Good morning Raptors Republic! I hope everybody enjoyed their one day of bathing in the glory of Kawhi Leonard’s otherworldly performance because now we are back firmly in sphincter-tightening season. Toronto have won back homecourt and are essentially competing in a best of three series now, but that means nothing if they slip up tonight at Scotiabank Arena.
Let’s reflect on what worked Sunday and what needs to happen tonight for the Raptors to gain a stranglehold on the series.
Speed ‘er up
It is no secret that this series, much like the Orlando one that preceded it, is being played at a snail’s pace. Playoff basketball slows down but this is getting ridiculous. The Raptors are currently playing at the second slowest pace of the remaining playoff teams, just ahead of Denver at 95.56. This is a huge dip on their 100.55 pace during the regular season which is dead middle in the league rankings. The sheer size of both Philadelphia and Orlando has lended to their preference of making each game a grind-it-out slugfest. Toronto, on the back of Leonard’s ridiculous shotmaking, has survived in this sluggish environment but it is clear that the rest of the team begins to click once the game opens up.
“We haven’t been in great rhythm over the last few games,” Nick Nurse said after practice on Monday. “That is just how tough it gets to get into your rhythm during the playoffs.”
No Raptor outside of Leonard (and a healthy Pascal Siakam) can consistently create their own shot against the Sixers. Their transition game that was the most efficient in the league during the regular season has wobbled during the playoffs, but it is their best opportunity to get the likes of Danny Green, Kyle Lowry, and Siakam in a flow. Quick, assertive moves were the catalyst that propelled Toronto to their early 22-11 lead during game four.
Increasing the rate of play is a difficult proposition against a squad that has depended on dumping the ball into Joel Embiid on the low block and Jimmy Butler dribbling the ball late into the shot clock only to hit Kawhi-lite level shots. However, it should remain a point of focus and will send the frothing home crowd into a fervour.
Gasol & Ibaka!!!
I could not believe my eyes in the moment. Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol were on the floor at the same time in a must-win game. In theory this matchup against Philadelphia should be the best opportunity to have two traditional big men on the floor, but the painful experiments when Gasol and Ibaka shared the floor together during the regular season made me skeptical at the proposition at best. Well, they were difference makers going +7 together in the 23 minutes they spent on the floor together. The Spanish national teammates spent only 31 damn minutes on the floor together throughout the regular season! I guess it was the ace in the hole Nurse was waiting to pull out at just the right moment. (This is a joke… I think?)
Ibaka’s energy was contagious when he picked up the injured Siakam’s slack. It also benefited him to share time with Gasol as it meant less heavy duty mileage on Embiid, a situation in which he is heavily overmatched. Gasol on the other hand finally showed some of his scoring touch that had betrayed him in recent games. It was smart to unlock Gasol by using him in pick-and-roll actions with Lowry where Gaosl would be a short roller into the paint. It allowed Gasol to pop a few mid-range shots to find his touch and enabled a little bit of breathing room between himself and Embiid who dominates the rim. Allowing Gasol to have a few easier looks from close range instilled him with confidence to start bombing from deep later on.
Expect plenty more of this frontcourt duo. They shored up the rebounding woes that have befell Toronto in this series. In fact, the duo had a 35 per cent offensive rebounding rate when on the floor together, which is dominant. Philadelphia have the highest percentage during the playoffs at 33.2 per cent. Although the Raptors do not want to get stuck in the mud, the Ibaka-Gasol duo has proven to be an appetizing antidote when things get ugly.
The coaching battle
It has been a long time coming, but with his back against the wall Nurse coached a great game on Sunday. We often focus on players adapting to the different pictures they see on the court, however this series has been one of the most interesting matchups from a coaching adjustment standpoint that I have seen in quite some time. Not only are sweeping changes being made from game to game, but also from minute to minute. Each second is so crucial for both teams in every game as they are aware that the wrong lineup for even the briefest of stints (cough, Jodie Meeks, cough) can have a devastating impact. The talent each team possesses does not allow for small slip ups by either coach.
It will be interesting to see which of Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Patrick McCaw, Nurse turns to first. Even the staunchest of VanVleet apologists must now concede that he is unplayable from this point forward. Powell can be a neutral influence when situated amongst a strong lineup, but he has also yet to bring ‘Playoff Norm’ moments. Nurse’s inclusion of McCaw was a ballsy move that paid off. McCaw was only a -1 during his five minutes but at least brought a defensive tenacity that has been void from the bench group thus far. I would think that McCaw will be the player amongst the three that Nurse turns to early, if only to spell Leonard for a handful of possessions. Also, any moment that Philadelphia do not have Butler and Embiid on the floor should be grounds to fire Brett Brown at this point. In the three minutes that Butler and Embiid weren’t on the floor the Sixers were an appalling -9. Talk about fine margins.
Return of KLOE
Aggressive Lowry returned on Sunday. That is how he operates; unabashed and unrelenting from the opening tip. He scored seven of his 14 points in the first quarter along with dishing three assists, spurring the Raptors to their inspired start.
Hot starts have been integral in this series. Whatever team wins the opening quarter has gone on to win the game. When Lowry gets going early, good things happen. His dribble penetration and pick-and-roll game was more measured as he emphasized getting Gasol and Ibaka involved, rather than barreling towards Embiid at the rim. Toronto desperately needs consistency from all of their players not named Kawhi Leonard, and Lowry is the best option to relieve Kawhi from his enormous workload.
TV: Sportsnet | Tipoff: 8:00 EST –
Raptors are 6 point favourites. O/U – 211.5
Pascal Siakam is listed as questionable, but based on Sunday will likely play. OG Anunoby (appendectomy) is out. Chris Boucher is not expected to play.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Norman Powell, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Patrick McCaw, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Eric Moreland
PG: Ben Simmons, TJ McConnell
SG: JJ Redick, James Ennis III, Shake Milton, Zhaire Smith
SF: Jimmy Butler, Furkan Korkmaz, Jonathan Simmons
PF: Tobias Harris, Mike Scott
C: Joel Embiid, Greg Monroe, Boban Marjanovic