Morning Coffee – Wed, Apr 20

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Cover Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Joel Embiid is reminding the Raptors how much easier things are when you have a superstar – The Athletic

In the short term, the answer might be increasing Siakam’s usage, which is at 25.6 percent, a tenth of a percentage below his regular-season mark. He is a player who likes to distribute the ball as well as score, but with so much harping on the officiating, it is probably wise to nudge that usage up with the possibility of narrowing the free-throw deficit the Raptors are in a little. Also, keep in mind Siakam might have played the best game of his career two weeks back against these same 76ers, putting up a 37-point triple-double with the highest usage of his season.

That game was played without VanVleet and Anunoby. It was clear that night that the 76ers had one person who could slow down Siakam — Embiid. However, that left other areas of the floor to exploit, dragging Philadelphia’s rim protector out of the paint. Credit to the 76ers and especially Tobias Harris, who has held Siakam to 13 points over nearly 60 defensive possessions guarding him in this series, with the Raptors scoring only 53 points in those possessions. However, Siakam was much more effective going up against Harris in the regular season in a larger sample — again, with less offensive help — and there is no reason to think that should dramatically change now. It is a well to revisit.

For the long term, though, it shows the importance in developing Scottie Barnes as more than the player he is now, someone who can contribute in a number of ways but is not yet an A-level performer in any single area. It’s understandable why the Raptors have developed Barnes as they have at this point, and he will be a more fulsome player for it, ultimately. However, so long as Siakam and VanVleet are high-level contributors, they need to create as many offensive hubs as possible, because neither of them are quite at the level that they can shape a playoff game to their will. Anunoby is a hugely valuable player, but if Barnes is still figuring out how to be an offensive focal point in the manner that his older teammate is by his fifth season, something will have gone wrong with his development.

To be clear, Barnes is way ahead of where Anunoby was in his first year; Anunoby had a usage of 12.4 percent in his rookie season, while Barnes was at 19 percent. Anunoby basically stood in the corner and waited for the ball to come to him, while Barnes’ weapons go way beyond that (and frankly, generally exclude that, which is another area to work on). Given Barnes’ advanced passing and tremendous size, working on prioritizing ballhandling skills to make him a more central figure in the Raptors offence feels necessary. He shot 71.5 percent at the rim this year and a respectable 49.8 percent from 3-10 feet, so his physical tools should allow him to go off if teams play him to pass. Saying that, he needs the skill development to be able to responsibly and consistently put himself into those positions.

There is time for that, although threading the needle to make the start of Barnes’ prime align with Siakam’s and VanVleet’s primes might be tricky. Even three years ago, Embiid was not this much of a problem. He was not the sun that outshone everything in its orbit. If you kept him out of the deep paint, you had a chance to make him inefficient. Now, that is just the start of the work.

Things are just so much easier if you have that sort of force as a starting point. In the interim, we’ll see if the Raptors can nudge Siakam in that direction, with help on the way in the intermediate future.

Now more than ever, the Raptors need every edge their playoff homecoming can offer – Sportsnet

This was not how the series was supposed to go. Some of the Raptors’ optimism going into the match-up between the East’s fourth- and fifth-seeded teams was that they had, over the years, shown a game plan that had at least limited Embiid’s effectiveness.

Even this season the Raptors had held Embiid to a fairly pedestrian 46.7 per cent from the floor, including keeping him to 16-of-42 in two starts against the Raptors alongside James Harden, both losses.

But defending Embiid without fouling was a problem (he took 37 free throws in three games against Toronto) and continues to be, as he’s been on the line 25 times in the two playoff starts.

Finding the balance between the swarming harassment from multiple defenders the Raptors hope can limit Embiid and begin forcing him into turnovers, while not fouling isn’t easy. Toronto also believes the refereeing hasn’t made it any easier – hence Nurse’s harping pre-game on Embiid getting away with uncalled elbows and slaps.

Nurse’s comments came to Embiid’s attention, and if anything, he promised to double down on his aggressiveness, telling the Raptors head coach just that in a brief fourth-quarter exchange caught on camera.

