The playoff chess match is underway! The 76ers came with their big adjustments last night: Joel Embiid guarding Pascal Siakam! More Ben Simmons on Kawhi Leonard! More help, sent faster, towards Kawhi!
And... it worked! It screwed up Toronto’s offense juuuust enough for the 76ers to escape with a win, despite another excellent performance by Toronto on the defensive end.
Now comes the first real test of this postseason for Toronto: Do they have the counter-moves to steal homecourt back from Philadelphia?
Thanks, Jimmy, I Guess I Deserved That One
After Game 1, I all but called Jimmy Butler washed up. He didn’t generate good looks on offense, he was slow in transition, and Kawhi Leonard roasted him one-on-one. I thought my days of being terrified of Butler were over.
Well I sure was wrong.
Butler drained two threes in the opening minutes to give Philly an early lead (one it would never relinquish), had a four-point play before halftime (where he used the ol’ leg-kick on the jump shot to generate contact), and scored seven straight in the final three minutes as the Raptors did everything they could to close the gap. He finished with 30, in a performance reminiscent of the terror he used to strike in Raptors fans when he was with the Bulls.
I can only hope that Game 1 Jimmy makes more appearances in this series than Game 2 Jimmy.
Who Deserves More Blame for This One, Nick Nurse...
I said last series that at some point in this postseason, Nick Nurse’s stubborn decision to stick with his nine-man rotation — and in particular, his insistence on running out four-man bench units, and including Siakam on said bench units but not running the offense through him — would cost the Raptors a playoff game.
Last night might have been it; Nurse stubbornly stuck with Serge Ibaka in his usual minutes, even against Joel Embiid, and Ibaka was, predictably, awful. Meanwhile Marc Gasol logged heavy minutes against Greg Monroe (surprisingly effective!) and even a few against Boban Marjanovic.
With 2:50 to go in the third quarter, the Raptors finally cut Philly’s lead to 1, and it was at that moment that Nurse decided... it’s Jodie Meeks time!
The Raptors had (smartly) avoided any four-man bench lineups in the first half... and now, when the lead was one point, they were rolling the dice with it!? Cue the immediate 11-3 Philly run. And yet that wasn’t even my biggest gripe...
No my, biggest issue with Nurse on the night came with 9:52 to play in the game; the Raptors bench-heavy unit (which now included Kyle Lowry in place of Meeks, thankfully) had just stopped that 11-3 Philly run with an Ibaka jumper, and Brett Brown didn’t want the momentum to shift, so he called a timeout. Perfect opportunity for Toronto to get Gasol or Leonard back into the game, right?
Nah. Nurse rolled out the same lineup, which promptly gave up a 4-0 run, and then had to call a timeout of his own to get Leonard, Gasol and Danny Green in.
75 seconds passed between Philly’s timeout and Toronto’s.
Was that 75 seconds of rest worth it? It cost you a timeout, and meant that your key guys now had less time to make up more of a deficit.
I get it, no one can play 48, and at Gasol’s age, even 35 minutes is pushing it. But you gotta be able to give an extra 75 seconds in a playoff game with home court on the line. There’s no way Toronto should have come out of that Philadelphia timeout with the same lineup on the floor.
... or the Play of Toronto’s Bench?
Of course, I can blame Nurse all I want, but, ultimately, the players have to make plays. You need to be able to rely on your bench to give you something... and Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet have been absolutely awful.
The Raptors’ bench has 15 combined points against Philadelphia in two games.— Chris Walder (@WalderSports) April 30, 2019
They were a combined 2-for-10 last night, each finished in the negative double-digits, and five-man lineups that featured all three shot 24% overall and finished -12 in 13.3 minutes.
That is, uh, pretty bad.
So I guess the question really is, are these guys just playing like garbage, or is the coaching staff not putting them in position to succeed? It’s probably both; you have to play them, and they need to play better, but, perhaps they don’t need to play so many minutes together? Perhaps they can play more minutes against Philly’s bench players, rather than Philly’s starters?
This is how these series usually go: One team makes an adjustment, and if it works, then the other team makes an adjustment of its own to counter. So let’s see if our staff can find the right adjustment to counter the problems. Fact is, I don’t think it should be too hard:
The Raptors have outscored the Sixers by 8 points through 2 games.— Anthony Doyle (@Anthonysmdoyle) April 30, 2019
Serge Ibaka has played 26 minutes against Joel Embiid in those 2 games.
The Sixers have outscored the Raptors by 28 in those 26 minutes.
In the remaining 68 minutes, the Raptors have outscored the Sixers by 36.
Turning Down the Spice Levels
The 76ers came out, as many expected, with Joel Embiid guarding Pascal Siakam. Makes sense; Embiid is quicker on his feet than you’d expect and Siakam roasted ‘em on Game 1.
Siakam made the whole idea look ridiculous on his first possession:
Unfortunately he couldn’t keep it up, and made Brett Brown look like the smart one; Siakam finished with 21, but it took him 25 shots to get there. Siakam said after the game it was just an off night, but he was clearly bothered by Embiid’s size. The real question is, how will the Raptors counter this one? The above adjustment I mentioned (matching Gasol with Embiid’s minutes) doesn’t help Pascal out.
A simple solution might be more of Gasol at the high post and running some high-low action, or action off cutters. The Raptors tried to take advantage of smaller defenders on Gasol by putting Gasol in the post, but that isn’t really their game; instead of hunting mismatches, I’d rather have Gasol surveying the scene, looking over top of smaller defenders, and hitting cutters and flare-outs. That movement should hopefully get Embiid out of position and either free up the lane, or free up Siakam in the corners.
Kyle Lowry Giveth and Taketh and Giveth
Our guy Kyle was all over the map last night. His two three-pointers in the final minute were sensational, the kind of big-time clutch buckets that have the potential to shut down all those chumps that say “Kyle Lowry doesn’t show up in the playoffs”
Not that Lowry needs to shut those chumps down. But I sure would like them to shut up. Thing is, when he does stuff like this... those chumps are only gonna get louder.
did Lowry really just go for it with the game on the line pic.twitter.com/3u5LmKBiH6— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) April 30, 2019
(Never mind that if that worked the internet would be treating him like a god this morning.)
Thing is that’s not the only, er, questionable decision Lowry made on the night. Earlier in the third, Lowry ended up guarded by Greg Monroe after a switch, and Lowry calmly proceeded to... dribble in place for six seconds and force up a step-back? There were also at least two plays that I caught where Lowry received a kickout or swing pass and was not shot-ready; I don’t expect Lowry to be a high-volume gunner or anything, but he’s got to at least look like he’s ready to shoot, otherwise he’s just... a shorter Ben Simmons on offense.
But then the flip, flip-side of Kyle Lowry is all the other stuff he did on the night... he was everywhere on defense, he had three deflections, he drew another charge, and he recovered four loose balls (not including his own, shown above).
It was the full Kyle Lowry experience last night.
I remain strangely un-worried after this one. Obviously, losing at home — and only scoring 89 points! — is objectively terrible. But the Raptors still look like the better team to me, and there is at least one easy adjustment to make that should give the Raptors an edge. Beyond that, more open shots will fall (the Raptors were an ice-cold 7-for-24 on wide-open three-pointers), and the bench can’t possibly be that bad again (there’s literally nowhere else for them to go except up). I’m confident the Raptors will bounce back in Game 3.