2-2 – Kawhi for PM
Six – Gutsy: Pascal Siakam winced and grimaced his way through pre-game stretches, but he eventually decided to gut it out with his bruised right calf. Siakam was far from his best – he only shot 2-of-10 – but on a night where the Raptors just needed bodies, Siakam’s 28 minutes were massive. Siakam’s activity on defense was commendable, as he often found himself chasing JJ Redick on the perimeter, but the budding star was persistent and stuck with the tough assignment.
It’s unclear if this game will be remembered any kind of way down the line. Should this series go to seven games and the winner go on to challenge for the championship, it stands to reason that a slobber-knocker like this one could find its way to the ESPN Classics discussion. It was just a Game 4 of the second round and it wasn’t the prettiest of affairs, but it’s about as close a high-stakes basketball game as can be played.
In a blowout game, leverage is clustered toward the start. Once a team is up by 20 points, what follows matters a lot less, unless the opposing team can begin to cobble together a comeback. In a tighter game, though, the leverage is tilted heavily toward the end. It’s not to say that the plays don’t matter in real-time earlier in the game, but when everything is within a possession or two, the lack of separation limits the effect until much later, with each blow doing as much to keep the game close, or even decide it. Later in the game, though, the leverage becomes ratcheted up. As time and possessions become scarce, every swing that feels small with 24 or 36 minutes to go seems incredibly large. As the fourth quarter rolled on, the Raptors and 76ers were trading possessions that were swinging the odds of the game by upwards of 20 percent. It’s enough that Fangraphs probably could have named their Leverage Index the Anxiety Index.
That all set the stage for the shot. It’s no exaggeration to put it in the conversation as one of the biggest shots in Raptors history. The Raptors ahead by one with the seconds ticking toward the one-minute mark in the fourth quarter, Leonard received a Marc Gasol screen, drew a switch onto Embiid and stepped back into a 3-point attempt. It fell, Kyle Lowry’s arms shot up, asses left seats on the Raptors bench and the Raptors’ chance of winning the game jumped by 22.4 percent.
What’s surprising is that this actually wasn’t Toronto’s tightest playoff game of this postseason, by at least one metric. The D.J. Augustin Game in Round 1 was slightly closer despite Orlando at one point opening up a 16-point lead. InPredictable uses a metric called “tension” that measures how tight a game was based on how much of it was spent with the win probability close to 50-50, and Sunday’s game was the fourth-most tense game of these playoffs so far.
And the difference between Sunday’s win and getting blown out in Game 3 was that the Raptors were defending, and he had help. With Leonard sitting for the first two minutes of the fourth quarter — the stretch that all but lost Game 3 — Kyle Lowry hit a clever left-handed bank shot runner over the massive Joel Embiid, and Marc Gasol hit an in-between jumper from Lowry over Embiid again.
On a night where Pascal Siakam played through a contused calf and couldn’t make anything that wasn’t a dunk, Lowry and Gasol delivered enough offence. Serge Ibaka, too. Leonard only had eight of Toronto’s 26 fourth-quarter points; only six Raptors scored at all. They needed everything.
And midway through the fourth quarter the Raptors had already clawed back from three or four moments when the Sixers were pushing, and the crowd was ready to explode. Kawhi had missed two of his three free throws, committed a pair of turnovers, delivered big open shots to Gasol and Ibaka. The game was in the balance. He had stumbled, just a bit.
Kawhi hit a pull-up jumper, up four. Missed one from the same spot. Drew and hit a pair of free throws. Toronto was up one point with just over a minute left, and Leonard had the ball, and the shot clock was running out. The place was thundering. De-fence! De-fence!
And Leonard drove to his right around a Gasol screen, glanced at the clock, glanced at Embiid — who was sick again, and only impactful defensively, but is still seven feet of Embiid — and launched a balanced, fading, in-rhythm three that splashed. The crowd shrieked, then fell silent. That was the game. Very few people take that shot. A bare few make it. He is averaging a preposterous 38 points while making a preposterous 62 per cent of his shots in the series.
