has ever produced that much that efficiently in the post-season, ever.
And take out the Game 3 in Orlando where he had the flu in the first round and Kawhi’s other five playoff games this season were cartoonish: 33.6 points on shooting that implied nobody else was in the gym: .649 from the field, .567 from three, .906 from the line. Those numbers are, within the accepted boundaries of NBA basketball, basically impossible. He was just short of them, this time.
So the Sixers honed in on his weakness. It worked. Gasol’s arrival made the Raptors a better passing team, like it was contagious, but for most of the year Leonard’s offence often existed in a separate space from the rest of Toronto’s. It was like Leonard was the roommate who didn’t cook for anybody else — yes, Ibaka took on that role in real life, force-feeding his celebrated teammate beef penis, and not even GOOD beef penis — and only rarely shared his food. He did more than his share of the chores. But Leonard wasn’t often a seamless part of the whole.
“I think he’s seen just about everything,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “Again, I think really the only thing you can do is, you gotta make the next play. We like to sum up our team in a simple phrase of: play defence and hit the open man. That’s what he’s gonna need to do. If they’re gonna send bodies at him, we’ve gotta hit the open man and make the right reads and guys gotta make shots.”
In a way the challenge was simple, and remains so: with Kawhi breaking the game, all the rest of the Raptors need to be is good enough. Better than that, even. You do that, it will be Philly that breaks.
The Raptors are still talented enough (or frustrating enough, depending on your temperament) to make it interesting though. The Sixers’ lead did indeed get as large as 19 in the second quarter, and then again to 13 in the third. But the Raptors starters kept making enough plays to keep them close — and give us hope. It’s why their mistakes hurt so much, and sudden losses of composure made the game angering to watch at times. An 8-point deficit swinging fast to 13 behind a four-point play from Jimmy Butler plus a technical on Danny Green, for example, felt like the death knell; watching Butler saw the Raptors in half with 30 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists, a waking nightmare. Yet the team carried on.
Toronto still had Leonard and Kyle Lowry to rely on, and Siakam eventually got things rolling too. The high man, Leonard, finished the game with 35 points on 13-of-24 shooting. He wasn’t as on as he was in Game 1, but when Toronto needed a huge bucket, he was often there to take and make it. Ditto Lowry, who put down a pair of threes late to bring the Raptors within a single possession. The Raptors captain scored 20 points, with five rebounds and five assists, while also being everywhere on the floor on defense. Siakam came through too as best he could. He managed 21 points (on a rough 9-of-25 from the field) and seven rebounds, and made a series of hustle plays late to get the Raptors within a single point in the final minute.
In fact, the play from Toronto’s starters was so inspiring, it’s a wonder why coach Nick Nurse didn’t play them more. The Raptors’ hard work in the third — getting the lead down to one — was erased by some indecisive play from their bench (with even Jodie Meeks making his customary disastrous appearance). To compound this problem, that same ineffective unit started the fourth, and rather than go on a quick 4-0 run as they did in Game 1, Philly’s lead quickly ballooned back up to 11. That the starters got it as close as they did was a minor miracle. A missed three from Danny Green in the dying seconds would have tied it. And then who knows what we’d be saying right now.
But we’re not saying anything good right now. We’re wondering why Green — yes, even with those missed shots and his technical — only played 32 minutes. Or how Gasol ended up matching up against players not named Embiid. And we’re wondering what will shake Nurse out of changing up his rotations when it’s clear the Raptors’ bench unit just doesn’t have it on a given night. Yes, he can’t play his five starters all 48 minutes, but with two days off before Game 3 in Philly, one really does wonder where exactly the limit is on that.
The series is now tied 1-1, and I’m sure we’re about to find out.
Kawhi Leonard finished with a game-high 35 points and at times, he seemed like the only player for the Raptors that was scoring with consistency and Nik Stauskas explains why Toronto should have looked to him even more throughout the game.
Most pronounced among these dials Brown turned was to put Joel Embiid as the primary defender against rising Raptors star Pascal Siakam.
After torching Philadelphia in Game 1 for 29 points on just 15 field-goal attempts, Siakam still managed 21 points but saw his efficiency tank, going 9-for-25 from the field.
“We knew that Pascal had a big game in Game 1 and me guarding it was my job to slow him down,” said Embiid after the game.
Added Brown: “We had a taste of some success with [Embiid] on Giannis [Antetokounmpo] in our Milwaukee series [in the regular season]. We felt like there was some similarities there.”
Included in Siakam’s dismal night was a 2-for-7 performance from deep, many of which were wide-open looks, a common theme for both teams Monday night, including Danny Green’s potentially game-tying triple with 10 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.
