1-1 – Lots of spicy takes
Green is a classic role player whose shot spectrum is ultra-defined. As a Raptor, Marc Gasol is trending that way.
In 53 games in Memphis this year, Gasol’s usage percentage was 22.3 percent. In Toronto, it went down to 16.3 percent. In the playoffs, it has tumbled all the way down to 11.6 percent.
Surely, part of the reason for Philadelphia’s matchup changes between the first and second games of the series was to try to make Gasol a little more assertive, thus getting the ball out of Kawhi Leonard’s hands a little bit more. Joel Embiid, who guarded him for most of Game 1, switched to Pascal Siakam, with big swingman Tobias Harris shifting over to Gasol. In past years, the obvious solution would be to dump the ball into Gasol the post and let him go to work. However, that is not really Gasol’s strength anymore, despite his size advantage, and it is certainly not his preference. Still, Gasol logged a playoff-high 35 minutes and shot just six times. Four of those looks were 3-pointers. Gasol drew some fouls down low early in the third quarter, but given the sheer size mismatch, you would expect some more looks for the big man.
“It’s within the flow of a game. It’s finding open space, trying to find those gaps without getting in the way of too many guys and not stopping the ball movement and all the good things we do,” Gasol said. “We’re gonna find ways to exploit that a little bit. We know once the ball gets there and gets into the paint, a lot of the time Joel is coming (to help). When we get there, either I make a play for myself or for somebody else.”
It is not as if that did not happen at all. So often, though, the Raptors took pains to exploit the mismatch, losing themselves in the process. Green has to keep shooting his shot, while Gasol might have to refine what constitutes his own.
The first thing to note is that these numbers strip out Wright’s time in Memphis so that we can get as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as possible. The second thing — though these are rate stats so it doesn’t matter as much — is that VanVleet’s sample size is about 20 percent bigger (he’s played 3,500 Raptor minutes to 3,000 for Wright).
It’s clear from the above though that Wright is at least VanVleet’s equal in the regular season.
Their effective field goal percentages are basically the same. Wright owns advantages in offense and defensive rating, and his Win Shares per 48 are also higher. (If you prefer a different all-in-metric VORP prefers Wright as well 2.8 to 2.3.) Wright’s edge, besides surprisingly sawing off the shooting comparison, is his ability to grab rebounds, and snag steals and blocks.
Of course, VanVleet not only shoots the three better (.396 to .353), he shoots more of them, creating a spacing advantage Wright can’t match. VanVleet also has a better AST/TO ratio (about 3.6 to 2.8), meaning he likely helps limit transition buckets against.
In the playoffs, things get worse for VanVleet though. While the sample sizes are tiny (Wright has 348 minutes, and VanVleet, after Game 2, has 300), the division is stark.
As we discussed above, VanVleet’s shooting numbers crater. The Raptors offense dries up. Their defense gets worse, and VanVleet’s WS/48 are cut nearly in half.
Wright, on the other hand, keeps his shooting (the increased three point accuracy is likely a quirk of small samples), and while his defense regresses as well, the Raptors offense is regular-season dangerous with him on the floor. Facing better competition his WS/48 naturally decreases, but is much better than VanVleet’s.
Again it’s his height and athleticism — Wright can still grab rebounds, and effect the game defensively through blocks and steals at a higher level than VanVleet can. On offense, he has the burst and length to put pressure on the defense by attacking the rim.
VanVleet’s spacing edge probably still applies, as even though he’s missing there is a value to those shots and the gravity they create. Though playoff Wright is a tad gun-shy, overall the numbers bear out the idea that Wright has handled the playoffs better in his young career.
However you cut it, the idea that VanVleet is a far superior player doesn’t hold water. I get it though. The narratives between VanVleet and Wright couldn’t be more different. VanVleet, the after-draft after-thought, who through hustle and marksmanship made himself into a Sixth Man of the year finalist. Wright, the first round pick, who was always older than you thought, and was beset by injuries and inconsistency.