“I just took a shot and believed it would go in, and it did,” said Leonard, in his gravel monotone. He talked about similar shots through the season that he left short, like one against Houston, so he told himself, get it high, to the back rim. Simple. Like math.
“It’s Kobe,” Raptors guard Norm Powell said. “That man is Kobe. He’s a superstar, man. He gets after it. He doesn’t care who’s in front of him, he knows what he’s worth, he knows what he can do … superstars in the league, Kevin Durant, James Harden, he’s up with those guys.”
Asked what he thought as the ball went up, Powell said again, “Kobe. It’s good. That’s what I was saying after he made that. Even when he went up, side-step fadeaway, nothing but net, that’s Kobe right there. He was confident in it. You don’t see him rushed, you see him look up at the clock before it, he created space, he let it fly.”
Everyone dug deep, except for Leonard, who played like he always does – like an advancing tank battalion. He scored 39 points on 20 shots (pause and let that math sink in for a moment) while grabbing 14 rebounds. He is now averaging 38 points on 62-per-cent shooting for the series. He’s in Michael Jordan and LeBron James territory and it can’t be taken for granted.
Fittingly in a game that would have looked perfectly in place in the Eastern Conference of the 80s or 90s, when paint battles were fierce and the wood considered an additional defender, Leonard found one moment for some game-defining artistry. With the shot clock winding down and the Raptors scrapping and clawing to hang on to a one-point lead with 61 seconds to play, he calmly strung out a double-team before rising to knock down a deep, fading triple over Sixers centre Joel Embiid to put the Raptors up by four.
For the first time in the afternoon, the crowd was silenced. What could they say?
Meanwhile the voice inside Leonard’s head was a calm as you might expect.
“I came off the pick-and-roll and they tried to stagger us,” he said. “[Embiid] is a good defender, really long. At the time I looked up at the shot clock and tried to create as much space as possible. I just took a shot and believed it would go in, and it did.”
Even in that moment he was calculating and cool in the chaos. You need to be if you’re working on a live physics equation with 20,000 people roaring your ear:
“There were times in the past, playing in the regular season, I had times when I took those shots and they came up short,” he said. “So I guess I was thinking as well at the time to make sure I put it up high and get to the back rim, and that’s what I did … I had a shot like that versus Houston. At that time I was thinking, as well, try to get it to the back rim too and it still came up short. So just remembering moments like that, and practicing, and telling myself ‘try and get it to the back rim.’”
Back rim and down.
Some clutch free-throw shooting by Danny Green and the dagger was in and twisted, as the Raptors’ 101-96 win allowed them to head home with their second-round best-of-seven series tied 2-2 with Game 5 scheduled for Tuesday night.
It was a taut game. The Raptors led by as much as 11 early in the first quarter but only by three at the end of it and by three again at half. It was tied 75-75 heading into the fourth. The game had the feel of two rats wrestling in a sack.
Don’t turn it into something it was not, though: The Raptors’ bricked far too many open 3-pointers, although the 76ers seemed to match them. Whether it’s a flaw of his teammates, the strategy or Leonard himself, the burden he carried was high. That was true on defence, too, as Nurse switched defensive assignments on Jimmy Butler, putting Leonard on him instead of Green, midway through the third quarter. When Leonard switched off that matchup on one late possession, Nurse was hopping mad. Literally, he turned his back to the play and hopped in frustration.
You can understand Nurse’s reaction. Butler had just 10 of his 29 points in the game’s final 18 minutes; two of those came after the game was decided, three of them came on a banked-in 3-pointer as the shot clock wound down. If Leonard did not turn off the faucet, he certainly helped slow it to a drip.
