Pre-game news and notes: Who will aid Kawhi?

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*Edit – Jeremy Lin is out with Back Spasms.

Kawhi Leonard is the calm and the storm. He is the best player in the series and completely unguardable. Through two games, he has averaged 40 points on 61.7 percent shooting from the field. The Sixers used their best wing defender, Ben Simmons, on Leonard consistently in game two, making sure that there were thickets of arms in the paint whenever Leonard drove. It didn’t matter. Leonard was so dominant that Brown was beyond complimentary, bordering on adulatory, after the game.

I mean you just — especially since it’s now in front my eyes in real time as far as Kawhi’s brilliance — he’s really, really good,” said Brown. “We all get that. But when you’re having to scout and game plan and it’s happening 20 feet from you, it’s exacerbated, it’s magnified.”

Unfortunately for Toronto, Leonard was really the extent of the offense in game two. He was the only player to shoot over 50 percent from the field. Defended by Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam shot very poorly at the rim, unable to finish over length. He shot 7-for-13 at the rim (after shooting over 70 percent in the regular season) and 0-for-5 from floater range (after shooting 12-of-18 against the Orlando Magic from that range). Though he did hit two clutch triples, Kyle Lowry scored inefficiently. Danny Green shot 1-for-6 from deep. His mini-slump, which has now extended through the entire playoffs, is really his first in a Toronto Raptors jersey. (Green is still defending brilliantly.) The bench scored 5 points on 10 shots.

Someone else has to improve. The Raptors defended so brilliantly that despite the offensive struggles across the non-Leonard portion of the roster, they only lost by 5. If they get something from anyone, that game is there’s. They were a wide-open Green triple away from tying late in game two. Philadelphia can’t count on him missing those going forward.

So, how? There are lots of ways to get other scorers going. After Siakam roasted his coverages in game one, scoring 29 on 15 shots, Philadelphia refused to allow a wing to cover him. That’s smart. But Toronto can use Siakam like he’s a guard, and offer him countless ball screens to get players other than Embiid to switch onto him. The Raps picked on JJ Redick in game one, forcing his man, Green, to screen for Leonard time and again. They should do the same in game three, but for Siakam. Embiid’s left knee tendinitis has hampered his horizontal motion so far in the series, and whether he can get through screens is up for debate. Even if he gets through screens, drawing Embiid away from the paint is only a good thing for Toronto’s offense in general. Siakam can roast any defender on the Sixers not named Embiid, and possibly Embiid as well, considering how quickly he’s developed, so giving him ball screens to force changes in coverage could work well. He finished the season in the 97th percentile as pick-and-roll ball-handlers, scoring 1.12 points per possession, equal to MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. Give Siakam more reps there, and Embiid will struggle to contain him.

To get everyone going, Marc Gasol has to start shooting. With Embiid occupied elsewhere, the Sixers used Tobias Harris as Gasol’s primary defender. Though he wasn’t able to score from the post in the first half, Gasol was excellent passing to create opportunities elsewhere in the second. At some point, Gasol will need to score a little more. He can remain pass-first, that’s fine, but his shooting is an important part of Toronto’s offense. He shot 1-of-4 from deep in game two, but he can’t turn down open triples. That’s as good a look as Toronto is going to create, and Gasol has too often passed out of great shots to a contested Green. If Gasol doesn’t shoot those, Green will have fewer open looks going forward.

Speaking about open triples, Toronto just has to trust Lowry, Green, and Fred VanVleet. All three are elite shooters who are missing shots at the moment, and there isn’t any worry. They need to keep taking them, as high variance shots vary highly. They will go in at some point.

Some things need to change and some things need to stay the same. Like game one against Orlando, Toronto lost to Philadelphia on a night when most big picture factors went Toronto’s way. Philadelphia was held to only nine offensive rebounds. They turned the ball over 19 times, compared to 10 for Toronto. Philadelphia shot under 40 percent from the field. Philadelphia plays a game like that 100 times, and Toronto will win maybe 90 of those games. Probably more. It’s on Nick Nurse to adapt and grow, but the Raptors have to be confident that they’re playing correctly in most facets of the game. Adjustment is a necessity, but over-compensation would probably be worse than doing nothing.

Toronto Injury Updates

Chris Boucher (back spasms) is once again on the injury report. OG Anunoby (appendectomy) remains out, and he doesn’t have a timetable for his return.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin

SG: Danny Green, Patrick McCaw, Jodie Meeks

SF: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller

PF: Pascal Siakam

C:  Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Eric Moreland

Philadelphia Injury Updates

Mike Scott (plantar fasciitis) is a game-time decision. Joel Embiid played through the stomach flu on top of left knee soreness, so expect him to go again. Monroe (ankle sprain) was questionable to return in game two, and he’s a game-time decision in this one.