Odds are that Siakam will be better equipped to attack Embiid after seeing the tape. Embiid is flat-out ignoring Siakam on the perimeter, so there will be opportunities to shoot corner 3s, or to use Siakam in screen actions that would give the Raptors a 2-on-1 advantage. Expect more of Siakam playing pick-and-roll with both Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard going forward. The playoffs are about adjustments, and Siakam is dynamic enough to adapt.
But these are just the stakes for Siakam as his career progresses. He will continue to see tougher defenders proportionate to his improvements, and more difficult encounters lay ahead in this playoff run. Siakam will draw one of Al Horford or Antetokounmpo if they reach the next round, and a showdown against DPOY winner Draymond Green awaits if the Raptors advance to the NBA Finals. That’s the type of gauntlet that would break most third year players, but Siakam might just be special enough to make it through. It would be silly to doubt him after he’s come so far in such a short amount of time.
And truth is, the Raptors are counting on Siakam to actually be the real deal, because they’re screwed if he’s not. Leonard is a force of nature who will always score an efficient 30 points, but the Raptors still need a consistent second option to advance any further. Siakam rose to the challenge by averaging 22 points on 53 percent shooting in the first round, but can he do the same against the Sixers? So far he’s one for two, but the Raptors need four of seven.
There’s nobody else to pick up the slack. Lowry gutted it out and finished with 20 points in Game 2, but he couldn’t even capitalize when he got the lead-footed Greg Monroe on a switch. Marc Gasol is a good shooter, but he’s no longer a dominant force around the rim, and his mentality since becoming a Raptor has been to pass first, second, and third. Danny Green strictly feeds off his teammates, and he turned into DeMarre Carroll when the Raptors needed him most. And don’t even look to the bench, because Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka have all forgotten how to play basketball since the playoffs started.
The responsibility falls squarely on Siakam’s shoulder, and he’s not running away from it. The Raptors can’t afford for him to have an off night, and he’s willing to rise to the challenge.
“It’s part of growing, part of learning, and that’s what makes the game so fun, is that you can play so well one day and then the next day, it gets tough and you have to bounce back. I’m sure that’s the character we have on this team. Watch film and get ready for Game 3,” Siakam said.
The margin for error is small.
So Nurse is charged with figuring out how to make life easier for Siakam, who was covered by Sixer centre Joel Embiid in a bid to take away his opportunities in the paint, where he thrives. It worked given Siakam shot 7-of-25, a far cry from the 57 per cent he was shooting from the field in six prior playoff starts.
“I went and kind of clipped them all just to see what it was,” said Nurse in reference to Siakam’s many misses. “I kind of felt during the game that some of [his shots] maybe weren’t the best choices, and there was only a few that weren’t very good choices. I think a couple times he had the space just to shoot and he tried to take up the space and take him on. I think he had one offensive rebound where he turned and Embiid was there, too, and tried to take him on.
“If it was me, I probably wouldn’t go to the rim and try to take him on. But there’s some other things he can do, maybe.”
Because the Sixers have committed Embiid to covering Siakam it leaves them with six-foot-eight Tobias Harris on seven-foot Raptors centre Marc Gasol, which should have created an opportunity inside for Gasol, but the Raptors didn’t get much offence from it. Gasol did have seven post-ups but he passed out of them six times and only attempted a single field goal in the paint. From the Sixers’ point of view, why not keep playing him with a smaller defender if he’s going to give the ball up so easily?
“We’re gonna find ways to exploit that a little bit,” said Gasol, who was working on duck-in moves after practice Tuesday with Raptors assistant coach Jamaal Magloire. “We know once the ball gets there and gets into the paint, a lot of the time Joel is coming [to double]. When he gets there, either I make a play for myself or for somebody else.”
Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, and Marc Gasol are certain that they can maneuver around the Sixers’ defensive adjustments to make their mark on the game.