To be sure, the theme was clearer on offence. There were possessions that amounted to Lowry, so assertive early in the game, practically walking the ball over to Leonard to get it into his hands. In between Games 3 and 4, the Raptors talked about how they cannot simply watch Leonard work when he’s thriving, but that was precisely how Sunday played out, with the Raptors playing harder and the 76ers cooperating with more missed shots.
“I think he’s just been smarter and also picking and choosing his moments,” Green said. “We want him to be aggressive, he needs to be aggressive for us. When he’s in a groove, sometimes it’s a gift and a curse, because the ball moves probably a little less. When he’s scoring, we need that. The difference for him is picking and choosing and finding guys when he’s in his groove. He’s still getting 40, but he’s pushing the pace, finding guys, drawing fouls and making the right play. Even though he had some turnovers, he’s still making the right plays.”
While his late-game shot will linger, Leonard rescued the Raptors another time in Game 4, too. At the end of the frame, the 76ers had pushed their lead up to four. Fred VanVleet, whose nightmare playoffs continued, and Ibaka were both on the floor, which has meant bad things for the Raptors all series long.
Leonard went on to hit a 3-pointer, set up Gasol for a dunk and put himself in front of Embiid after he caught the ball on the pick-and-roll, saving two sure points.
It is the shot that will live on, however.
In a game that started as a defensive struggle, Leonard paced the Raptors with 17 points and 10 rebounds in the first half. The Sixers sent multiple bodies at Leonard when he attacked off teammates’ screens or invaded the paint from the top of the floor. Yet Leonard routinely was able to rise over defenders to hit outside shots or draw contact and earn a trip to the foul line, where he converted eight of 12 attempts.
“The stuff that he can get off — and we had two people out there — the stuff that he can do to create his own shot is Kobe-like,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said.
On the defensive end, Leonard applied heavy ball pressure on Sixers point guard Ben Simmons, his primary defensive assignment to begin the game, and roved as an active help defender when Simmons gave up the ball.
Midway through the third quarter, Leonard, a two-time winner of the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, was moved onto Sixers guard Jimmy Butler, who has led Philadelphia offensively for much of the series. After 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the floor to that point, Butler converted only two of seven field goal attempts with a turnover the rest of the game.
After hemorrhaging 116 points in 95 possessions to Philadelphia in Game 3, the Raptors restored their sturdy defense in Game 4, limiting the Sixers to an effective field goal percentage of only 47.6.
The Raptors relied heavily in the closing moments on a steady diet of pick-and-rolls featuring Leonard as the ball handler. With Toronto center Marc Gasol as his regular screener, Leonard was able to navigate the gaps in the Philadelphia defense and find sufficient space for his shot.
“He’s been doing that for a long time now in the league,” Butler said. “He’s done that every game this series, so I don’t know what else you can do.”
In a series dependent on game-to-game adjustments, Toronto coach Nick Nurse had suggested that his small lineup, which includes Lowry (6-foot-1) and reserve guards Fred VanVleet (6-0) and Norman Powell (6-4), could disappear. They were no match for the bigger Sixers lineups.
Nurse also said the Raptors could opt to play Leonard more than his series average of 38.9 minutes in the first three games and that they could opt to put 6-7 guard Patrick McCaw in the rotation.
Well, they did all three. Lowry and VanVleet weren’t on the floor at the same time. The Raptors actually had a lineup that featured Gasol (7-1), Ibaka (6-10), and Siakam (6-9).
McCaw was in the rotation even though that proved to be a failed move. So he only played 4 minutes, 49 seconds, all in the first half. And Leonard played 42:49.
But the biggest adjustment was having four of his five starters on the floor to start the fourth quarter. The Sixers have been opening the final quarter with at least four starters.
Meanwhile, the Raptors began the fourth quarters with Gasol, Lowry, Siakam and reserves VanVleet and Powell. The Sixers took advantage, opening up sizable leads at the start of the quarter in the past two games.