However, wide-open misses or not, full credit should still go to Philadelphia’s defence, as it managed to hold Toronto to only 36.3 per cent shooting from field and an abysmal 29.8 per cent if you don’t include Leonard’s brilliance.
By so drastically changing up his defensive coverages, Brown appeared to invite the Raptors to try to take advantage of these so-called mismatches, to their own detriment, as evidenced by not only Siakam’s rough night but also a 7-for-17 performance for Kyle Lowry whose impact as a distributor was lessened with so many more shot opportunities that presented themselves for him.
“I thought we were a little stand-around-ish and a little trying to play mismatches a little more than just continuing to play and let things come to us a little bit,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse.
It’s being in the right place, making the right defensive read, making the first pass out of an offensive set that ends up with someone getting a wide-open shot.
Those things are what Gasol does best, and what the Raptors need most.
“He doesn’t care about anything but winning and he does whatever,” was how Kyle Lowry put it as the Raptors prepared for Tuesday’s Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal against the Philadelphia 76ers. “Marc hasn’t had a big scoring game but maybe once since he’s been here, and he’s been effective on our team.
“It’s contagious: his unselfishness, his defence, his rotations, his smarts. Everything has been effective on our team. That’s the appreciation you get for a guy like him. You just see what he brings to the table every day.”
Gasol’s ability to neutralize Orlando all-star Nikola Vucevic was a key part of Toronto’s relatively easy first-round series victory over the Magic, and Gasol continued a career-long dominance of Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid in Game 1 of the conference semifinal on Saturday.
Gasol doesn’t do it with superhuman strength or blazing quickness or unimaginable athleticism. He thinks the game as well as any centre in the NBA, and gets into the right position on almost every possession.
The Sixers spent a big chunk of the time between Games 1 and 2 trying to figure out how Embiid can be more efficient and impactful, because without him their chances of winning diminish greatly. But Gasol and the Raptors also had an off-day to watch video and see what Embiid might want to do, and how they can take any new moves away.
It’s the kind of cerebral game where the 34-year-old Gasol thrives. The Raptors had an idea of what he was before they obtained him midway through the season — in a deal that cost them Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles — but they knew him more as central to the Grizzlies offence than for his defensive skills.
Gasol did everything he was supposed to do in Game 2 against the Sixers. He intimidated Embiid in his non-intimidating way. He pushed and he prodded and he forced the Sixers to change their game however slightly . And when the third quarter of a back-and-forth, mostly one-sided game in favour of the Sixers, came to an end, Embiid had scored two baskets.
The second one, in the final minute, proved to be the difference in a 94-89 loss by the Raptors. Embiid finished the night with 12 points.
Gasol did his job the way he normally does his job — quietly, efficiently, somewhat physically, not what you’d call pretty.
Had the Raptors played just a little better than they managed, it would be Raptors two, Sixers zero, in games won, instead of being tied at one apiece. The five- game playoff winning streak could have been six, and put the Raptors halfway to the NBA Finals. But now adversity strikes as the series flips to Philadelphia after a 94-89 defeat.
And the Raptors lost while almost completely negating Embiid.
While he scores point-for-point with Kawhi Leonard in the regular season — he actually outscored Kawhi this season — through two playoff games in this Eastern Conference series, it is 76 Leonard, 28 Embiid.
Looking back, for a while, it looked as though the Raptors were going quietly into the trade deadline a month or so ago. But Philadelphia made a move and Milwaukee made a move and Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster figured they had to do something.
What they didn’t realize that day, as big as the deal for Gasol seemed, was how much it would impact their team. Before he came to Toronto, the Raptors were a below-average team shooing three-pointers. Since he’s come to the Raptors, they’re first in the NBA and Sixers coach Brett Brown has mentioned that several times through the first two games of the series.
Gasol’s passing changed the way the Raptors play offence. But more than even that, his defence and his head for the game has made a good defensive team that much better. Coach Nick Nurse had an idea what he was getting in Gasol — you know players when you see them around the league — but you don’t really know a player until you have him.
Of course, Brown’s strategy worked in large part because the Raptors’ previously deadly three-point strokes failed them in a game in which they needed them most, shooting a woeful 27%.
Philly’s defence was clearly much better than in the opener, but a lot of the missed threes were wide open and simply didn’t find the mark. That was not defence, but their ability to shut down Leonard and Siakam in the early going was impressive.
“I thought our defence at the start of the game was almost as good as it could be,” Brown said after the game.
Brown also had special praise for Jimmy Butler, who looked a lot like the Jimmy Butler who previously torched the Raptors when he was in a Chicago Bulls uniform. Butler, who was held to just 10 points in Game 1 busted out for 30 in this one.