It’s worth noting, though, that the Sixers were just a step behind the Raptors in playoff field-goal percentage heading into Monday at 47.7 percent.
The way the Sixers see it, all they need to do is let the defense do the talking, and they can win this series.
“Obviously they’re gonna make some adjustments, as will we probably,” Jimmy Butler said. “But, as long as we get back, guard, rebound, and don’t turn the ball over, we’ll be alright.”
The Raptors are unlikely to give credit to the Sixers’ defense, considering they have Leonard and Gasol, two former defensive players of the year.
Leonard did say that the Sixers defense did a good job on Monday, but he blamed his troubles on not reacting well.
”He’s long, like you say,” Leonard said of Ben Simmons. “So, just trying to operate, and not really trying to zone in on the one-on-one player, trying to get my teammates involved.”
The Raptors will try to get hot with the weapons that the Sixers are willing to live with. That means more of Leonard as a distributor, Gasol taking more shots that the defense gives him, and increased ball movement to break up crowds.
The Sixers will need to be ready. Embiid on Siakam seems like a matchup that will continue, but the Raptors might look to exploit Tobias Harris on Gasol.
Each move and countermove will be part of the chess match that makes up the best-of-seven series. Until there is one team left standing, the result of every game is just a matter of perspective.
The changes worked. The Raptors finished the first half with just 38 points on 15-for-46 shooting from the field, the second-fewest points they’d scored in a first half this season (regular season and playoffs). And 38 points do not do the Sixers’ defensive performance justice, as the total was propped up by 18 points the Raptors scored off of Philadelphia’s 12 turnovers.
Toronto, owners of the league’s fifth-best offensive attack, did almost nothing in the first half when the Sixers had the chance to set their defense. Because of that, the Sixers were able to overcome their own wretched shooting performance and turnover issues — problems which, had it not been for their stellar defense, could’ve placed the season in peril.
Instead, the Sixers head back home with an earned sense of accomplishment. Despite their Game 1 struggles, they did what most underdogs aim to do: Win one of the first two games on the road, steal home-court advantage and look to take control of the series with the next two games on friendly home turf.
“I thought our defense at the start of the game was almost as good as it could be,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “I was proud of our defense.”
“I’m telling you, whenever we let our defense dictate our offense, we’re such a great team,” Jimmy Butler said. “We can’t let it be the other way around. As long as we don’t turn the ball over and we guard, we give ourselves a chance to win every night.”
Naturally, Toronto saw things differently.
“I think if we’d made some of those shots early on, the adjustments that they made probably would have been changed,” Gasol said. “Not making those shots gave them confidence in what they were trying to do and kind of got us out of our flow.”
“I thought we were just 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,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “It didn’t start out very good with flow.”
The beauty of a seven-game series is we’ll get to see which side of the argument wins out.
Nurse took an ill-advised technical foul in the first half. So did Danny Green, who ended up 1-for-8 shooting, which aren’t Danny Green numbers. Two points given away in the first half may not mean much in the first half but in the final minutes, with the score 92-89 in the final minute, those two points matter.
Now to move on to Game 3. Now to make sure the loss that shouldn’t have been doesn’t linger with the Raptors. In the ongoing chess game that is playoff basketball, it is Nurse’s turn to adjust. On the road. In noisy Philadelphia. Which is never an easy place to win, no matter what the sport.
“They came out more aggressive than us,” said Kyle Lowry, the veteran Raptor guard. “We didn’t come out aggressive enough. They played real desperate and real hard.”
And still it went down to the final minute. A game Nurse watched over and over again Tuesday morning, second guessing his own decisions, second guessing the decisions he considered but didn’t make.
“Some things I wish I would have done,” said the coach. The Raptors pushed hard in Game 1, were pushed around in Game 2. And now it’s a series that anybody can win.
Nurse looked over all 25 shots, and found very few he didn’t like. “I think a couple times he had the space just to shoot and he tried to take up the space and take him on,” Nurse said. “I think he had one offensive rebound where he turned and Embiid was there, too, and tried to take him on.
