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Tactical Issues: How will the Raptors and Sixers adjust in Game 3?

After an embarrassing Game 1, the Sixers rebounded and stole Game 2 and home court advantage. Philly’s counters made the Raptors look vulnerable. Can Toronto swing the momentum and win on the road in Game 3?

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers showed up in Game 2, and Brett Brown rolled out his coaching adjustments that left Toronto Raptors and Nick Nurse thinking about re-inventing his strategy and rotations for the first time in the post-season.

The Sixers showed up with better defensive intensity, and an overall better game plan compared to their Game 1 performance. They managed to establish Jimmy Butler in Game 2 and even got solid bench contributions without Mike Scott logging a single minute. The Sixers’ rotation continued to massacre the Raptors’ bench unit, even though they were shored up by 1-2 starters for the most part.

It was the Raptors who no-showed in Game 2. Their outside shooting and their bench scoring were non-existent, and the Raptors’ defense was uncharacteristically sloppy in key spots.

Right now, Nurse appears forced to adjust to what the Sixers are doing. Can he respond in his own way? Do the Raptors have the personnel? Let’s get into some tactical issues.

For the Sixers

The Sixers didn’t shoot particularly well in Game 2, and they turned the ball over a lot. Yet their switch up on defense — putting Joel Embiid on Pascal Siakam — was enough to disrupt the Raptors off the jump. With some strong play from their bench, Philly was able to hang on despite multiple come back attempts from Toronto.

Now, how can they do it all again in Game 3?

Get Jimmy Buckets

The Sixers realized that it will be tough for them to win if Jimmy Butler doesn’t get them buckets. In Game 1 of the series, Jimmy Butler took only 12 shots, which the Sixers realized won’t get them too far.

Butler’s quiet was a combination of the Raptors’ swarming defense (and Pascal Siakam in particular), and the Sixers offensive stagnation on Embiid’s ISO/post-ups. Brett Brown fixed this problem and made sure that the Sixers looked for him early and often.

Butler was the only Sixers player that was able to establish his rhythm, but it was enough for the Sixers to squeeze out the win. The Sixers made sure that Butler touched the ball early, and that Joel Embiid was aware where Butler was whenever he got double teamed. To his credit, Butler also moved well without the ball, finding open spaces where his teammates could easily find him, and taking advantage of situations when the Raptors left him to double Embiid.

It turns out, the Sixers need him.

Will We See This Again: Definitely.

Containing Kawhi

Brett Brown and the Sixers made sure they don’t get a repeat performance of Kawhi owning them, so they drew inspiration from the way the Magic defended Kawhi.

In Game 2, the Sixers were physical on Kawhi early and often by going chest-to-chest on him, and ensuring they were bumping him for the majority of the game, with or without the ball.

Ben Simmons is the closest that the Sixers have to someone like Aaron Gordon — someone who would have the length, size, and strength to keep up with Kawhi. Even better, Simmons has the quickness to keep up and quickly recover if Kawhi sheds him for a moment.

The Sixers tried to take the ball away from Kawhi whenever he’s in the post, collapsing on him and daring the other Raptors to make a shot. At all times, they made sure to pack the paint when Kawhi got inside the three-point line.

Will We See This Again: The Sixers won’t change anything if it’s working. However, the way the Raptors got Kawhi his touches in the second half might make some of these strategies on stopping him a bit outdated.

Rotation Moves

The Sixers don’t have a deep bench (although they appear to have a deeper bench than the Raptors right now), but they’ve done an excellent job managing their rotation so as to remain competitive throughout the game. Meanwhile, the Raptors right now are weathering the Sixers’ starters playing against their bench for at least eight stressful minutes per half.

Next up is how Brett Brown ensures that Embiid gets matched up with Serge Ibaka as much as possible. Then, the Sixers want to try to never be without at least three starters on at any given point in the game. And finally, with the exception of Joel Embiid, the rest of the starters are logging in heavy minutes, with JJ Redick, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler getting between 37-44 minutes if needed.

Will We See This Again: They’re young and athletic and should be able to handle the extra load, and unless Mike Scott comes back, I don’t see this changing any time soon.

Potential Adjustments for the Sixers

It remains to be seen whether that Sixers can get into their rhythm offensively. In the regular season, they averaged 115 points per game in the regular season and 122 points per game in their first round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets. However, they failed to break the 100-mark against the Raptors in the first two games of this series.

The Raptors defense is still suffocating them, and if not for the boost that they are getting when their starters face mostly Raptors bench players at the turn of the first and third quarters all the way to mid second and fourth quarters, they might be staring at a 0-2 deficit.

Embiid’s health is also a factor, and if not for his stomach flu, maybe Game 2 would not have been as close as it should be.

Embiid as a Decoy

The Raptors are collapsing on Embiid every time he gets near the basket, and if he finds himself in the post against Serge Ibaka, it’s an instant double/triple-team waiting to happen.

When the defense collapse like this, it means that multiple Sixers players are open, and an early and decisive kick out can get the ball to open shooters, if not a good head of steam for players like Ben Simmons against an out of position Raptor defender.

Will We See This: The Sixers are already doing this to an extent, and if the Raptors keep collapsing on Embiid, they should be prepared to do this often.

Continuous Drive and Kick

The Raptors defense showed some vulnerability in Game 2, getting mixed up with their defensive rotations, and often caught flat-footed and out of position to either take a charge or put up any sort of resistance.

The Sixers will have to test the Raptors’ defense again in Game 3. Having Simmons, Butler, and to some extent, Embiid play with draw-and-kick gravity should put a lot of pressure on the Raptors defense.

