After Toronto picked up the huge win at home in game 5, they head to Philadelphia on Thursday with the opportunity to finish the series and move onto the Eastern Conference Finals where the Milwaukee Bucks await after finishing their series on Wednesday. The Raptors seemed to find all the answers to the issues that had plagued them earlier in the series in game 5 and came away with the largest playoff victory in franchise history, with six players scoring in double digits for the team.
In order to preview this game, I reached out to Matt del Rio of Liberty Ballers to help breakdown what happened in game 5 and how to expect that to impact the next game in the series.
1. Game five was an outlier, at least in terms of this series. From a Raptors perspective, they hit the open shots Philly has been giving up all series and that allowed them the space to win that game, and that’ll be the big thing the Raptors will look to carry forward from that game to game 6 in Philly. Is that something the Sixers will look to adjust for, or should they treat that as an outlier and remain committed to the advantages that leaving those shooters space gave them earlier in the series?
The Sixers are in a bit of a quandary. A key reason they’ve been able to remain competitive the majority of the series is because outside of Leonard, the Raptors have shot inconsistently from three. That was not the case in Game 5. Lowry, Green, Siakam and Gasol combined to shoot 12-of-24 from distance. In the first four games of the series, they combined to shoot 20-of-73. As you said, the Sixers (and Joel Embiid specifically) have chosen to leave shooters open in order to send doubles, help on drives and crash the defensive glass. If the Raptors’ hot shooting carries into Game 6, the Sixers will be in serious trouble.
Embiid is at his best helping on drives and providing interior resistance, so I understand the decision to play him back and leave Siakam and Gasol open beyond the arc (especially considering his limited mobility at the moment). Siakam, in particular, looked discombobulated by the strategy early in the series, and hesitated on a number of open looks. But if Siakam and/or Gasol find their rhythm early in Game 6, the Sixers should look to adjust. They simply cannot survive another three-point barrage. I’d expect Toronto’s shooting to regress a bit after a scorching Game 5 performance, but the Sixers will need to have a backup plan if it doesn’t.
2. The big adjustment Nick Nurse has made in this series, both metaphorically and literally, was putting Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol on the floor together for stretches. Those big lineups, sometimes with Pascal Siakam at the three, seem to have been effective and have helped stem the tide where the Raptors bench lineups were getting beat. Is there a Sixers adjustment they can make to try to expose those lineups, and is that something you’d expect them to address for Thursday?
That two-man lineup was particularly effective in Game 5. In the fourteen minutes they played together, the Raptors had a defensive rating of 78.6, which was the third best rating of any two-man lineup that logged that many minutes. The Raptors controlled the boards when Gasol and Ibaka were on the floor, too, corralling 100% of the potential defensive rebounds and 61.5% of the total rebounds. Because Toronto chose to go big more often, the Sixers saw their offensive rebounding numbers plummet. In the first four games of the series, they averaged 10.5 offensive rebounds. Tuesday night, they only managed to pull in five. Their presence also frustrated Embiid, who struggled to make quick reads when Ibaka doubled him in the paint. Embiid has responded to double teams well this postseason, but it was noticeable how much their size and length bothered him.
One adjustment I’d like the Sixers to make in Game 6 is force both Ibaka and Gasol to defend in space. In Game 3, Embiid found success as a roll man, especially against Gasol. The seven-foot-one Spaniard is a staunch interior defender, but struggles when he’s forced to defend the pick-and-roll. Taking either of Toronto’s bigs off the dribble could also be a recipe for success, especially if they’re tasked with defending Butler on switches.
3. At this point it feels like the two teams know each other pretty well, and there’s at least a little bit of animosity in the series between a few different players. Joel Embiid generally seems to thrive in those environments, but the health issues have limited him in this series. Feels like it’s reasonable to expect a big game 6 from him if his health allows it. How concerned are you that those issues will still limit him, and do you consider the Raptors defensive efforts against him a real impediment to him having that breakout?
Embiid’s health concerns me a great deal. He was sluggish on both ends of the floor for large portions of Game 5, which severely limited his impact. When he did close out on shooters, he was a step slow and offered little resistance in altering the shot. He also struggled to attack off the dribble, leading to a number of forced shots and live ball turnovers. Credit Toronto with their defensive composure, but a healthier version of Embiid is near impossible to stop, especially when he’s acting decisively (as we saw in Game 3).