“If it was me, I probably wouldn’t go to the rim and try to take him on. But there’s some other things he can do, maybe.”
Siakam also acknowledges that this is a special moment. He never had basketball heroes growing up; he was a soccer kid who accidentally became a basketball star. But he grew to wanting to be more than a Mbah a Moute, more than an African role player. And here they are, Siakam and Embiid, at a pinnacle.
“I mean, that’s the goal, having more kids dreaming about it, having more kids who think they can achieve it,” Siakam said. “And that’s something that Luc always did, and we got to continue the job. And maybe it’ll be both of us.”
“It’s definitely things that you dream about, and it’s here.”
But Siakam isn’t afraid. He says, “Those shots, I guarantee you I’m going to make them. It’s all about feeling and the momentum of the game. I’m sure I’ll be better.”
Siakam is facing a mountain, but then, in a way, he always has. His solution is always the same: Climb it, go higher. Go right to the top.
It isn’t lost on Fred VanVleet, the floor general of the second unit, that Toronto’s bench needs to get going. Though Serge Ibaka helped shut down Joel Embiid in the opener, the second group has struggled mightily at the other end of the floor, scoring only 14 combined points through the two games on sub-30% shooting.
While some of that is missing open shots, VanVleet also says the offence hasn’t been run well enough at times.
“We’re doing a good job of attacking some mismatches and some matchups that we like, but probably just have to do a better job of working on stuff and still continuing to keep playing and find some good shots,” VanVleet said after practice on Tuesday. “There are some on the table that were just wide open and we just missed and then there are places that we can be better for sure.”
After his scrum VanVleet was asked by the Toronto Sun about running more pick-and-rolls in order to get Ibaka more energized and conceded that wouldn’t be the worst idea.
“Yeah, I think we probably should do some more pick-and-rolls. I think we’re not getting a ton of action out of that,” VanVleet said. “It’s probably been maybe a little bit too much 1-on-1, but the way Game 1 went, with Pascal and Kawhi (on fire), it’s hard to go away from that. Obviously Kyle and Marc’s pick-and-roll, but me and Serge have just got to find ways to keep exploring that pick-and-roll coverage.”
VanVleet was quick to note it’s not anyone’s fault that more pick-and-rolls haven’t been run, it’s just the way the games have been going, but some more aggressiveness and assertiveness should help.
“It’s hard to come into the game and have to make every shot and that’s kind of the point in the season where we’re at now,” he said of the stakes ratcheting up.
“For me it was trying to stick to our guns a little bit,” Nurse said. “And our rotations felt really good for five straight games. Like, really really good, not just okay, like, really really good. And again, don’t think that I’m not tinkering with those in my head all game long. Then of course when it’s over some of the suggestions and some of the things I was thinking about doing I wish I would have done. You always do that, right? I think the thinking was, again, I really liked the way Serge played Embiid in the regular season. He had some really good moments against him there so I wanted to continue to explore and take a look at that a little bit.”
The Sixers are also one of very few teams that open the second and fourth quarters with their starters on the floor. The Raptors are still opening those quarters with their three reserves and, to little surprise, have been outplayed in those minutes. The Sixers played just one minute without at least three starters on the court in Game 1. The Raptors played 14.
Separating the three primary reserves – VanVleet, Ibaka and Powell – as much as possible and sprinkling them in with starter-heavy units could negate the advantage the Sixers have created for themselves. Patrick McCaw has been sparingly used since his return from a thumb injury – giving him a shot in the Meeks role or eliminating those ninth-man minutes altogether are also options to consider. Unfortunately, OG Anunoby is still out after undergoing an emergency appendectomy three weeks ago and without a timetable for his return. He’s expected to miss the rest of this series, at minimum. The Raptors could certainly use him, but with Philadelphia also missing one of its top reserves in Mike Scott, Anunoby’s absence shouldn’t excuse Toronto’s poor bench play so far.
