In the Toronto Raptors run for the 2019 NBA title, the moment most synonymous with the championship occurred in game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It’s as fresh in our minds as the highlights from the matches just played. Four rim bounces that seemed to be happening in slow motion prior to the ball finally dropping through the net and seemingly erasing two decades of angst.
Yet, as these teams take to the court this evening the situation won’t offer the same drama or preoccupation because nothing is at stake, at least not for the Raptors who will play the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the postseason.
The preview on NBA.com states the 76ers are locked in sixth, however, Philly could still finish in fifth.
It would take a perfect mix for the 76ers of winning tonight as well as their final game against the Rockets and hope the Pacers lose to the Rockets and Heat in their final two matches. Any variance in that dynamic and Philly will play Boston.
Subsequently, the game plans take on an entirely different focus with the priority clearly being to keep the core healthy. Much like the Raptors rested a trio of stars in the match versus the Bucks, they are likely to follow suit in this contest although it could be a different group who sits.
Figuring out which core players Nick Nurse or Brett Brown will rest feels like an exercise in futility — so let’s just assume minute distribution for this game will heavily feature the reserve units.
The Raptors can do no worse than a tie in the season series up 2-1 through the three previous matches played. Lowry and Serge Ibaka missed the November 25th win (101-96). Embiid was out in the Raptors January 22nd (107-95) victory and Philly’s Josh Richardson was out in the lone Raptors loss (104-110) on December 8th.
Aside from keeping the core in rhythm and healthy there are specific items Nick Nurse will have on his checklist. The defense is humming along just fine averaging 99.5 per 100 possessions through the six bubble games. To put in perspective how much better the Raptors are performing on the defensive side of the hardwood, the closest team to them is the Thunder with a 106.0 average.
The offense is another story with the Raptors 103.2 per 100 possession only ranking ahead of the Lakers (103.0). In fairness, Toronto has played the first (Bucks), third (Lakers), and fourth (Celtics) defenses and the Grizzlies rank fifth since the All-Star Break. And while the Heat doesn’t reach the top 10 defensive groups, Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler are two of the best defenders in the association.
Although Nurse no doubt would like to witness Pascal Siakam‘s offense be more efficient the fact he hit big shots in the clutch to win two bubble games might suggest he’s simply letting the game and rhythm progress organically. Norman Powell broke out versus the Bucks shooting 7 of 13 from the field and nailing 4 of 5 from deep.
- Lakers: 15 – 50 (-35)
- Heat: 22 – 56 (-30)
- Magic: 40 – 46 (-6)
- Celtics: 56 – 47 (+9)
- Grizzlies: 37 – 47 (-10)
- Bucks: 62 – 54 (+8)
The positive spin on this is the Raptors bench is improving and with extra shots coming up through the next two games they’ll have more opportunity to shake off the rust.
In his postgame presser, Nick Nurse noted the growth of Matt Thomas specifically.
“Matt looked to be doing more than catching and shooting, he’s worked on this little separation move to the right, he’s working inside the line a little bit, he’s making plays and passes. — I believe in both of them (Boucher and Thomas). – – That’s two games in a row where Matt’s been a) a spark plug in a game that really mattered and then really, really good tonight.”
The minutes the reserves get through these last two games are important although Nurse was quick to point out the rotation is primarily set at seven or eight (Ibaka, Powell being the set players).
“Well, I don’t want to get too carried away, because we haven’t really used the bench very much. A couple guys played well tonight in a game that was absolutely meaningless and a team that wasn’t playing very hard against us. —The rotation stays at seven- eight.— we can use these guys as sparks.”
That means the eighth player off the bench will be more a factor of matchups and trust. Patrick McCaw, a Nurse favorite, won’t be available which means one of Terence Davis or Matt Thomas will be the primary guard/wing options while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Chris Boucher will be the forwards/big options.
The irony of Boucher and Thomas’ career nights versus the Bucks is it feels like (my observation) Nurse was hoping RHJ or Davis would be the eighth/ninth guy. That’s reflected in the minutes per game on the season with McCaw, RHJ, Davis, Boucher, Thomas ranking eighth through 12th in minutes per game.
One area Toronto cleaned up was turnovers with a more Raptors-like rate of 13 compared to the 19 they were coughing up prior.
Brett Brown emulated many of the same thoughts in his pre-game presser stating these games would determine who he could utilize in their series versus the Celtics or Heat.
One Philly player we can expect to get a healthy dose of tonight is Glenn Robinson III who Brown spoke at length about and was someone they really liked prior to losing him to a hip flexor injury. In fact, the 76ers reserve wing and forwards will likely be the players who get the most minutes in this outing given Brown’s comments.
That’s the irony of this match — although it’s the Raptors and 76ers the game plans will feature specific items each squad wants to work on to use against the Nets and Celtics/Heat respectively.
To that end, in the bubble, the Nets take the third-most 3-pointers, are fifth for makes but rank 13th for efficiency. The 76ers don’t attempt nearly as many. In the Tuesday matches Philly shot 33 deep balls compared to the 43 the Nets hoisted against the Magic. As a side note, Justin Anderson who began the season with the Raptors 905 attempted 12 and missed them all.
Other keys Nurse may attempt to tweak in preparation for the Nests are transition defense and slowing the pace. The Nets take the fourth most shots and rank seventh in pace.
Specific offensive areas the Raptors are lagging behind their pre-COVID marks are second-chance and fast-break scoring as well as points in the paint.
The 76ers will offer an opportunity to bust loose in that regard particularly without defensive stalwart Ben Simmons in the mix — and the fact they allow 117.7 points per game in the bubble.
So, no four bounce wonders in this one, we’ll have to be satiated by everyone getting out of this healthy and maybe a breakout offensive game for all involved.
Of note, the final seeding game on Friday versus the Denver Nuggets is set for a 1:30 tip-off. Here’s Es with the three points:
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET / 3:30 p.m. PT.
Radio: TSN 1050
Venue: HP Field House
Lowry and VanVleet were upgraded to probable while Ibaka (knee contusion) remains listed as questionable. Oshae Brissett (right knee soreness), Patrick McCaw (knee) are both out indefinitely. McCaw (aka the Larry O’B good luck charm) is out of the bubble seeking advice on how to treat the benign mass on the back of his knee.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Terence Davis
SG: Norman Powell, Matt Thomas, Malcolm Miller
SF: OG Anunoby, Paul Watson, Stanley Johnson
PF: Pascal Siakam, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
C: Marc Gasol, Chris Boucher, Dewan Hernandez
GTD: Serge Ibaka
OUT: Patrick McCaw, Oshae Brissett
Ben Simmons underwent surgery to repair his knee while a trio of starters sat out on the front side of the back-to-back and remain listed as questionable on the injury report. Josh Richardson was given a day off for rest but should be back in the lineup tonight.
PG: Shake Milton, Raul Neto
SG: Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, Alec Burks, Furkan Korkmaz, Marial Shayok
SF: Glenn Robinson III, James Ennis, Norvel Pelle
PF: Mike Scott
C: Kyle O’Quinn
GTD: Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid
OUT: Ben Simmons, Zhaire Smith
The Raptors are currently 6.5-point favorites, with the best money line -295 for the Raptors and+240 for the 76ers while the over/under has yet to be set.