“This was James Butler,” Brown insisted. “That was the adult in the gym … He was just a tremendous sort of rock. He willed us to a lot of different situations … Kind of all over the place, he was a stud. He really was an adult in the gym.”
Kyle Lowry, who struggled with his shot for much of the game, saved his best for last with a pair of late-game threes, his only two makes of the game, to get the Raptors within a three-pointer of tying. Siakam had it down to one by converting a floater from in the lane before Joel Embiid, in his best and perhaps only definitive drive of the game, re-established the visitors’ three-point lead with 31 seconds left. Embiid had just two field goals all night, but that one turned out to be pivotal.
The Raptors had a chance to force overtime, but in a possession that was anything but scripted and included almost two turnovers before somehow winding up in the hands of a wide-open Danny Green who, for the fifth time in six chances from behind the arc, failed to find the mark.
Sixers’ Tobias Harris was fouled on the miss and made both freebies to seal the game.
“We gutted this,” Brown admitted. “When the ball was rolling around the floor and you’re trying to pick it up and it ends up in Danny Green’s hands for an open three — you know we got lucky there at the end.”
An elongated brick fest doomed the Raptors on Monday night. Non-Leonard players shot just 29% from the field and 26% from three. Pascal Siakam missed five of seven triples. Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry combined to make 7-23 attempts. Toronto’s bench (an expected edge in this series) hemorrhaged points at an alarming rate, with Fred VanVleet finishing the evening minus-18 in 18 minutes. Serge Ibaka didn’t fare much better at minus-12. Perhaps this was the James Ennis game, after all.
We shouldn’t bury the Raptors supporting cast after one shoddy shooting night, yet the concerns regarding their offensive production should be noted. Gasol is more valuable as a defensive linchpin than anything else at this point in his career. He won’t lose an inch banging against Embiid and his first step is far less deadly as his footspeed deteriorates. Lowry’s offensive output has slipped this year—in part due to a lower usage rate—and he continues to struggle from three. It won’t be the old heads that carry Toronto to the Finals.
Siakam’s production remains paramount north of the border. He’s a ideal wing partner with Leonard on a good night, an elite slasher, emerging three-point shooter and transition menace. The Siakam spin should be patented at this point. Yet his limitations were exposed on Monday. He still only made one three per game in 2018-19, one year after making just 0.4 per game at 22% last year. His evolution should continue into next year, though for these playoffs, teams will continue to sag off him severely. He’ll need to make a couple of triples each night to keep defenses honest. He went 9-25 from the floor on Monday and 2-7 from three. Another option around Leonard wilted in a winnable contest.
Leonard could very well be the best player in the Eastern Conference. He is back to his pre-Zaza Pachulia peak, perhaps the league’s most complete two-way force. Yet he can’t carry Toronto past Philadelphia’s All-Star quartet alone. The Raptors supporting cast should be sufficient for a Finals run. They need to show up in Philadelphia.
Toronto drew within a point twice, but in general their offense was nothing like the buzzsaw that chewed up Philly’s defense in Game 1. Leonard was efficient on his shots, finishing with 35 points on 13-of-23 shooting, but he spent huge sections of the game, including most of the first half, doing a teeth-grinding Kobe-brain alpha-scorer thing—the Sixers would crowd the court in front of him with defenders, and instead of making a quick pass or even just a quick attacking move, he would dither on the ball, head down, testing out jab steps and step-backs. That tentativeness, plus the Sixers shifting to a familiar and effective guard-the-campsite strategy against Siakam, turned Toronto’s offense, particularly in the first half, into a halting, disjointed mess. The Raptors finished the first half with 38 points, and down 13.
Toronto’s late surge got them to within a point with less than a minute on the clock, and the Sixers seemed to be on their heels. Toronto had their chances in this one—they finished a disgusting 3-for-16 on corner threes, and missed several wide open looks down the stretch that might’ve changed the outcome. But Butler, who has assumed the role of Mr. Clutch in Philadelphia, made a smart play to kick the ball back to Embiid at the top of the arc after dribbling into trouble against Danny Green, and Embiid had just enough time on the shot clock to drive on Marc Gasol for what would wind up being the backbreaking bucket:
The game to game defensive improvement for Philadelphia was impressive, even if their offense still hasn’t exactly broken loose against Toronto. But the 76ers have firmly shifted the pressure to the Raptors in this series, and they did it when their own best player was staggering around in a weakened condition. The Raptors are not likely to have things set up in their favor quite so well again in this series, so this result counts as a major letdown, if not reason for alarm. Embiid’s guts should be back to normal for Game 3; the Raptors will have their work cut out for them.