Siakam knotted the score at 81 on a dunk 13 seconds later. The Sixers were doomed by making just 5 of 21 shots (23.8 percent) and making just 8 of 12 foul shots in the fourth quarter. Harris missed all six of his field goals — including five three-pointers — in the final 12 minutes.
However, Leonard delivered what turned out to be the dagger, hitting a three-pointer for a 94-90 Raptors lead with 1:01 to play. Leonard came off a pick-and-roll while remaining aggressive on the play. Embiid switched onto him.
“Embiid is a good defender, long,” Leonard said. “So, at the time, I just looked up at the shot clock and tried to get as much space as possible and just took a shot and believed that it was going to go in, and it did.”
It ended in disappoint. The Sixers were close all game, even holding the lead for considerable periods of time. But Toronto kept hammering away, and Kawhi Leonard delivered the blows. He nabbed 39 points and 14 rebounds, continuing his all-time performance in this series. He was good enough to overlook the seven turnovers.
The Sixers are defending Leonard well, with Ben Simmons and — to a lesser extent — Jimmy Butler and James Ennis getting in his airspace and forcing contested looks. It just hasn’t mattered. He’s too good. As Brett Brown put it, he’s Kobe Bryant-esque.
Leonard has covered Toronto’s warts all series, making up ground lost by the Raptors’ dreadful supporting cast. On Sunday, however, the supporting cast showed up, with Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka all chipping in.
Even with Leonard on his rampage, Philadelphia had enough in the tank to make it competitive until the very end. The Sixers were down just two at halftime and were within one point until around the one-minute mark, when Leonard hit a step-back dagger from beyond the arc.
The Sixers were unable to cover the gap late and fell by five. It was heartbreaking, yet still encouraging to some degree. The Sixers were again competitive despite Kawhi’s onslaught. It would lead one to believe they aren’t quite out of the series yet.
Embiid clearly wasn’t 100 percent. He had a particularly rough stretch in the fourth quarter. During one stretch, he made just 1 of 4 from the line — though in his defense he’s been excellent from there in the playoffs — and committed two bad turnovers with the game still well within the Sixers’ grasp.
Even if Embiid doesn’t feel like the same dominant player he was for most of the season, the Sixers need him to take more than seven shots. Even a decent offensive effort out of Embiid and they likely win.
“It sucks,” Embiid said. “But you gotta focus on the right things if you’re in that type of situation. I usually tend to focus defensively, especially when I go into games where I don’t think I’m going to be as aggressive as usual. Gotta focus on the defensive end and that’s what I tried to do.”
Embiid said this wasn’t the same illness he dealt with in Toronto. That was just his stomach and now he’s experiencing “headaches and all that.” The team is calling it an upper respiratory infection. Like before Game 2, he received more IVs.
For what he lacked on the offensive end, Embiid was still excellent defensively. He had two vicious blocks on Serge Ibaka and affected several more shots at the rim. He still wound up a plus-17.
Any Joel Embiid is better than no Joel Embiid.
“He just forced his way into playing,” Brown said. “Really when you look at it, he was plus-17. We’re going to look at whatever he shot from the floor, his free throws or whatever, cut to the chase and go to the bottom line and plus/minus and despite him being ill and despite seven shots or what he shot at the free throw line, and really his free throws were quite good up until the fourth period, he ends up a plus-17. It’s just another reminder of how important he is to our team.”
And nothing is more important than Embiid’s health.
In all facets of the game, Kawhi was excellent, getting his points on 13-for-20 shooting and 5-for-7 from deep. He had seven turnovers and was errant with a few float passes, but otherwise worked to get teammates involved and kept the Raptors ticking through new lineups and the series’ grimiest game yet. Both sides were throwing elbows throughout, as the defences locked down the paint and dared the other to beat them from outside. Given the final three point percentages were 32.3% for Toronto and 31.6% for Philly, the difference was yet again — Kawhi Leonard.
