The Toronto Raptors started off the first game of the second round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers with a bang. Were the Sixers expecting the old “playoff Raptors” or were they just unprepared? Maybe they did know what was going to come from Toronto, but could do nothing about it.
Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam established themselves as the best players on the court, and potentially in this series. How will the Sixers respond?
For the Sixers
Nothing really worked for the Sixers in Game 1. There were glimpses — that JJ Redick spurt, Ben Simmons’ scoring, the second chance opportunities. But their defensive coverage sucked and they could not actually generate enough points. Still, there’s no way other than up from here for the Sixers, right?
Regular Season Defense
Unlike the Orlando Magic, the Philadelphia 76ers didn’t look too concerned about Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam. They instead stuck with straight-up regular season single coverage defense.
The result was a rude awakening for the Sixers, as Kawhi and Siakam took turns scoring at will against whoever was covering them. Philly coach Brett Brown tried to shuffle defenders on Kawhi, and it looked like he was so concerned about him that he forgot that Siakam was also doing a lot of damage early on.
The Sixers’ pick-and-roll (PnR) defense looked as if they didn’t see Kawhi destroy the Magic in the first round.
Will We See This Again: I would expect the Sixers with tighter coverage (largely from Ben Simmons), and more blitzing/doubling to get the ball out of Leonard’s hands. But the Kawhi/Gasol PnR most likely will remain to be a soft spot for the Sixers.
Potential Adjustments for the Sixers
The Sixers played Kawhi straight-up for the most part, rotating a slew of defenders from Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, James Ennis III, and even Ben Simmons.
It didn’t matter. Kawhi cooked each and every one of them regardless in every which way — PnRs, in transition, in the post, one-on-one, on the perimeter, etc. An what’s worse, Pascal Siakam was doing the same thing. So what can the Sixers do?
Kawhi Coverage Solutions
Whatever defensive strategy the Sixers had in Game 1, they need to go to a Plan B. The easiest thing to do is to stay put — use the same coverage, but tighter. Bump Kawhi as much as they can. If that doesn’t work, here are some suggestions:
Blitz on PNR: We saw the Orlando Magic successfully blitz Kawhi’s PnR actions with Gasol, trapping Kawhi several times, essentially killing the possession. The only caveat here is whether Embiid is willing (or even able with that balky knee) to do this, as it requires more energy compared to him sagging down on PnRs.
Pack the paint: When Kawhi is on the post or ISO-mode, the Sixers technically can afford to sag off some people, as demonstrated by the Magic. The Magic sagged off Lowry, Siakam, and Gasol to help defend Kawhi around the basket. It’s a risk, and it will take some defensive cohesion which the Sixers haven’t shown as of yet. Just look at the half-baked triple-team on Kawhi on this video:
Get the ball out of Kawhi’s Hands: A bit drastic, but the Sixers can try to double Kawhi early and often, letting the rest of the Raptors do something on the fly. Of course, they have to be disciplined enough to scramble back on defense against Toronto’s other talented players.
Sixers fans are advocating for Simmons as the primary Kawhi defender. His size, quickness, strength is the closest that the Sixers have to Magic’s Aaron Gordon. It’s a bit confusing to watch Simmons cover Lowry and Fred VanVleet on defense, and staying home. If anything, if Simmons is covering Lowry, he should be the first to double Kawhi.
More Embiid PnR
I get it, Joel Embiid’s not 100 percent. He’s labouring every time he’s sprinting down the floor, and it looks like it takes a lot of effort to pull himself up every time he hits the floor.
Embiid wanted to shoot it on his own terms, mostly via post-ups and pick-and-pops, and I guess this is how he’s conserving his energy while he’s on the floor. The Raptors would very well much like him to take his perimeter shots, and have no issues dealing with him on the post against Marc Gasol.
However, Embiid is much harder to guard when he is rolling towards the basket. (To say nothing of his two-man game with Redick, which we hardly saw either.) This could be a key to break down the Raptors defense, or at the very least getting Gasol into foul trouble.
Will We See This: It depends on Embiid’s conditioning and health.
Push the Pace
Ben Simmons is excellent at pushing the pace in transition, and regardless of Joel Embiid’s well-being, he should keep going at it. Pushing the ball in transition does not necessarily mean that Simmons has to score at each and every opportunity, but instead, they should use this to quickly create shot opportunities and identify mismatches when the Raptors defenders get cross-matched after getting back.
Will We See This: There’s a good chance we will.
For the Raptors
What hump? The Raptors steamrolled the Sixers who looked unprepared, and it definitely looked like Nick Nurse out-coached Brett Brown in Game 1. Let’s see what worked, and what else the Raptors can do to improve.
