3-2 – Let’s put a bow on this thing tonight
Here’s the Eastern Conference Finals schedule scenarios pic.twitter.com/jlDCve5Jpm
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) May 9, 2019
Part of it comes with the territory of running into a two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner. The majority of Simmons’ game is predicated on bullying smaller players, but Leonard is the freaking Terminator. Simmons can’t push Leonard on the block, isn’t skilled enough to dribble past without being stripped, falls short of the size needed to shoot over top, is unable to out-jump Leonard for rebounds, and lacks the shooting range to hit from anywhere outside of the paint.
Simmons has matched up with Leonard on 184 possessions through five games. For his efforts, Simmons scored a grand total of 25 points, and recorded 10 assists against eight turnovers. To put that into perspective, Leonard has 86 points in 195 possessions going the other way against Simmons.
Granted, the two players hold entirely different roles. Leonard is a go-to scorer, whereas Simmons is … well it’s not clear exactly what he is. He is a point guard by trade, but his contribution to playmaking starts and ends with bringing the ball up and being the trigger man as other players come around screens. In terms of who’s actually creating offense, that title belongs instead to Jimmy Butler, who leads the Sixers in assists. Butler was conspicuously absent in Game 1, but has come back strong over the last four games to assert ownership of the team.
Butler’s emergence, however, has come at the expense of Simmons. In order to preserve spacing, Simmons spends most of the game parking and praying in the dunker spot for a loose ball to bounce his way. But this only plays into the Raptors’ hands, as it both allows Leonard to conserve his energy, while also putting Leonard in prime position to break up plays in the paint with his 12-inch claws. The only threat Simmons poses is that someone needs to box him out if Leonard does rotate over, but the Raptors aren’t exactly sweating his six total second-chance points.
Lowry and Gasol just can’t help but try to help others
Lowry has 33 points on 22 field-goal attempts over the last two games, with aggressive starts in both games that at least nudged Philadelphia’s mindset a little bit away from stopping Leonard at all costs. After taking 13 shots in Game 4, a badly needed development, Gasol was content to take just six, stepping back into a facilitator role.
No matter how many shots they take in any given game, there are going to be certain situations in which they don’t shoot that just drive you crazy.
Early in the third quarter, Lowry eschewed a wide-open 3-pointer from the elbow to pass it across the court to Green, also on the elbow. The decision was defensible, given Green’s success on the night, but it was a risky pass when Lowry already had a very good shot available to him.
Gasol’s hesitance was even more comical. He swung a pass with vigour immediately upon touching it in the second quarter, not noticing, or caring, that he was wide open. Pascal Siakam ended up saving the possession with a tough hook shot, but Gasol definitely passed up the best look available on that possession.
Later on, Gasol was open at the top of the key again, and he appeared to have no interest in shooting. It is only when Embiid made absolutely zero effort to get out to him that Gasol relented, taking and making the shot.
This stuff is fun in a romp. However, there have already been two close games in this series, and the Raptors have made things unnecessarily difficult on Leonard a few times. The Raptors still have a lot of work to do on this front.
To put it another way: Against average competition, Embiid rivals Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden as the most prolific scorer in basketball in terms of points per 100 possessions. But when he’s guarded by Gasol, he essentially turns into Dewayne Dedmon.
At 7 feet tall and 250 pounds, Embiid can usually bully smaller defenders and tactically position himself in the post. But Gasol is too big to be pushed around, and it’s forcing Embiid out of his sweet spots. Throughout the series, Gasol has refused to cede ground to Embiid, denying the entry pass into the post and forcing Embiid to catch the ball outside of the paint. During the regular season, Embiid averaged 7.4 touches in the paint per game. Against Gasol and Toronto in the playoffs, Embiid is averaging just 4.2 touches in the paint per game.
Another factor contributing to Embiid’s lack of paint touches is the crowd that’s been forming right around the basket. Fellow Sixer Ben Simmons can’t shoot outside of 10 feet and so positions himself near the rim, which brings his defender to effectively provide help defense when Embiid is in the post. That’s a problem especially when the help defender is Kawhi Leonard, the player who has guarded Simmons most of the series.