Or… maybe it’s not that simple. Since having their butts handed to them in Game 3, all the Raptors could talk about was offering Leonard help. While they didn’t get it from depth in Game 4, they got enough from three key players.
Lowry was one, once again playing well after being slighted in the narrative of the series. He had five early points, including an increasingly rare transition pull-up three — the ultimate sign of Lowry’s confidence — on his way to 14 points, seven assists, and six rebounds. Marc Gasol also had a better afternoon confidence-wise, knocking down two threes to help get to 16 points. He still left a few looks out there, both inside and out, but ultimately his defence more than made up for any tentativeness.
On the other side, it was another rough outing for Joel Embiid. Fresh off every taunt imaginable in Game 3, Gasol and the Raptors once again made Embiid look human in Game 4 — limiting his interior touches and packing the paint. The big man would finish with just 11 points and eight rebounds. Jimmy Butler would pick up the slack for the 76ers again, though, finishing with 29 points and 11 rebounds.
Josh Lewenberg joins Kate Beirness to breakdown Kawhi Leonard’s clutch three-pointer late in the fourth quarter and to talk about Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka’s performance in Game 4.
He kept Gasol at centre and moved Serge Ibaka to power forward — his natural position. Ibaka was like a sleeping giant come to life, outscoring the Philadelphia bench by himself and blocking shots at the most opportune of times on defence.
All this happening with Nurse coaching the game of his rookie season, maybe his life, shrinking his lineup, playing bigs versus bigs, spacing the floor better than he had before, finding a way to combat the enormity of the Sixers’ starting lineup.
And now the series is tied. And now home-court advantage belongs back to the Raptors. And now the playoff road that was so full of roadblocks a day ago seems somewhat clear.
Like most great playoff series, no two games have looked alike here.
The Raptors won easily in Game 1, played sloppily and still almost won Game 2 before getting exploited and blown away in Game 3. And now Game 4, a 101-96 win that was a one-possession affair heading into the final minute, a game either team could have won.
But Leonard, with 39 points and 14 rebounds, wouldn’t let that happen.
“We just thought it was a different mentality tonight than it was the other night, right?” said Nurse. “We had some funky lineups out there at times. I don’t know, I just liked the way those guys were playing. I didn’t want any of them to come off the floor. And the way Serge was impacting, I wanted him on … It just felt good.”
And what he saw in Game 4 was what went missing in Game 3, when these were the old Raptors, even with so many new players. They were the old story. Just not as of Sunday.
“It was a gutty performance,” said Nurse. “And that’s what we needed regardless of who was out there or not. It even becomes a bit more gutty when, (though) you’re not down a guy, but he (Siakam) obviously wasn’t himself.”
Leonard didn’t exactly smile after the game. That’s not what he does. But he did answer questions with full sentence returns.
Nik Stauskas talks about how Kawhi Leonard embodies winning time, explaining that it is as simple as getting him the ball and getting out of his way. Stauskas also discusses Joel Embiid struggling in Game 4 and an impressive effort from Serge Ibaka off the bench.
Embiid was a main culprit as the game slipped away, going 0-for-2 from the floor and 3-for-6 from the line with two turnovers and four fouls in the fourth quarter.
Toronto went big, playing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka together at times, and both players responded with their best games of the series for Toronto. Gasol had 16 points and five boards; Ibaka contributed 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks off the bench.
When asked about the Raptors’ lineup adjustments on Embiid, Sixers guard Ben Simmons was matter-of-fact.
“He’s got to be ready and expecting that,” Simmons said. “Obviously, he’s a little sick today. That plays into it, too.”
The Sixers were outscored 38-34 in the paint by the Raptors. Philadelphia’s 17-for-37 (46 percent) conversion rate on shots in the paint was its worst showing this postseason and fifth-worst all season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The series moves to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday — and potentially Game 7 on Sunday — as it becomes a best-of-three affair, with both teams having proven they can win on the opponent’s home floor.