“He’s a great coach. Obviously, I get, what he’s been able to accomplish and always been a big fan. But, I told him, respectfully, I told him to stop b—-ing about calls,” said Embiid. “… I mean, if you’re going to triple-team somebody all game, you know they are bound to get to the free-throw line, or if you’re going to push them off and you know try to hold them off and all that stuff, they’re bound and get to the free-throw line.

“…To me, this is where it gets interesting for me, because I’m like, ‘Well, cool, I’m gonna come back with more power… if you go with the physical, I’m gonna come back with more power and make you foul me and make it more obvious and see if the refs don’t want to call it.”

But of even greater concern has been what has happened when Embiid has gone to the bench in the first two games. That could mark a quick end to the series if the Raptors don’t come up with a solution.

In theory, James Harden was brought to the Sixers, in part, to carry Philadelphia in the moments when Embiid sat — and he’s certainly contributed — but mainly in a supporting role to Tyrese Maxey, who has been electric.

Harden has looked the part of veteran role player, rather than game-changing star. If the Raptors were offered a scenario where Harden was averaging a modest — for him — 18 points and 10 rebounds on 34.6 per cent shooting over the first two games of the series, they likely would have leaped at it.

But Maxey has more than filled the gap, thriving in the open spaces created by the attention Harden requires. The 21-year-old is averaging 30.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and five assists over the first two games while shooting 68.8 per cent from the floor. The Sixers are using him as a screener on Harden, a relatively new wrinkle, and it has allowed Philadelphia to make sure that one of their dynamic guards is going against their preferred match-up — and the results have been tough to ignore.

NBA Playoffs 2022: The Toronto Raptors are learning how tough life is without Kyle Lowry – Raptors HQ

One of the things that makes Lowry great is his gamesmanship involving the referees. Lowry would talk to the refs the whole game to keep them honest, and he will make sure that the Raptors are in a position to get a make-up call more often than not. Perhaps VanVleet is doing that, but the two leaders need to keep the conversation going with the officials the whole game, and put pressure on them to all an even game. A 30-8 free throw advantage in Game 2? Yeah, that ain’t it. You can’t help but imagine Lowry working the refs real hard on making Game 3, at least, a fairly officiated game.

Perhaps Lowry’s most important trait as a leader in his later years with the Raptors was his understanding of what the team needed from him on any given night. We have seen this in the championship run and in the Bubble. The team would need to make stops; he was there to make it happen. The team would need him to score and carry the team; he’ll do it. The team would need him to change the momentum — whether it’s a big shot, an assist, a defensive stop, a hard foul, or taking charge — he’ll make it or die trying.

Lowry’s tenure exemplified the team’s identity — the scrapping, fighting, finding a way to give themselves a chance to win late in the game. Lowry believed in the group and gave his stamp of approval during his lone visit to Toronto.

The team is not talented enough for these two to play “just OK” statistically. We need to see more from Siakam — both offensively and defensively, not just the usual 20/10. Not a quiet 20/10. Otherwise, we’re looking at Raptor Chris Bosh-playoff-type performance where he gets his numbers, but the team won’t be in a position to win for the most part.

VanVleet also needs to do better. He can’t always be going for the home run, and if there’s one thing that we learned from Lowry, getting a high-percentage look — feeding the hot hand or getting a layup or a floater — is better than launching another three-point attempt just to keep the scoring momentum going. VanVleet’s Game Two start was excellent, but his role as a game manager is sometimes what the team needs from him, just like what he showed us in the fourth quarter.

VanVleet and Siakam need to carry on that legacy and channel their “Inner Kyle Lowry.” We need more from the two to elevate their game and the team, no matter what it takes. It doesn’t matter who’s not playing. If they are in doubt in-game, they should ask themselves, “what would Lowry do?”

What Raptors need to climb back vs. Sixers in NBA playoffs | The Star

Whether they can solve their own issues or the problems presented by Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers cannot really be foretold. But know this: They accept responsibility for the mess they’ve made of the first two games of their best-of-seven NBA playoff series and are looking inward to discover the necessary adjustments that will allow them to get back in the series when it resumes at the Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday night.