To make up for his lack of paint touches, Embiid has had to rely on his jump shot to generate points. But that’s not his strong suit. In the regular season, Embiid shot 34 percent on jumpers. In this series, he’s just 10 for 37 (27 percent) on those shots. Gasol is forcing Embiid to do what he does least well, and it’s working to the Raptors’ advantage.
The fact that Gasol has given Embiid trouble shouldn’t be all that surprising. Even at 34 years old, Gasol can still play like the defensive player of the year he once was. Just ask Nikola Vucevic: Gasol neutralized the All-Star center during the Raptors’ first-round series against the Magic. Vucevic scored just 17 points per 100 possessions when Gasol was the primary defender — a far cry from Vucevic’s season average of 32 points per 100 possessions.
When Gasol was brought to Toronto in a midseason trade, it was reasonable to wonder whether the big Spaniard had enough in the tank to make a difference on a contending team. Those doubts have been put to rest, in part because Gasol has chiseled out a perfect role for himself. In Toronto, Gasol doesn’t need to anchor a defense while also serving as a primary scorer, like he was forced to do in Memphis. Instead, he’s able to focus on what he does best, which is lock down the opposing team’s best big man.
Gasol might have a new address, but nothing has changed.
Through five games, Gasol has been the primary defender on Embiid for an average of 40.2 possessions per game and has rendered the fringe MVP candidate a shadow of himself. With Gasol guarding him, Embiid is shooting just 34.3 per cent from the floor, converting just 12-of-35 field goal attempts, per NBA.com. Minus Embiid’s big outing in Game 3, it’s even an even more grim 7-of-23.
NBA.com features a measure called “deterrence factor,” where 100 is average, higher is less deterrence and lower indicates the defender is offering more deterrence. Gasol’s deterrence factor against Embiid is 66.4.
It’s the second straight series Gasol has helped erase an all-star big man. Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic is likely still having nightmares of Gasol belly-bumping him off his preferred spots and having to either throw up a shot he’s uncomfortable with or get off the ball altogether.
“Just like any great player, you try to make everything as uncomfortable as possible, be as physical as they allow you,” was all Gasol would give away before the series began. “Same kind of mindset that we had with Nic.”
Gasol refuses to give up deep-post position to Embiid, wrestles with him for every potential offensive rebound and uses his length and quick hands to harass Embiid when he faces up.
“You gotta give credit to Marc Gasol. He was the Defensive Player of the Year [2012-13] for a reason,” 76ers head Brett Brown said of Toronto’s defence in Game 1. “I gotta help (Embiid) more. I think getting him into the post different ways, and freeing him up a little bit more than we did is something that I have to look at.”
This is about as determined of a response as anyone could have hoped for after Lowry vowed to be more assertive in the wake of the Raptors falling behind in this series, two games to one. Lowry had a miserable night in Game 3, finishing minus-28 with only seven points on 2-of-10 shooting, including 0-of-4 from distance. But in the two games since he’s been threatening from the jump.
“I think it’s really important for Kyle,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “We talked about this early in the season — we needed more help from more guys.”
Trying to get Lowry more involved is, of course, not a new dilemma for Nurse. He remembers stressing over the difficulty of generating good looks for Lowry during his days as an assistant coach on Raptors teams of the past. That was when Toronto’s offence flowed through Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — full stop. It was prior to Toronto’s offence becoming so much more dynamic, so much more versatile, due to the additions of Leonard, Danny Green, and Marc Gasol, plus the breakout of Pascal Siakam.
“We were trying like heck to get [Lowry] shots and we couldn’t find him. They were loading up so much to him and blitzing him and doing all kinds of things,” Nurse said. “It’s a little bit different team right now.”
Now, with so many other weapons on the floor, Lowry’s opportunities are bound to be there. He just has to take them. And over the last two games, he hasn’t hesitated. But as Nurse has spent the last 24 hours pondering how he’ll counter Philadelphia’s anticipated attempt to throw the first punch under desperate circumstances in Thursday’s Game 6, he’s also thought about how the 76ers will endeavour to do the same with Lowry.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve got a plan to try to limit his shots at the start tomorrow. They haven’t really had a plan to limit his shooting,” Nurse said. “We’ve needed him to take the opportunities that were there a little bit more. I think he’s done a great job of stretching out their defence. I don’t just mean taking perimeter shots. He’s taking the ball from one side of the floor to the other. He’s taking it vertically downhill and keeping his dribble alive. He’s just being more aggressive, you know?”