That said, I expect we’ll see a much better Embiid in Game 6. He was visibly frustrated during Tuesday night’s game, and I cannot imagine a repeat performance. Embiid feeds off the Philly crowd, which should give him a major boost (even if his health doesn’t improve considerably). The Sixers will probably look to get him going early in the first quarter so that he can develop a rhythm and gain some confidence. He needs to attack decisively and make smarter decisions with the ball.
4. JJ Redick has been critical to Philly’s offense in this series and has been having a really good series at that end of the floor, but Toronto seemed committed to attacking him in game 5 and found some success doing so. The Sixers can always move the matchups around a little bit, with their flexibility defensively, to account for that, but doing so might give Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam a little bit more space to work and that carries risk. How much do you worry about Redick defensively, versus the offensive boost he gives the Sixers?
As has been the case all season, Redick’s value lies in his shot-making. When he is hitting his threes and playing adequate defense (which he’s done for the most part this postseason), he is a difference maker. When he struggles from deep and fails to offer much resistance on the other end, his value plummets. Luckily for the Sixers, Redick did a good job chasing Joe Harris around in the Brooklyn series, and has done an adequate job defending Danny Green this series. However, as you saw last night, he becomes a major liability when his shot isn’t falling and Toronto attacks him off the dribble.
Still, the Sixers need his floor spacing. The attention he commands opens up driving lanes for Butler, Harris and Simmons. His dribble hand-offs with Embiid, although less effective this series, are a staple in Philadelphia’s offense. If the Sixers are able to find success running those sets in Game 6, they’ll be in a good spot. As I said earlier, Toronto’s bigs have struggled at times to defend a rolling Embiid. Dribble hand-offs could unlock that part of his game and force the defense to account for Redick beyond the arc. I expect Redick will shoot better in Game 6 in front of the home crowd. If he does, his defensive limitations won’t be as glaring.
5. The Sixers finally held Kawhi Leonard in check a little bit in game 5. The defense on him has felt solid throughout the series, but he just made the shots despite that in every game up until Tuesday. Does Ben Simmons get the lions share of the credit for what happened in that game with his shooting, or was it simply variance, and is it something that you think could carry over?
I assumed Kawhi would eventually have a sub-par shooting night, at least by his standards. In the first four games of the series, he shot 61.8% from the field (that is not a typo). Despite the Sixers’ best efforts, he made virtually every tough shot — midrange fadeaways, deep triples, contested layups, etc. He was a scoring machine. Tuesday night, he finally came back down to Earth, shooting only 7-of-16 from the floor. Unfortunately for the Sixers, his teammates shot the lights out.
Simmons has defended Leonard about as well as you could ask him to. His size and length have bothered Leonard at times, and have forced him into difficult looks. Simmons has also done a good job fighting around screens and staying attached to the Toronto forward. As a result, the Sixers haven’t needed to switch as often. Tuesday night, however, I thought their help defense played a key role in slowing down Leonard. In the first half, the Sixers sent help when he drove baseline, which forced him into a passing role. Leonard is a capable facilitator, and has done a decent job finding open teammates, but the Sixers will live with those results. Leonard likely won’t have another substandard shooting performance, but the Sixers can at least force him into uncomfortable positions with well-timed doubles.
6. Finally, with the series on the line, let’s talk predictions. I think I’d give the Raptors a slight edge to end the series in Philadelphia on Thursday, but I obviously have some bias here. How confident do you feel coming home for this game, and if it goes to a game 7 what are your expectations for the rest of the series?
I think it all depends on how Embiid looks. The Sixers were able to win Game 2 despite a poor offensive performance from their big man, but I don’t think they can stop a rejuvenated Toronto team if he struggles again. They don’t need an all-time performance from Embiid, just a solid one. That said, Simmons will also need to play better if Philly has any plans of forcing a Game 7. The second-year All-Star has been a non-factor offensively (at least as a scorer), in large part due to Leonard’s exceptional defense. Still, he had opportunities to score around the basket in Game 5, but failed to connect on a few pointblank layup attempts. If he is able to cut effectively off-ball, set good screens, and finish around the rim, it will provide a major boost for a Sixers team that desperately needs more from him on the offensive end.
If both Embiid and Simmons perform well, I like the Sixers’ chances in Game 6. They’ll be invigorated by a lively home crowd and playing for their postseason lives. If they force a Game 7, all bets are off, though I think the Raptors would have a notable advantage playing at home. I know one thing, though: Game 7’s have a tendency to be unpredictable. This series has been unpredictable, too, so I’m just going to sit back and enjoy it.
TV: ESPN/TSN1/TSN3/TSN4/TSN5 | Tipoff: 8:00 EST –
Raptors are 2 point favourites. O/U – 213
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