“Still have an amazing opportunity to go for the Eastern Conference championship and then get to the [NBA] Finals, so we’re looking forward to it,” Simmons said.
The Sixers are also anticipating a return to form from Embiid.
After Game 3 Kyle Lowry stood in front of reporters and explained that he had to play better. Nik Stauskas talks about how Lowry was a different player in Game 4 by making winning plays.
After barely using Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka together in the season, he ran them out at the same time Sunday for about 25 minutes.
With his bench not offering any production, he went without the group, or at least didn’t play them together. Nurse introduced Patrick McCaw to the series in the first half and then rode his horses in the second.
And with concerns that the Raptors were too small for the Sixers, Nurse trotted out Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol at the same time, for the first time ever.
He was willing to try something, anything, to salvage the most promising season the Raptors have ever had.
Nurse’s machinations — and the sublime play of Kawhi Leonard, who had 39 points — led the Raptors to a 101-96 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers here Sunday that puts them back in control of the best-of-seven NBA Eastern Conference semifinal.
Given all that’s expected of this team, given all the pressure to win bigger than any Toronto team has because of the talent combined with future question marks and the realities of life in the East right now, Nurse’s willingness to experiment and adapt was never more necessary.
To go down 3-1 in the series would have been disastrous; reducing this series to a best-of-three affair with two games at home turns the narrative around. This is now Toronto’s series to take.
And it is in large part because Nurse went off the charts with his frontcourt rotation.
The TSN Raptors panel discuss the adjustments made by Nick Nurse in Game 4 and talk about what Toronto did differently on Joel Embiid.
In a delightful, physical, close-all-way display of NBA playoff basketball, Toronto rallied in the fourth quarter to beat the Philadelphia 76ers 101-96 Sunday afternoon.
The win reduces the Eastern Conference semifinal to a best-of-three affair with Game 5 at the Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday and Game 6 here on Thursday night. A seventh game, if necessary, would be next Sunday in Toronto.
Kawhi Leonard was once again brilliant for the Raptors, scoring 39 points with 14 assists and playing almost 44 of the game’s 48 minutes.
Jimmy Butler scored 29 for Philadelphia.
A Leonard three-pointer to beat the shot clock with less than a minute left gave the Raptors a four-point lead and, when Tobias Harris missed a corner three for Philadelphia, Danny Green made two free throws for a six-point lead that iced the game.
While this may be new for Toronto, Leonard has been dismantling opponents with robotic precision for years. It’s why he was worth the gamble the Raptors took this summer.
Among players with at least 1,000 career playoff minutes, Leonard trails only LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Chris Paul, Walt Frazier, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley in career playoff box plus-minus. Each of those players is either in the Hall of Fame or has at least a 99.99 percent probability of getting in.
This postseason alone, Leonard’s box plus-minus is 11.4. It’s the third time he’s had a postseason run with a double-digit box plus-minus. The only players with more? LeBron James (10), Michael Jordan (seven) and Chris Paul (four).
We’re watching one of the greatest playoff performers in NBA history, and every contested jumper he sinks adds to the growing resume. On Sunday, he hit a bevy of them. Butler, Embiid, Ben Simmons. It didn’t seem to matter who was on him. He was giving everyone buckets, pouring them in with his patented lack of emotion.
The one departure? When he had the gall to throw a waist-high fist pump after he hit the dagger three over Embiid.
It was the exclamation point on Kawhi’s series-tying performance. And make no mistake, Leonard is the reason Toronto has two wins. The Raptors are getting obliterated when he’s off the floor, as pointed out by NBA.com’s Micah Adams:
The raw plus-minus in this series alone is pretty staggering, too. Toronto is plus-26 in the 160 minutes Kawhi has played. It’s minus-34 in the 32 minutes he’s rested. Philadelphia is up only eight points in the aggregate over these four games.
Whenever Kawhi is on the floor, the 76ers are in trouble.