The Sixers, with the pressure of elimination bearing down on them, might need a tricky thing to throw at the Raptors in order to shake things up and force a Game 7. That will be up to Brett Brown and his coaching staff. In turn, it will then be whether or not Nurse can counter before the Game 6 clock runs out on Thursday night.
If a shocking change is coming from Brown, he isn’t showing his hand much. Why would he? That would eliminate the element of surprise. Instead, he reiterated what he has said after each loss with a hint at change.
Nurse is expecting a fast-paced, high-energy start from the Sixers, with a lot of Ben Simmons in transition and a lot of plays run for JJ Redick, two guys who, if they get going early, can change the tone of the game. Keeping those two from getting into any sort of rhythm is high on the Raptors’ priority list.
“Embiid tries to get off early and has big nights when he does,” Nurse said. “But I think the big thing is to try to take away transition and try to limit second shots. If we can do that, they’ve gotta play against our half-court and they only get one crack at it.”
So, if the Sixers make any changes that are significant, this series could boil down to the better game plan and what the coaches present their teams.
If the Sixers want to prolong their season and survive to fight another day, they will need to get going early and disrupt the Raptors’ defense. Anything remotely resembling the Sixers’ 125-89 Game 5 loss just won’t do.
NOT ALL ABOUT OFFENCE
Fred VanVleet had scored four points in four games coming into last night’s Game 5 of the Raptors-Sixers Eastern Conference semifinal.
Ben Simmons, who starts for Philadelphia, was averaging 10 over the first four games.
Both are being scrutinized for a lack of offence in this series and rightly so.
But mention impact to Nick Nurse about either players and he shakes his head like they can’t believe this would even be a question.
“Definitely,” Nurse said when asked if VanVleet can still have an impact. “He is impacting it. I know he isn’t scoring, making any shots, and his minutes have gotten cut down a little bit. But he still made a strip of the ball the other day and threw it out to Pascal (Siakam) for a runaway dunk, and things like that, that’s impacting the game. He’s still doing a good job on (JJ) Redick when he’s in there.
“I always say, those guys (bench guys), first and foremost we want them to impact it on the defensive end with their hustle players and with executing our coverages and being in sync with our connection on team defence.”
VanVleet isn’t impervious to outside influences, but a man who has built his game and his character on betting on himself isn’t about to lose confidence over a few bad shooting games.
“Not mine,” VanVleet said when asked if his confidence had been shaken at all. “I think the leash got short there for a second. It’s like that. I understand that. For better and for worse, mine doesn’t really change. It allowed me to turn it around. It allowed me to stay level-headed and focus be locked in.”
Kyle Lowry set the tone for the Raptors in Game 5, drilling a three pointer to open the scoring while staying aggressive all night long. As Toronto travels to Philly looking to close out the series, NBA on TSN analyst Leo Rautins joins Rod Black to discuss Lowry’s offensive resurgence and the Raps’ smothering defence.
KAWHI LEONARD, RAPTORS
Round one of the postseason belonged to Kevin Durant, but the full body of work thus far tilts in Kawhi’s favor. Toronto’s gamble has paid off in full as Leonard goes full Terminator on the Eastern Conference, averaging 32.3 points and 7.7 assists per game this postseason. Leonard’s efficiency numbers are even more impressive. He’s shooting 58.7% from the field and an insane 50% from three, including a 5-7 mark from deep in Game 4. Leonard can get to any spot he wants. He’s a master of the midrange, creating separation without Durant’s extreme height advantage. And don’t think the two-time defensive player of the year has lost an edge on the other end of the floor, either. The Raptors could lose to Philadelphia in the East semis and lose Leonard just over a month later, but his brilliance this postseason makes the move worthwhile nonetheless. — Michael Shapiro
When Ibaka is in solid form, the Raptors are so much better
Through three games, Ibaka was not the Ibaka we had seen for much of the regular season. He wasn’t shooting well, he wasn’t rebounding the way we had come to expect. And his minutes were down, which might have been the problem all along. But in Game 4, Nurse tapped him for a full 32 minutes, and the Ibaka of old was back. The decision to play Ibaka alongside Gasol was done primarily to address the beating the Raptors were taking in the rebounding department. He responded with a personal series-high nine rebounds. He shot a little better, too, if you ignored the three-point misses that were by a large margin.