It’s not just that the Raptors’ primary bench players need to play better, and they do, but they could also be deployed better. As we know, the playoffs are chess match. Brown and the Sixers made their move, now it’s Nurse’s turn to answer. How he and the Raptors adjust in Thursday’s Game 3, and for the rest of this series, will be telling.
“It didn’t go quite well [in Game 2],” Nurse said. “I’m not sure I’d blame it on our rotation [Monday] night. But there are a number of things. You’ve always got to examine anything you think it can be and that’s one of them. We’ll continue to examine it and think about it and maybe I’ll pull the trigger in a different direction next game.”
To put this in perspective, let’s discuss a few of the numbers.
In Game 1, the Raptors won the game by 13 points. Easy win, right? Well, not exactly. No Raptor scored in double-figures other than Siakam and Leonard. The team’s dynamic duo accounted for 74 of the team’s points. The third leading scorer was Kyle Lowry, who finished with nine points. In comparison, the Sixers had six players in double-figures.
In Game 2, in which the Raptors lost by five, the Raptors’ scoring was a bit more balanced but still only had three players score in double-figures. Even though Lowry scored 20 points, which the team could seriously use more of moving forward, the team as a whole shot just 36 percent from the field.
After the team’s Big Three, though, the combination of Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka accounted for just 13 points in Game 2. That won’t cut and didn’t which is why this series is tied at one game apiece as it shifts to Philadelphia.
It would be somewhat unfair to throw the onus on the team’s supporting cast, especially on the road. Historically, role players don’t exactly rise to the occasion in road playoff games. Of course, you have your exceptions from time to time. Those situations generally happen at home.
Which is why, assuming that it won’t be easy for Kawhi and Pascal to bring home a victory by themselves on the road, Lowry will have to step up in a big way in Game 3 and 4. The playoffs haven’t historically been kind to Lowry in the past. In fact, he’s gotten a lot of flack for falling short in some of the biggest moments of his career. But over the last few series, that narrative has begun to change.
He could cement that if he could come up big, once again, for the Raptors against the Sixers.
More Pick and Rolls
Everyone who follows the Sixers knows that Brett Brown does not like to run a lot of pick-and-rolls and everyone who follows the NBA knows that Jimmy Butler was not all too happy about the lack of pick-and-rolls early in his time with Philadelphia.
In the regular season, Philadelphia ran the second least amount of PNR in the league, with just 11.5% of their offense coming from that action. But to close the game last night, Brown put the ball in Jimmy Butler’s hand had him go to work.
After hitting the game winner in the Magic’s lone win of their opening round series with Toronto, DJ Augustin did not mince words, telling reporters that Orlando was targeting former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in a pick-and-roll late in the game and on the game winning play. While still being a stout post defender (just ask Joel Embiid), Gasol is now 34 years old and not adept at sticking with a player like Butler.
On one second half play, Butler turned Gasol into a screener on his own defender to create space, while drawing a crucial foul on the big man as the Raptors made their final push in the 4th quarter. An Embiid pick-and-pop screen for Butler is what eventually lead to the big man’s game clinching bucket in the last minute of action.
After the Game 1 loss, Brown was quoted as saying “adjustments rule the day”, and for now those adjustments have given him the edge over Nick Nurse in this coaching battle. How both teams respond in Game 3 Thursday night will go a long way in deciding which of these team advances to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Nurse readily admitted he probably got a little stubborn with his rotations once the starters needed a breather, liking what he had seen in the past five games and just sticking with it because it had been so successful despite early indications that the Sixers had a few new ideas of changing things on their end.
“I think that for me it was trying to stick to our guns a little bit,” Nurse said. “Our rotations felt really good for five straight games. Like, really, really good. Not just OK. Like, really, really good. Don’t think that I’m not tinkering with those in my head all game long. And then of course, when it’s over, some of the suggestions and things I was thinking about doing, I wish I would have done. You always do that.”
