In case this was still a mystery, in the NBA playoffs you need to have players who can make plays. There has to be a purpose behind their every decision and action, because for the split second in which each discrete event occurs on the court someone is gaining an advantage. And if a team has too many guys playing who aren’t working for those slim margins, and aren’t turning them into something for the team, it’s tough to win. That’s how the Raptors ended up losing Game 2 to the Philadelphia 76ers, 94-89. They often saw angles to attack, but always a touch too late and in too disorganized a fashion.
Unlike Game 1’s explosion, the Sixers managed to keep a lid on Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard in the opening frame. Those were the two main playmakers for Toronto in the series opener, and it’s where there problems began in Game 2. As a result of their ineffectiveness, the Raptors fell behind. And when the Raptors fall behind with the starters on the floor, they run the risk of really falling behind when their bench comes on. It’s been a situation all year, and the playoffs have put the magnifying glass to it.
Credit to Philly though, coach Brett Brown’s defensive adjustment — putting Joel Embiid on Pascal Siakam — mitigated Spicy P’s effectiveness to start. Siakam had just two points on 1-of-5 shooting in that quarter and it affected the rest of what Toronto wanted to do. The Raptors ended up hunting mismatches — e.g. Marc Gasol on Tobias Harris — and it ironically put them wholly out of sorts. Toronto did attack what they thought were advantages, but got too cute with it and ended up forcing things too often. Add in a first half 33-13 rebounding gap and a 3-of-15 run of three-point shooting, and even 12 first half Sixers turnovers (19 for the game) could not mitigate the lack of flow on offense for Toronto.
The Sixers then benefitted from some strong performances from their unsung bench unit. James Ennis went off for 13 points and six rebounds, former Raptor Greg Monroe made an impact with 10 points and five rebounds (before an ankle injury sidelined him), and even Jonah Bolden hit a timely three. Not so with the Raptors, however, who got a total of five points from the trio of Norman Powell (3), Serge Ibaka (2), and Fred VanVleet (0). Whatever confidence that unit gained in Game 1 was clearly thrown away in the face of Sixers’ increased defensive pressure.
The Raptors are still talented enough (or frustrating enough, depending on your temperament) to make it interesting though. The Sixers’ lead did indeed get as large as 19 in the second quarter, and then again to 13 in the third. But the Raptors starters kept making enough plays to keep them close — and give us hope. It’s why their mistakes hurt so much, and sudden losses of composure made the game angering to watch at times. An 8-point deficit swinging fast to 13 behind a four-point play from Jimmy Butler plus a technical on Danny Green, for example, felt like the death knell; watching Butler saw the Raptors in half with 30 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists, a waking nightmare. Yet the team carried on.
Toronto still had Leonard and Kyle Lowry to rely on, and Siakam eventually got things rolling too. The high man, Leonard, finished the game with 35 points on 13-of-24 shooting. He wasn’t as on as he was in Game 1, but when Toronto needed a huge bucket, he was often there to take and make it. Ditto Lowry, who put down a pair of threes late to bring the Raptors within a single possession. The Raptors captain scored 20 points, with five rebounds and five assists, while also being everywhere on the floor on defense. Siakam came through too as best he could. He managed 21 points (on a rough 9-of-25 from the field) and seven rebounds, and made a series of hustle plays late to get the Raptors within a single point in the final minute.
In fact, the play from Toronto’s starters was so inspiring, it’s a wonder why coach Nick Nurse didn’t play them more. The Raptors’ hard work in the third — getting the lead down to one — was erased by some indecisive play from their bench (with even Jodie Meeks making his customary disastrous appearance). To compound this problem, that same ineffective unit started the fourth, and rather than go on a quick 4-0 run as they did in Game 1, Philly’s lead quickly ballooned back up to 11. That the starters got it as close as they did was a minor miracle. A missed three from Danny Green in the dying seconds would have tied it. And then who knows what we’d be saying right now.
But we’re not saying anything good right now. We’re wondering why Green — yes, even with those missed shots and his technical — only played 32 minutes. Or how Gasol ended up matching up against players not named Embiid. And we’re wondering what will shake Nurse out of changing up his rotations when it’s clear the Raptors’ bench unit just doesn’t have it on a given night. Yes, he can’t play his five starters all 48 minutes, but with two days off before Game 3 in Philly, one really does wonder where exactly the limit is on that.
The series is now tied 1-1, and I’m sure we’re about to find out.