By Game 5, which he had to leave temporarily when Kawhi Leonard caught him on the forehead with an elbow and opened him up for three stitches, the full Ibaka was back carving out space in the paint with force. While the rebounds weren’t there for him personally, his teammates had an easier time getting to them, with Ibaka making life hell for the Sixers’ bigs. The Gasol/Ibaka duo wasn’t that good in limited minutes in the regular season, but it has been a series-saver against a very big Sixers team.
You can count VanVleet out, but he’s not going to stop
For much of this series, VanVleet has been mired in basketball hell. For four games, one of the smartest individuals in the Raptors locker room could not only not make a shot, he couldn’t even get one off. Philadelphia’s size was such a factor that any offensive contribution at all was viewed as unlikely, bordering on never.
In Game 5, VanVleet not only got back to a more comfortable role as both scorer and distributor, making his first three on his first shot of the game, but was back on the positive side of the plus-minus ledger. It’s not the first time VanVleet has persevered against long odds — and it won’t be the last.
Maybe the best thing about VanVleet is that he possesses a unique combination of unwavering confidence and a disarming level of self-deprecation. And that’s how he handled that first made shot in seemingly forever.
He could probably hear the fans’ groans or sighs and felt their trepidation when he lined the shot up. He most certainly heard the thunderous applause — part relief, mostly admiration — when the ball finally went in.
“It was loud,” he said. “It was as if I hadn’t made a shot in three years. It felt good to see one go down. I missed a couple after that, but whatever. It is what it is. We won.
“At this point of the year, I’m not concerned with numbers. Obviously they’re pretty ugly right now. The only one that matters right now is 3-2.”
The reality is that all series long, no matter his shooting stats, VanVleet’s been doing what he does — even if it was in shorter runs when Nurse super-sized Toronto’s rotation, starting with Game 4. VanVleet’s not going to mope. He’s going to figure out what needs to be done and try to do it.
“I’ll tell you what else: He called a couple really good plays,” Nurse said in assessing VanVleet’s Game 5. “Way down at the other end … and Fred called a play and we ended up getting a roll-basket dunk on it. Those are the kinds of leadership things and IQ things that he also brings.”
VanVleet’s refreshingly realistic look at himself and his role and his play is a strong personality trait, and allows him to concentrate on what he’s doing rather than what he’s not doing. It’s admirable and it’s logical. He fully admits that missing a ton of shots sucks, but — as former Raptors coach Dwane Casey would say — there are other ways to skin a cat.
Kawhi Leonard is tearing up the NBA. The Raptors’ starting lineup features four players who didn’t start a year ago. Marc Gasol at centre instead of Valanciunas or, earlier this season, Serge Ibaka. Danny Green at shooting guard. Pascal Siakam, who grabbed the starting spot from Anunoby and may never give it back. Anunoby went in one direction in his second season, Siakam became near all-star in his third.
The scoring options when Nurse was hired were (1) DeRozan; (2) Lowry; (3) Valanciunas. That’s what he signed up for. Now it’s (1) Leonard; (2) Siakam; (3) fill in the blanks from night to night, from Lowry to Green to Ibaka and, if Gasol ever considered shooting more, he would be in that mix, too.
Now here is Nurse, one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals. Five wins away — if that’s possible — from the NBA championship round. And how do you learn about coaches in almost any sport? What do they do in the playoffs? How do they prepare their teams? How do they adjust? How do they work their rotations and their matchups?
The Raptors were blitzed in Game 3 by the Philadelphia 76ers and their performance was grim and their prospects dimmed even more so when Siakam was hurt. Nurse shrunk his bench, played size against size in the series, put the ball in Leonard’s giant hands, and altered his lineup, playing Gasol and Ibaka together, instead of apart.
Nurse made the right adjustments. It was the Sixers beaten in Game 4, blown out in Game 5. Now the tough part comes, closing out any series — on the road.
The education of Nick Nurse grows with each passing playoff day. This wasn’t what he signed up for last June, but this is better and faster than he might have imagined.
