Stuck in the mud: Raptors rally late, unable to overcome first half woes in home loss to Sixers

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TORONTO, CANADA - OCTOBER 30: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors drives to the basket against the Philadelphia 76ers on October 30, 2018 at Soctiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Toronto Raptors have made their bread this postseason by forcing turnovers and stymieing their opponent’s offensive flow with a heightened defensive tenacity. On Monday night, the shoe was firmly placed on the other foot as the Sixers jumped on Toronto early in a chippy 94-89 loss at Scotiabank Arena. The Raptors, who entered the game second in field goal percentage in the playoffs, plummeted to 32.6 per cent from the floor and failed to adapt to Philadelphia’s defensive adjustments that placed a greater burden on ancillary players to score.

If game one was an indicator, this series was to be a cakewalk. However, this is the beauty of playoff basketball. An entirely different game unfolded. Game adjustments aside (which Louis Zatzman will cover later today), the Raptors loss can be attributed to a multitude of other factors.

Can’t hit the snooze button when there’s a moose on the loose!

Philadelphia were always going to enter the game with a sense of desperation. The onus was on Toronto to match that intensity, they did not.

The only fearful narrative surrounding the Sixers bench from a Raptors perspective was Mike ‘Raptor Killer’ Scott. Hiding in plain sight, as moose are apparently known to do, was former Raptors big man Greg Monroe. With Joel Embiid guzzling peptobismol, ‘Moose’ had a mini-revenge game himself, posting eight points, five rebounds, and a hugely beneficial +10 in 11 minutes of action. Worst of all, Monroe managed three offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone which accounted for the early 26-17 deficit.

Monroe became the physical manifestation of Philadelphia’s urgency, appearing from thin air on Monday after being non-existent in game one. The Sixers out-rebounded Toronto 53-36 on the night.

Philadelphia also put Toronto under the gun from deep, both offensively and defensively.  They challenged Pascal Siakam to shoot threes from above the break, an area he only shot at a 27 per cent mark this year, by placing Embiid on him. Brett Brown was determined not to let Kawhi Leonard heat up early (though he still had a stellar night) by packing the paint and dared the other starters to punish Philly from the outside. The regular season leaders in three point shooting could not reply, going 3 of 15 from deep in the first half. Meanwhile, the Sixers were putting together nifty sequences like these to generate open looks from three:

Ben Simmons dribble penetration and Toronto’s subsequent help defence creates this shot. It is a smart set that also requires incredible body control from Simmons to deliver an inch perfect pass to the shooter on the back screen. In other cases, Toronto’s off-ball defenders were simply caught napping.

Although both team’s outside shooting evened up by the end of the game, Philadelphia leaned on that advantage to shove Toronto down into a difficult hole by halftime.

Siakam’s struggles

Sources confirm that Pascal Siakam is actually capable of having a bad game. The Sixers responded to Siakam’s dominant scoring output in game one by placing Embiid on him in an all-Cameroonian matchup to start on Monday night. Siakam’s jumper was not falling which triggered him to take off towards the rim which is enemy territory that Embiid thrives within. The net result was not positive, Siakam finished 7-18 within the paint. His patented floaters were mitigated by Embiid’s sheer size.

“Obviously it was difficult for us to handle just by looking at the numbers,” Nick Nurse said of Siakam’s difficult night. “A lot of those [shots] were trying to take on Embiid at the rim.”

Raptors Republic’s very own video guru, Cooper Smither, provided a quick film breakdown of Embiid guarding Siakam. The extended piece and additional film breakdown will be up on Thursday.

A sharper pull-up game off of the dribble, ala Kawhi, is the next offensive tool Siakam needs to develop in situations like this. Siakam is currently shooting 22.2 per cent on two point pull-ups in the playoffs. His shot chart this season is emblematic of the modern NBA: 79.4 per cent of Siakam’s points come from three or within the paint. This produces wonderful efficiency, but being able to feel comfortable working the mid-range becomes an ace in the hole during slow, mucky playoff games.

Pascal Siakam shotchart in 2018/19 playoffs

“I don’t think we came out early how we were supposed to,” Siakam said of the team’s performance after the game. As well as Philly’s gameplan worked on Siakam, I don’t think this will be the definitive move that will erase his impact on the series. Siakam is too talented and adaptable to allow this to rattle him.

Crank the pace

I like to think of myself as a bit of a Positive Pete. So, one of the good things that occurred was the Raptors cranking the offensive pace up in the second half. It began on the defensive end of the floor, ratcheting up pressure which enabled more transition plays that slowly greased the wheels of a gummy first-half offence. Toronto were the most efficient scoring team in transition during the regular season and are dying to break loose in the playoffs.

The other hidden benefit of getting out in transition is the cross-matches that it presents. In the clip above, Redick looks like a toddler defending the paint once Gasol beats Embiid down the floor. Toronto possess high IQ basketball players that can pick apart a scrambling defence. As the game opened up, the Raptors began to find their flow once again. If the Sixers continue putting Embiid on Siakam defensively then Spicy P has to leak out down the court every opportunity that he gets.

Getting out got the Raptors even. They need to dictate this pace from the get-go.

Bench Blues

Stop me if you have heard this before, but… the Raptors bench underwhelmed. It has become an all too common occurrence throughout the season and their brief stints hemorrhaged points. The trio of Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka were a combined 2-10 from the field and posted a putrid -47 plus/minus.

There was a general malaise when they were on the court that was sapping the energy from a frenetic crowd. Even Jack Armstrong was struggling to muster up encouraging words, which is when you know shit has really hit the fan. My notepad late in the third quarter when Jodie Meeks inexcusably checked in was just a series of exclamation and question marks. That passage of play halted Toronto’s momentum entirely. Expect Louis to have some not so kind words on that later.

Jimmy (kinda) gets Buckets

Jimmy Butler was not efficient, but he was the man who bailed Philly out during dry spells and nailed clutch buckets late to seal the game. Butler only went 9-22 from the field, but canned four triples and got to the free throw line a game-high eight times.

In both games Toronto has been content to switch freely between Lowry, Green, and Siakam defending Butler. However, if Tobias Harris continues to be a non-entity then it may be helpful to throw more Green defensive possessions onto Butler. Lowry remains a stout post defender, although Butler’s height advantage allowed him to get his outside shot off unimpeded. Green is the best on-ball defender outside of Kawhi and forced Butler into plenty of difficult looks. On the other hand, Butler was able to shake Siakam several times in the half-court and attacked the Cameroonian ruthlessly in transition.

If there is a silver lining to be taken from Monday night it is that the Raptors were a wide-open Danny Green jumper away from sending the game to overtime despite playing a historically poor offensive game. The team did not capitulate amidst a disastrous start and displayed resolve to make a competitive encounter. Nurse will have to carefully decide how he approaches game three now that Philadelphia successfully landed their first counterpunch of the series. Thursday is going to be a blast.

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