It wasn’t supposed to be that easy.
While Toronto was certainly favored to come out of its second round series with Philadelphia, it’s not like any sane person was picking the Raptors to completely run the Sixers off the floor. That probably won’t happen in every game of the series. For now, though, the Raptors are definitively in the driver’s seat after a 108-95 Game 1 win that was nowhere near as close as the Sixers garbage time run might suggest.
A series as comically high on talent as this one is likely going to boil down the performances of the team’s stars. Round one goes to Toronto’s.
There’s a case for Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam being a duo unmatched around the league so far in these playoffs. After a bit of a clunky start saw the Raptors fall down 7-2, it was the pair who have carried the Raptors’ scoring load all year who swung the game irrevocably in Toronto’s favour. Leonard and Siakam quickly combined for a 9-0 run to force Philly into its first timeout, out of which the Raptors continued to stroll into buckets, for like, a really long time.
The Raptors have scored on 10 straight possessions. Kawhi Leonard may never miss another shot.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 27, 2019
Lowry + 1 on the break makes it 12 straight scores for the Raptors.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 27, 2019
14.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 27, 2019
By the end of a euphoric, very non-Game-1-in-Toronto-like first quarter, Leonard and Siakam were sitting on a combined 34 points on 14-of-18 from the field. Philly as a team managed 31 points, going 13-of-22.
The second quarter was kinda gross, as both Nick Nurse and Brett Brown had their rotation patterns tested. Brown’s almost like a hockey coach with his swaps, taking guys out after quick spurts of floor time and leaning on his monster starting unit in unorthodox pockets of the game. Such a bizarre sub pattern presents both teams with stretches in which it becomes paramount to press an advantage. With Marc Gasol having played the opening 9:27 of the first, only about half of which came against Embiid, the dude he was acquired to guard in the playoffs, Ibaka found himself opposite Philly’s post-up machine to open the second frame — a span that proved to be the hairiest the Raptors would encounter all night.
If there is something to be angsty about after Game 1, it’s Nurse’s stubbornness to deviate from the rotation set-up he landed on against Orlando. Ibaka guarding Embiid isn’t a total disaster, but it sure ain’t optimal. With Embiid playing just 30 minutes, hard-matching his minutes with Gasol’s wouldn’t have been impossible, and probably would have been worth shaking up Nurse’s ideal rotation considering how mean Gasol is to Embiid when they play each other.
That said, as the game progressed, Nurse’s commitment to the bit paid off. Ibaka settled in, the Raptors provided ample help, mostly in the form of Kyle Lowry, Lord of Swipes. As Brown, desperate for a run in the late third and early fourth, leaned on his starters for its longest continuous stretch of playing together of the night, Ibaka kept the dam for bursting.
“I think certainly for sure it’s something he’s earned,” said Nurse of why he opted to trust Ibaka despite a rocky start, perhaps giving a bit of a hint as to how he so successfully managed his big man platoon this year.
“He also plays that way a little bit. As the game wears on he always seems to get better and better ... We can’t play Marc the whole game so we gotta get him out there. He was really something down the stretch, blocking shots, and rebounding, and making some hard drives, and he definitely got in the rhythm of the game there in the fourth quarter.”
The game essentially ended when Embiid was forced to sit after that early fourth quarter threat, bringing in Jonah Bolden, who already may have replaced the hulking Boban Marjanovic as the Sixers’ back-up five in this series.
It was a sequence that highlighted what the central struggle in this series will be for Philadelphia: Embiid’s gotta sit at some point, and if he can’t take the game in his hands while he’s on, it’s the Sixers who are likely to end up owned.
Toronto feasted on the goofy mish-mash lineups Brown threw out routinely in Game 1. With Mike Scott injured, Furkan Korkmaz saw floor time just five minutes after opening tip, alongside James Ennis and Marjanovic. As you may suspect, Toronto’s murderous starters busted the game open there, and at any juncture in which they were lined up across from any non-starter Philly units; those starters got clipped by the buzzsaw at times, too.
Toronto’s main unit, the one that sunk the Magic simply by existing on the court for 20ish minutes a game, got whatever it damn well wanted on offense on Saturday night. In 21 minutes of court time, the Lowry-Green-Leonard-Siakam-Gasol unit posted a 146.5 / 112.2 / +34.3 efficiency slash line. Philly’s go-to group as only +9.5 points per 100 possessions, despite plenty of run against Toronto’s reserves.
All the rotation minutia is definitely important, perhaps even more so in this series than any other conference semi thanks to the top-heaviness of both squads. But ultimately, it is going to be the guys at the weighted end of each team’s roster imbalance whose performances will dictate how this series transpires.
Joel Embiid had just 16 points on 5-of-18 shooting and an uncommonly low free-throw rate — for him, at least. Ben Simmons was fine — 14-9-3, missing just one of his eight looks — but nowhere near the two-way terror he was against the hapless Nets.
On the other side of the star battle were Siakam’s 29 points on 12-of-15, including a 3-of-4 mark from outside, and Leonard, who continued the ass whipping ways he’s made habit in these playoffs — 45 points, 11 rebounds, 16-of-23 from the field, and a resounding answer to any flourish of positivity the Sixers could conjure always at the ready.
Toronto now leads 1-0. The series is obviously far from over. But if this is the Leonard and Siakam the Raptors are going to be rolling out every night, May 6th to 12th is gonna look mighty empty on your calendar.