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Pre-game news and notes: the closeout game

Another day, another potential closeout game. The last time the Toronto Raptors had the ability to close out an opponent, they opened the game on a 19-2 run, and the Orlando Magic were finished before the majority of seats in the Scotiabank Arena were filled. I asked Nick Nurse if that same level of focus was transferable.

“It would be really cool if we could do that again,” said Nurse, before falling into the script about how every game and every series is different.

The Raptors have not lost focus. They are a team on a mission, and that mission is far broader in scope than the second round of the playoffs. Win here, and Toronto equals the furthest it has ever gone in the NBA playoffs.

The Raps finally broke out against the Philadelphia 76ers in game five. Their shooting exploded back to the norm, and they connected on 16s. Their defense was the spiritual embodiment of those killer robot dogs from Black Mirror. Philly was overmatched in every way, and Toronto’s 125-89 victory was the largest playoff margin in franchise history.

How does Philadelphia respond? Aside from promising Drake that he would be back, how can Joel Embiid actually improve his team’s play? Well, the Sixers need to start with turnovers. If they stop throwing the ball to Toronto (and stop letting Kawhi Leonard just take the ball whenever he feels like it), that would limit Toronto’s transition game, which has been increasingly excellent over the series. Pascal Siakam finally broke out in game five, and it’s clear that Toronto thrives when they run. Nurse went so far as to call those transition buckets the most important part of Toronto’s offense after the game.

Philadelphia also has to start hitting their shots. Toronto is cheating far away from Philly’s iffy shooters, treating them like total non-threats to send extra bodies at the ball. Ben Simmons and Embiid need to find ways to make themselves useful. If Embiid leads the team in 3-point attempts again, Toronto will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Otherwise, Philadelphia could be out of tricks. They’ve fired their Embiid-on-Siakam bullet. They used their Jimmy-Butler-as-point-guard weapon. Nurse was asked yesterday about whether he has seen all the adjustments that Brett Brown could offer, and he admitted that really all that was left is flipping plays onto the other side of the floor, or slight rotation tweaks. These teams have seen each other, at this point. If it were a chess game, it would be in the endgame. The only tricks left are sacrificing a pawn for a positional advantage; there aren’t any big guns left on the board.

Anthony Doyle has an excellent back-and-forth with Matt del Rio of Liberty Ballers in his gameday post for game six. You can read it here.

Toronto Injury Updates

Pascal Siakam (right calf contusion) is playing. He won’t be fully healthy, but he improved dramatically in game five. His lateral movement is affected, and you could see his deceleration was also limited, as he missed a number of contested layups around the rim he usually converts. He was still a huge plus. Nurse says Siakam’s minutes would be limited in game five, but they really weren’t. No more 15 straight minutes, but expect him to still play into the mid-to-high 30s if necessary. Chris Boucher (back spasms) is out, as is OG Anunoby (appendectomy). Jeremy Lin (back spasms) is available, but it would be shocking if he factored into the game.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin

SG: Danny Green, Patrick McCaw, Jodie Meeks

SF: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller

PF: Pascal Siakam

C:  Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Eric Moreland

Philadelphia Injury Updates

Joel Embiid is still dealing with an upper respiratory infection, even though he’s not listed on the injury report. This is a different illness from his affliction in game two, and it affected him heavily in games four and five. He’s officially playing, and word from Brett Brown is that Embiid looks much better today than he had over the past few.

PG: Ben Simmons, TJ McConnell

SG: JJ Redick, James Ennis, Furkan Korkmaz

SF: Jimmy Butler, Jonathon Simmons

PF: Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, Jonah Bolden

C: Joel Embiid, Greg Monroe, Boban Marjanovic, Amir Johnson

Rotation notes

  • The starters have carried the Raptors for so long that I’d forgotten it could be any other way. In game five, the starters led the Raptors in minutes, with 15, but finished with only the third-highest plus-minus among Raptors rotations, at +3. It was a great sight to see other lineups perform well.
    • With Gasol matched to Embiid, rotations with neither of Gasol nor Embiid were great for Toronto. The starters with Ibaka in Gasol’s place led Toronto in plus-minus, winning their 8 minutes by 17 points.
    • The two-center lineups were once again fantastic. They finished +7 in almost 14 minutes played. The ultra-giant lineup, with Siakam-Ibaka-Gasol all together was practically unguardable. They finished +10 in 5 minutes. Philadelphia has almost no way to successfully guard all three of those players at the same time. There will be mismatches, and Toronto did an excellent job exploiting those mismatches either to create open triples or  to get Siakam or Ibaka attacking smaller players.

Assorted

  • Fred VanVleet bounced back in a big way. His defense was fantastic, and he hit an open triple. The crowd exploded after his made shot, which he noticed. He said this in the locker room after the game.
    • You heard it. It was loud. 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.”
    • He also had plenty to say in general about his play:
      • I could sit here and tell you how I’m a team player and I’m locked in and I’m playing great defence. But I know what it is. I feel it just like you guys see it. Staying engaged and staying locked in is the easy part. To be upset with yourself and to be disappointed is part of the game. It’s part of being a human being. I’m not a robot. I go out there and go through the highs and lows just like anybody else. But it’s being able to navigate through that and still bring the non-negotiables to the table, which is the defence, the leadership, the energy, foul a couple guys a couple times. The rest of that stuff will balance itself out I think. A lot of it is just the rotation and the minutes and the looks and the offence. I’m caught up in all of it. But it’ll turn around.”
    • Nick Nurse, meanwhile, stood up for his backup point guards after the game. “He’s got some special qualities,” said Nurse. “I don’t want to go into a game like this without a guy like Fred.”
    • VanVleet finished fame five with a very modest five points and one assist. But his impact went far beyond his numbers. After hitting his open triple, it was clear that his step regained much of its lost pep. He finished a +11 in 16 minutes played in the beatdown.
  • Kawhi Leonard finally came back down to earth. He shot only 7-for-16 and missed all four of his attempted triples. He missed some of the midrange pull-ups that have been seemed automatic in the first four games of the series. Leonard remained Toronto’s best player. He led the team with 13 rebounds. He didn’t turn the ball over once. Defensively, he was an absolute terror. In 39 possessions against the Sixers’ non-Ben Simmons wings, Tobias Harris attempted only one shot. Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick, Mike Scott, and James Ennis attempted none combined. Dudes just don’t shoot when Leonard defends them. In 32 possessions with Leonard against Simmons, Simmons shot 2-for-4 with 3 turnovers.
    • Leonard really dialed down his defense in the regular season, but it has been monstrous in the playoffs. He is still Toronto’s best defender, and you can put him on practically anybody and expect that person to be a complete non-factor in the game. That will be tested next series.
  • Zach Zarba, John Goble, and Tom Washington are the refs in this one.

The Line

Raptors are favoured once again, at -2.5, despite the game being in Philly. The over-under is 212.5.

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