It’s the most bizarre feeling in the world. The Raptors have won five playoff games in a row and I truly don’t know what to do with myself. The city of Toronto has never felt an aura of confidence surrounding any Raptors team until a couple of days ago: Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Don’t get me wrong — I fully expected the Raptors to come out strong on Saturday after obliterating the Magic last round. However, the strangest thing is that it actually happened. No longer must I exude blind confidence, predicated on beliefs that ignore glaring issues within the team’s roster or game plan. Now, my faith is rooted in something tangible; I’m able to pinpoint the ways in which this Raptors team has succeeded. For the first time in many years, these winning habits are sustainable in the postseason.
Kawhi Leonard is an absolute machine. He’s methodical, overwhelmingly skilled and imposes his will on a regular basis. Marc Gasol is an otherworldly playmaker, and when paired with the intelligent, hard-nosed Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ offense runs brilliantly. Pascal Siakam has burgeoned into an unstoppable offensive powerhouse and defensive savant. When you add Danny Green’s tenacious defense and shooting prowess into the mix, I really do think we’re looking at a team with championship potential. When they’re locked in, the Raptors are so, so good.
The 76ers struggled to execute their game plan yesterday. While Ben Simmons had himself a nice shooting game (7-of-8 from the field), his stats seemed empty. Simmons’ individual success didn’t draw extra defenders, which would have benefited his teammates. Instead, the Raptors opted to shift their focus towards Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler, who shot a combined 15-for-47. If you didn’t know already, those are bad numbers — for Philly, anyway.
Let’s see if the Raptors can keep home court advantage in Game 2. Here are tonight’s details:
Where to Watch:
TSN, 8:00 PM EST
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Philadelphia – Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid
Toronto – OG Anunoby (abdomen – OUT), Chris Boucher (back – day-to-day)
Philadelphia – Mike Scott (heel – day-to-day)
Marc Gasol terrorized Embiid on the defensive end, where he shot an abysmal 12.5 percent from the field against him. Gasol’s quick hands and refusal to give up space for fadeaways led to Brett Brown letting Joel loose on Serge Ibaka in the first half, where Embiid essentially got everything he wanted. Later in the game, Nick Nurse flummoxed fans when he played Toronto’s bench against Embiid for a prolonged stretch. Surely Embiid would crush Ibaka once again, spurring a 76ers comeback? Nope. I don’t quite understand how, but that’s not what happened at all. Instead, Ibaka did quite well against Embiid, stifling his efforts and chipping in a couple of big blocks.
Still, I’d much rather Nurse matchup Gasol more directly with Embiid in Game 2. It’s historically evident that Gasol has his number, and Embiid must play large minutes for the 76ers to have a chance in this series anyway. If Gasol is going to be on the floor, I’d rather he spend his time stopping the 76ers’ best player instead of simply running the tall, but otherwise useless Boban Marjanovic off the floor. Let Ibaka deal with him, Nick.
Siakam is the Best
Can we all just take a few minutes to appreciate Pascal Siakam? Kawhi was obviously unmatched last game, despite the 76ers throwing Butler, Harris, and Simmons at him. Yet, Pascal dominated in his own right. If Siakam can keep this up (and there are zero signs that he can’t), Tobias Harris is going to tell his grandchildren horror stories about Pascal in 40 years.
Siakam thoroughly dominated on both ends of the floor, scoring at will with an array of post moves, cuts and jumpers (both from midrange and downtown). In Game 2, I anticipate the 76ers shifting more focus towards cutting off Siakam’s drives. However, Pascal is adept at passing out to the perimeter in those situations, and if Kawhi isn’t being guarded carefully, only the Lord knows what he’ll do to Philly.
The Raptors played unstoppable ball for most of Game 1, but I’d like to see them take a step further. In Game 2 of the Orlando series, the Raptors came out of the gates with fury, stomping the Magic into oblivion before they had a chance to start their motor. On Saturday, the Raptors looked a tad lackadaisical to start the game.
Moreover, Nick Nurse’s rotations were puzzling. Even though it ultimately worked out in the Raptors’ favour, I’d like to see far less Ibaka on Embiid moving forward. Pascal Siakam played large stretches on the floor with the bench, and oddly enough didn’t get the chance to do much of anything on offense. It will always make zero sense to me why Nurse insists on using Fred VanVleet as an on-ball “creator” against taller defenders instead of using his quickness to run around screens for open jumpers. Siakam might not have the tightest handle, but his patience and creativity give him the ability to score from anywhere on the floor. When Fred gives the ball to Siakam, he makes things happen. When Fred dribbles out the entire shot clock before turning the ball over or chucking up garbage, the Raptors lose those minutes.
Raptors fans should be confident heading into Game 2. They’ve shown no signs of slowing down, and even when Kawhi struggles, Siakam will be there to take care of business. When Lowry and Gasol initiate the offense, the sky’s the limit for this team.