Through the first seven games of the Raptors’ playoff run, there was one constant that kept the team moving in a forward direction, the fact that Toronto’s starters had comfortably outplayed their opponents at every turn and found ways to create advantages, and made up for the struggles of nearly every other combination of players. This efficient group had enabled the Raptors to a 5-2 record through those games, and while there was clearly work to be done to solve the issues with the bench and transition lineups to get the team rolling on all cylinders, the starters were as dependable as could be and that gave the team a lot of room for error.
That was, until Thursday night in Philadelphia, when the starters found their first struggles of the playoffs.
There were signs in game two that this might be coming, in some of the adjustments that the Sixers showed in that game, using Joel Embiid to slow down Pascal Siakam and making the other Raptors starters beat them, and then attacking Marc Gasol relentlessly in the pick and roll to generate their own offense. Those things were troubling signs, but in game three, after losing, it was Nick Nurse’s turn to show the next adjustment and turn the series back in the Raptors’ favor. At least, that was the theory, that the Raptors would find some response to the ways the Sixers had stymied them and create new problems for Philadelphia to solve.
Instead, we saw more of what we’d seen in the first two games from the Raptors, and it was the Sixers again making the adjustments. Joel Embiid looked as healthy as he has in this series, and the Sixers used him on Marc Gasol once again so he could freelance on defense and take away the rim from the Raptors while daring Gasol to beat them. Philadelphia came out with the gameplan of making the other Raptors beat them, making them hit open shots, and the Raptors didn’t hit enough of them once again.
The Raptors starters had trouble finding any offense aside from Kawhi Leonard, who was once again transcendant, but couldn’t do everything himself despite his best efforts. Philadelphia simply had an answer for everything else the Raptors had. They made life difficult whenever Toronto tried to go to the basket and they were able to consistently create solid offense of their own, with all five Sixers starters scoring in double digits. The Raptors simply didn’t have any adjustments in the tank for anything Philly was doing on Thursday, and they paid the price with going down 2-1 in the series.
The Raptors have the individual talent to be in any game against nearly any opponent, but at some point, there has to be something more than that. There has to be a way that the gameplan creates something, whether that’s a defense that can counter the Sixers’ adjustments, or an offensive wrinkle to open up holes in the Philly defense, and there has been nothing thus far in the series from Nick Nurse. With game four on Sunday and the risk of returning home down 3-1 in the series very real, it’s time for Nurse to earn his reputation for creativity and bring some answers, and put the pressure on Brett Brown and the Sixers to have some answers of their own.
Otherwise, the Raptors are left with just the hope that Kawhi Leonard can be enough, that his historic playoff run can find yet another gear to carry the Raptors forward, and that his teammates can somehow bring their individual talent in line with his. That shouldn’t be the ask, but without a better gameplan, that’s all the Raptors are left with.