Nurse hinted strongly that a different rotation would be unleashed in Game 3.
It’s unlikely he would stray from the eight-man group he has run out there throughout these playoffs, but the few minutes Jodie Meeks got could wind up in the hands of Patrick McCaw. Look for Nurse, though, to keep Ibaka solely on the backup big — whoever that may be in Game 3. That will mean Gasol coming out every time Embiid does, but whether it’s Greg Monroe — who turned his ankle in Game 2 — or Boban Marjanovic or Jonah Bolden, their appearance will likely coincide with Ibaka checking into the game.
VanVleet has not been his normal productive self in the offence, but he has been a huge plus on the defensive end in these playoffs, holding first Terrence Ross and now JJ Redick in check when he has come off the bench.
For Nurse that is the job first and foremost for anyone coming off his bench, but a little offence to offset the double-digit donations James Ennis is giving Philadelphia would be nice and VanVleet knows it.
“We’ve got to find a way to be assertive, be aggressive and I think that’s why running our offence a little bit more will probably put us in a position to create some better opportunities,” VanVleet said. “Regardless, we’ve got to find an opportunity to be better. We know that and we’ll try to find an opportunity to do that next game. But it’s been something that we’ve been trying to figure out for a few games now and starting the playoffs it’s kind of the first time that we’ve had these types of lineups so we’re still trying to figure out a little bit.“
“But us three (himself, Norm Powell and Ibaka) coming off the bench, we’ve still got to respond defensively, got to find a way to be impactful and just be relevant. It will happen.”
Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet entered the game with just under three minutes remaining in the first quarter — their usual mark — with the Raps trailing 19-11. Alongside Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, it was cut by one with a minute remaining, before Leonard checked out for Danny Green and the Sixers went up by 14 two minutes into the second quarter. It was pushed up to 19 despite Gasol’s return with just over four minutes remaining, before VanVleet and Powell exited.
Again, give Philly credit for their plans and taking away from what the Raptors do best, but creating such an uphill battle was always going to minimize the margin for error and leave you exposed to the whims of variance.
You knew the Sixers would come out ready to throw the kitchen sink, they have one of the best starting fives in the league. You take the blow, and you make a measured response over the next 36 minutes. Instead, as the Sixers announced their arrival in the series with their first real tug of the rope, the Raptors failed to hit back until it was all but too late.
In the third quarter, Toronto’s starters did a tremendous job of cutting down the Philly advantage to as little as one, with Nurse’s adjustment of playing through Gasol in the post at the centre of it (no pun intended). But with all that sweat equity the Raptors put into getting back into the game, the other shoe had yet to drop. The case can certainly be made that the extra run for the starters was worth the price of having to sit them for a stretch, the 8-2 run by the Sixers to end the third quarter and push the lead back up to six had to signal that Nurse had little time to play with.
Yet, when Brown turned back to his starters with 9:52 remaining, Ibaka, Powell and VanVleet were all on the court for the Raptors for another 1:16 — a whole 76 seconds in which Philly outscored Toronto 4-0. In a game that came down to the Raptors needing one three-pointer from Green to tie from a spot he shot 45.2 percent on the season (10 percent above league average), those four points loomed large.
The shooting was bad, no question about that. 27 percent from three-point range for a team that was the best in the league after the acquisition of Gasol won’t cut it. Danny Green would surely love to have a couple of his attempts back. Yet, in an increasingly make or miss league courtesy the variance of the three, the swish isn’t something that qualifies as a controllable outside of ensuring your best options are on the court to take them.
“We’re always thinking about any possible adjustments to it or changes or whatever,” Nurse said after the game. “And this’ll certainly give us cause to reflect and review that for sure. What we come up with by Game 3, I don’t know yet.
“There’s always little things you wished you would have changed, left this guy in longer or put this guy in sooner; there’s always little things here and there. But, again, I think we played pretty well with this rotation, we wanted to stay with it as much as we can.”