“At this point of the season, you got to be playing at a really high level to keep winning and beat some of these teams and that’s what it takes in the playoffs,” guard Fred VanVleet said after Monday’s Game 2 loss in Philadelphia.

“So we’ll see if we can ramp it up a little bit more, clean up (some things). Got to play a little smarter. We play hard enough, I think, in a lot of areas, but got to play harder still and play way smarter.”

It probably is that simple. The Raptors need to get more, from more players, more often. But whether that’s realistic, given the limitations of the roster right now, is debatable.

Scottie Barnes is in a walking boot and despite his optimistic assertion that he could return “maybe soon,” it’s unlikely he will. Gary Trent Jr. has been felled by some illness that he has been fighting for more than a week and having him back at 100 per cent by Wednesday is a big ask.

So, with that decimated roster, what do the Raptors need to do?

They have to defend better — the Sixers have shredded them in the first half of two straight games, rendering the final two quarters almost inconsequential — and they have to hope that some of the blistering-hot Sixers like Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey cool off on the road. That’s not impossible but it will take a bit more defensive discipline than the Raptors have shown.

They need to force Joel Embiid to speed up and become turnover-prone, something they have had success with in the past, but they also have to keep tabs on the other Sixers scorers. “There’s a lot of scheming for him obviously,” Nurse said. “I think there’s the same for (James) Harden. There’s the same for Maxey and then there’s game plans all over the place for them personnel wise. But … we’re doing a lot of things on Embiid for sure. He’s getting used to seeing some of them.”

Toronto Raptors’ OG Anunoby, right, tries to get past Philadelphia 76ers’ Georges Niang during the second half of Game 2 of their first-round playoff series Monday. Anunoby had 16 of his 26 points in the second half and was dominant at times despite the loss.

Offensively, they need someone to come up with a performance for the ages. They need VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby to meet or exceed their own expectations and get production from a secondary source like, say, Chris Boucher or Precious Achiuwa. With a cut-back roster, an out-of-the-blue big night will help immeasurably.

“We need OG, Pascal, Freddie, but we also need Gary’s points and Scottie’s points and those guys shifting in off the bench,” Nurse said. “We’ve got our eight, nine guys who are going to play; well, they got to play. They got to contribute.”

Raptors’ OG Anunoby picking up some of that scoring slack | Toronto Sun

Without Scottie Barnes in Game 2 and without Gary Trent Jr. for most of the first two games, the Raptors have been looking to Anunoby and Chris Boucher far more than they have for most of the season.

Anunoby is actually the Raptors’ leading scorer in the series, following up a 20-point Game 1 with a team-high 26 in Game 2.

Anunoby might have had this role whether the Raptors had been down bodies or not, but his boost in touches and plays run for him took a sharp upturn in Game 2 coinciding with Barnes’ absence.

“He was good,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of Anunoby in Game 2. “And especially in the second half. He really had it going and it was, you know, something we haven’t seen for a long, long time where we got him in a rhythm and a run and tried to get him back to some of his sets, running some of his stuff that we haven’t run for a couple months.

“And again, I think conditioning- and rhythm-wise he’s still (getting) there,” Nurse said. “Should have helped him tonight and we need it because, again, I thought Pascal (Siakam) had a lot of good looks and just had one of those tough nights where it rolled off on him a lot. And obviously Freddy (VanVleet) started off, you know, on fire and continued I thought to get a bunch of good looks there especially in the first half and just wasn’t fortunate to kind of keep that rolling. And so we’re going to need them, you know, we need to make those open ones. They’re making their open ones. You know, I mean, I looked at one time I think they had eight different guys that have three, Right? That’s pretty good. We need some of that.”

Anunoby can give the Raptors that. He has three games under his belt and that full week of playoff prep since he returned to the lineup following a thigh bruise. Before that it was a lengthy absence with a broken finger.

Anunoby says nothing changes for him, whether he’s getting the touches or not.

“Every game I just try to be aggressive, so, ball finds me I try to be aggressive and make the right play,” he said.

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