Now, after all those years coaching in outposts nobody paid attention to, he’s building his own reputation. And fast.
Kawhi Leonard had a quiet Tuesday, at least by his herculean standards, during last night’s Game 5 against the Sixers: just a double-double, pouring in a cool 21 points and 13 rebounds. It didn’t matter much on the court, with the Raptors’ supporting cast stepping up to demolish Philadelphia 125-89. And it certainly didn’t matter off the court, where before the game even started, Kawhi officially sold out the very first drop of his very first signature sneaker.
After debuting his New Balance OMN1S at February’s All-Star Game to mostly positive reviews, Leonard has continued wearing the kicks in an ever-expanding array of clean colorways: there was a Jurassic Park tribute, a Nipsey Hussle tribute, an icy triple white version. New Balance proved these shoes could look good, and Kawhi keeps proving—with his obscene playoff performances—that they’re up to snuff on the hardwood. The only questions left were when the OMN1S would officially drop—and if anyone would care enough to buy them. We got both answers last night.
On Monday, New Balance announced they’d be dropping a limited-edition “Kawhi 2-Way Pack”—featuring the OMN1S ($140) and the classic 997 running silhouette ($130) in colorways supposedly designed by Leonard himself—on Tuesday at 7PM EST, ahead of the OMN1S’s wide release later this fall. Just 24 hours later, both sneakers sold out in less than a minute on New Balance’s Canadian webstore; they did the same on the American version about half an hour later.
2. Kawhi Leonard: less is more
Kawhi Leonard has been tasked to provide superhuman production in the series, averaging 38.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game on 61.8 percent shooting prior to Game 5. He may have had his most inefficient shooting night on Tuesday (43.8 percent), but his impact on the game still made him superhuman.
It’s no secret that the Sixers do not have an answer for Leonard. Ben Simmons did his best to contain him as the bigger and athletically matched defender, but even he had his limitations. Leonard is so good at reading what the defenses give him, and finds space to maneuver to either get a good shot from anywhere on the floor or find the open shooter. In Game 5, Leonard had a couple shots go in-and-out from the bucket, showing signs of mortality, but the Sixers weren’t going to allow him to get it going. Instead they chose to challenge Leonard with several help defensive schemes.
By double- or triple-teaming Leonard, there was usually a Toronto shooter ready and open for a good look. Throughout the series, the team has struggled hitting open looks, but Tuesday night was a different story. Every starter except for Leonard made two from deep, with Green leading the way making 5-of-7. Leonard had four assists on the night, and each of those went to an open shooter from deep.
Leonard was active defensively, gobbling up team-high 13 rebounds and pushing the ball forward to either an open runner or himself to make a play. Let’s not forget to mention two unbelievable posterizing dunks on the best defenders the Sixers have to offer:
Even though it was his lowest-scoring game of the series, Leonard impacted multiple facets of the game. His teammates stepped up, hitting shots at an efficient rate, while Leonard provided his usual superstar production on both ends of the court. This Toronto Raptors team is starting to show its true colors.
Kawhi got some help
From Games 1 through 4, it was very clear that Kawhi Leonard was carrying the Raptors on both ends of the floor, and he was not getting much help from his fellow teammates. According to a tweet by Josh Lewenberg of TSN, the Raptors in Games 1-4 without Kawhi Leonard on the floor were a -34 in 32 minutes.
The lack of production from the team besides Kawhi was a major factor as to why they lost Game 3 as the Sixers just focused on Kawhi. However, in Game 5 we finally saw the Raptors come to life as for the first time this series all five starters scored in double-digits and the Raptors without Kawhi Leonard on the floor were +16 in 12 minutes.
Two of the key contributors for the Raptors were Danny Green and Marc Gasol whom which have had relatively quite series so far. In Game 5 we saw the re-emergence of Danny Green who after having a great regular season has struggled to find his footing during this series. Green had 17 points and shot 5-7 from 3-point range, and was instrumental for the Raptors to close the game out late in the third quarter.
Along with Green, we saw Marc Gasol continue his strong performance in Game 4 and scored 11 points and played exceptional defense on Joel Embiid holding him to just 13 points and forcing eight turnovers.
Overall, the Raptors put on a great all-around team performance that led them to impressively dismantling the Sixers.
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