PG: Ben Simmons, TJ McConnell

SG: JJ Redick, James Ennis, Furkan Korkmaz

SF: Jimmy Butler, Jonathon Simmons

PF: Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, Jonah Bolden

C: Joel Embiid, Greg Monroe, Boban Marjanovic, Amir Johnson

Rotation notes

  • Toronto’s starters remain undefeated. That 5-point in game two? The starters finished +13 in 30 minutes. They’re now up to a ridiculous +114 over the playoffs, which is the same as the second and third highest lineups added together. The Raptors’ starters are not the problem.
    • One issue with playing the starters 30 minutes however, is that it means the Raptors need to play 1-starter groups for a few minutes here and there. Leonard, Siakam, and Lowry all played 40 minutes or more in game two, so it’s not like there are really extra minutes to be found. In the two minutes Nurse went with Leonard+bench (which was prior to the last game a Siakam+bench rotation, there’s an adjustment right there), Toronto was outscored by four points. Maybe the answer, if Toronto wants to keep all their starters playing the majority of their minutes together instead of in transitional lineups, is to play Green a few more minutes, as he only played 32.
  • Toronto only had two other lineups win their minutes in game two. Starter+VanVleet for Siakam, and Leonard+Siakam+bench. In the past, other transitional lineups have succeeded, especially the Lowry-VanVleet-Powell-Leonard-Ibaka fivesome that gives Siakam some rest. That group finished a -1 in 3 minutes, bringing its total to +28 over the playoffs. It is a look that is sort of a bellwether of Toronto’s success; when Leonard-at-power forward works well, Toronto is generally winning games.
  • After not making an appearance in the first half, Toronto used the VanVleet-Meeks-Powell backcourt alongside Siakam and Serge Ibaka to start the fourth quarter. They were outscored by four points in two minutes. Nurse is playing that rotation to hold the fort, not to build the lead, which is not a maximization of game management. That group has a -25 net rating in the playoffs, but it’s been used in six games. With Green in for Meeks, the net rating is -37.1, and it’s been used in all seven playoff games. At some point, Nurse has to realize that these lineups just don’t work. But to fix them, the total starter minutes have to come down from 30. It’s a tough trade-off, certainly, but something has got to give. The Raptors should play trying to win all 48 minutes, and punting 3-4 minutes a game is probably a problem that needs fixing. Meeks has probably seen his last ceremonial 60 seconds.
    • Not to kick a dead horse, but Meeks’ net rating so far in the series is -90.1.

Assorted

  • Worth mentioning that RR has a ton of great work in between games, so here’s a list of resources so far since the last one:
  • Philadelphia threw hard double-teams at Toronto quite frequently. Leonard and Gasol were frequent recipients in the post. Both are talented passers, but the Sixers nailed their rotations after Toronto passed away from the double-teams. Even when the ball landed in shooters’ laps after a few swings, the Sixers were generally there to contest or even take away the shot. Toronto has to make that untenable. Siakam wasn’t great cutting around Leonard’s post-ups, and he’s usually much better than that. Gasol occasionally passed away from his own good looks into worse shots for others. No matter how, Toronto needs to be better at punishing the Sixers for hard double-teams.
  • Serge Ibaka has had two horrible first halves and two brilliant second halves. His defensive errors have been glaring, including falling for fake handoffs and biting on pump-fakes from non-shooters. His defensive strengths have been glaring, including weakside help blocks and… well, yeah, those. The Ibaka taketh and the Ibaka giveth. The Raptors want more consistency out of him in the series.
  • Let’s talk about shooting, because why not. The Raptors shot 10-for-37 from deep in game two, bringing their series percentage to 32.4 and playoff percentage to 34.8. Brett Brown has twice (I count two, but it could be more) called the Raptors “the best shooting team in the NBA,” so what gives?
    • On one hand, shooters miss shots. Two games is a ridiculously small sample size. However, there’s more going on. Especially in game two, a bunch of Toronto’s triples came without any paint touches preceding them. Their looks aren’t coming off of the usual deluge of passes. Part of that is Philadelphia’s defense being solid, and part of that is Toronto spending more time hunting mismatches than is strictly necessary. The Raptors are great shooters, but they haven’t shown that so far against Philly. Green, VanVleet, and Lowry are all in mini-slumps, and Siakam is taking a larger share of triples from above the arc against the Sixers (27 percent) than he should. He only shot 27 percent from above the break in the regular season. So, a few fixes to be instituted, but the Raptors have to be confident in regression to the mean. Lowry and Green especially are taking great looks.
  • So, James Ennis. The man has almost doubled Toronto’s total combined points from the bench, 24-15. After posting a miserable 47.6 eFG percentage in the regular season with Philadelphia, he’s now at 62.5 in the playoffs. Outrageous. When you’re hot, you’re hot. If he outscores VanVleet, Powell, and Ibaka over the remainder of the series, then I guess Toronto is in trouble? Don’t count on it.
  • Greg Monroe also had the game of his lifetime in game two. He was quite solid defensively, and he was flat-out dominant on offense. He shot 4-for-6 in the restricted area, which is surprising if you watched him at all in Toronto (he shot a miserable-for-a-center 55 percent at the rim during the regular season for the Raptors.)
    • On one hand, it’s surprising that Philadelphia received such positive contributions from Ennis and Monroe. They are probably the 14th and 15th best players between the two teams, give or take a few spots. At the same time, good teams receive contributions from surprising places in the playoffs. That’s how the playoffs work, so Toronto needs to gameplan for them and force Monroe and Ennis out of their comfort zones. So far, the game has come too easy to them.
  • You know for whom life is uncomfortable in the series? One Boban Marjanovic. I predicted that he’d be unplayable, but it’s been bad. His net rating over two games is a team-low -88 (among rotation players only Meeks is lower.) His defense is completely untenable, and his offense against Ibaka or Gasol doesn’t offer anything back the other way. Toronto needs to pounce whenever the Sixers have someone other than Embiid at center.
  • Refs are Scott Foster, Jason Phillips, and Tre Maddox.

The Line

Toronto is -1.5, so they’re still favourites despite the loss and Philly being at home. The over-under is 217.

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