Make Boban Unplayable
Boban Marjanovic can be a big problem, so the Raptors made sure that Boban’s presence is a Sixers’ problem, not theirs.
The Raptors targeted Boban in a variety of ways. He was subjected to several pick-and-pop situations with both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Kyle Lowry repeatedly used the space that Boban is giving him on PnR to find a hole on the Sixers defense, using their concern about Boban’s PnR defense to collapse the Sixers’ overall.
When the Sixers tried to double Gasol to help Boban, Gasol was able to find the open man. When Boban got switched to the other Raptors players in transition, the Raptors made sure that whoever Boban is covering would be involved in some sort of play, such as pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll. It was a smart team decision, and forced the Sixers to go to Jonah Bolden in the second half.
Will We See It Again: Boban’s got a big target on his back now and it feels like he may have already slid out of Brown’s rotation.
Shrink the Space
There’s only one person on the Sixers that scares the Raptors when it comes to perimeter shooting: JJ Redick. The Raptors had an excellent game plan on getting switches ahead of time when Redick is on the move, effectively slowing him down for the majority of the game.
The same can’t be said for Jimmy Butler, Embiid, Tobias Harris, and of course, Ben Simmons. Instead, the Raptors put multiple bodies in and around the paint, sagging off the Sixers’ non-shooters.
The strategy worked as the driving lanes were met by multiple defenders, forcing the ball handler to either pick-up their dribble to reset, kick out, or force a drive to the basket.
This strategy also affected Joel Embiid’s post-ups, as he was met with multiple help defenders whenever he got deep into the paint.
Will We See It Again: Looks like it will be one of the themes for this series.
Stick to Their Minutes’ Distribution
Sometimes the best adjustment is not to change anything. The Raptors fanbase — justifiably so — was concerned about how the Sixers would deploy their starters (mainly Embiid and Redick) against the second stringers. It was the difference maker during the Sixers vs. Nets series, and with the Raptors’ current bench issues, it was a fear here too.
Instead of overreacting, coach Nurse and the Raptors stuck to their guns and let the match-ups play out. The Sixers’ move of putting Boban, James Ennis III, and Furkan Korkmaz against the Raptors starters backfired, and for the most part, Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell held their own defensively.
Will We See It Again: The Raptors’ bench gradually got better as the game went along, so it stays as is until proven otherwise.
Potential Adjustments for the Raptors
I don’t want to say “the Raptors could not have played Game 1 any better,” as there were some areas to improve. The Raptors bench — a theme all season long, including the first round — struggled again for most of the game, despite having Siakam and/or Kyle Lowry with them.
Attack Embiid’s Gas Tank
The Raptors are doing an excellent job making Embiid work for his shots and play on defense, and it’s clear that Embiid’s conditioning and health are an issue. The Raptors should not let Embiid rest on the defensive end, getting him involved in as many PnR situations as possible, and by pushing the pace.
Will We See This: We are already seeing some of this with Kawhi/Gasol PnR actions, and the Raptors should keep targeting him whenever he’s on the floor. (That Embiid is questionable today with gastronomic distress just makes this idea even better.)
Resuscitate the Bench Lineup
Whoever’s on the floor with the Raps’ bench (FVV, Norm, and Ibaka) out of the trio of Lowry, Siakam, or Kawhi, they should be the ones initiating the offense more often than not. Fred VanVleet having the ball in his hands should be limited to the set plays involving Lowry or Siakam, and those bread-and-butter pick-and-pop plays with Ibaka.
If the set plays bogs down, VanVleet should not be left to his own devices to make something happen on offense for the Raptors; leave that to Siakam or Lowry.
The bench lineup looks like they’re playing as if they’re on their heels, and this is mainly because of the defensive pressure they are getting. Being undersized with Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, and even Jodie Meeks, in a bench lineup stretch will do that. This is where the Raptors miss OG Anunoby’s size and versatility.
Meeks hasn’t done anything in the postseason, so why not use someone else for those spot minutes — Malcolm Miller, Chris Boucher, Eric Moreland — to add more size and defense?
Will We See This: Doubt it, Nurse likes to see VanVleet try to cook.
Fix the Garbage Time Unit
The above said, has the Raptors deep bench (garbage time) unit scored more than 10 points combined in this postseason? That lineup of Jeremy Lin-Meeks-Powell-Miller-Moreland stinks, and it’s upsetting that they can’t score against the other team’s garbage time players.
Will We See This: The only thing to try here is to run Boucher out there and really embrace the chaos. The good news here is that the Raptors have always been on the positive side of any garbage time minutes.