Will We See This: As long as they don’t force feed the ball to Embiid to go ISO.

For the Raptors

The Raptors blew an opportunity to go up 2-0, and almost had a chance to steal the game. That’s the silver lining right there. The Raptors shot poorly but managed to get back into the game. But is it a silver lining, or fool’s gold?

Game 2 magnified some of the major problematic themes for the Raptors this season, such as their bench play, and their over-reliance on Kawhi to carry them if the perimeter shots are not falling.

Can Nick Nurse right the ship and get the home court advantage back?

Collapsing on Embiid

Embiid is already a handful for Marc Gasol, but you have to trust for the most part that he can defend him on single coverage. The Raptors appeared to be too concerned with Embiid getting into point-blank range but having an “all hands on deck” approach. When Embiid got into the paint, too many Raptors collapsed, which allowed the Sixers wide open shots when he was able to kick the ball out.

Such strategy called for even whoever’s guarding Jimmy Butler to leave him open, and oh boy, that strategy backfired.

Joel Embiid draws four Raptors defenders as he makes his way to the basket

Pushing Embiid to attack in isolation actually disrupts the Sixers’ rhythm especially if he’s not successful. In Game 1, the ball barely found Butler whenever Embiid was on the floor.

Serge Ibaka needs to do a better job defending Embiid. It’s easier said than done, but Ibaka looks rattled whenever he’s on the floor and keeps making silly mistakes. He needs to be a smarter defender, not following his instinct to jump at every pump fake, engaging in grabbing, and just concentrate on being an obstacle between Embiid and the basket. If he can do this every now and then, the Raptors don’t have to send multiple defenders to help him out.

Will We See This Again: I would expect a double team every now and then to keep Embiid guessing, but only more often if/when the Raptors have Serge Ibaka in against him.

Raptors Bench vs. Sixers Starters

Around the three minute mark of the first quarter, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Norman come in to give the starters a spell. Unfortunately, Brett Brown has countered that by putting Joel Embiid and JJ Redick back in around the same time.

Worse still, the Sixers starters come back in full to start the second quarter to face a fading Siakam, Kyle Lowry, and the three bench players, leaving them for at least four minutes before Kawhi and Marc Gasol come back.

Like clockwork, Nurse would do the same near the end of the third quarter, and to start the fourth. Brown would oblige and employ the same counter.

In Game 1, this was no problem. But in Game 2, the Raptors struggled during this span offensively and defensively. For their first stint, the bench got outplayed by the Sixers during this stretch, with Philly scoring 19 points against the Raptors’ 11 points, shooting a hideous 3-for-16. The rebounding battle was one-sided, 12-2 in the favour of the Sixers. It didn’t change that much in the second half, as the bench unit got outscored 15-7 while shooting 2-for-10.

Will We See This Again: Nick Nurse was supposed to be the flexible, experimental coach, and the only experiment he’s done is to put in Jodie Meeks. With three days in between games, maybe we’ll see some changes in the rotation.

Potential Adjustments for the Raptors

You’re move, Nurse. This appears to be Brett Brown’s statement after a very telling Game 2 left the Raptors questioning whether they have what it takes to beat the Sixers.

Options to Free-Up Kawhi

Unless Danny Green or someone else catches fire from the perimeter, it looks like this team will go as far as Kawhi can take them. So it’s really important to get Kawhi going early, and throughout the game. Fortunately for the Raptors, they have had experience dealing with opponents focusing on Kawhi on the defensive end, so they know they have options.

Push the Pace: The Raptors saw this happen in the second half — pushing the pace off misses and turnovers forces the Sixers to crossmatch and be unable to act on their defensive scheme soon enough if the Raptors can get the ball to Kawhi early.

Find Kawhi Off-the-ball: Whether through off-ball screen actions, cuts to the basket, or Kawhi as the screen setter, the Raptors need to show the Sixers that they can get the ball to Kawhi in various ways other than giving him the ball to ISO above the break.

Don’t Put Danny Green on the Same Side as Kawhi: The Sixers are long and athletic. Having Green screen Kawhi above the break is not as effective because if the Sixers switch, that means Simmons can still sag to potentially help on Kawhi while still maintaining enough distance to recover on a potential kick-out to Green. Instead, Green should be on the other side of the floor waiting for a hockey assist.

Clear out One Side on the Floor for a Kawhi ISO special: Go old-school. Kawhi can take his man one-on-one and doesn’t need a screen to get some separation. However, if a double comes, have a quick counter whether it’s a cut to the basket or an option for Kawhi to kick-out to a three-pointer.

Kawhi/Siakam Pick-and-Roll (PNR): With Embiid/Tobias Harris switching coverage starting in Game 2, Siakam is now being guarded by Embiid. Kawhi was able to get some open space via PNRs with Gasol while being guarded by Embiid. Nurse should call for some Kawhi/Siakam PNRs every now and then to either get an open shot or open up the middle.

Get the Ball to Gasol in the Low/High Post: Gasol is a very capable playmaker and underused in Nurse’s offense in this way. In the second half, the Sixers’ defense collapsed a few times when Gasol posted up a smaller Harris. Gasol was able to find Siakam and Kawhi as the Sixers try to help Harris down the block.

Will We See (Any of) This: Nurse was already advocating the team to push the pace during Game 2’s second half, and we have seen Gasol try to make plays off his mismatch against Harris. We have also seen Kawhi get the ball in different situations in response to how the Magic defended him. Just got to keep going with it.

Countering the Sixers’ Rotation

The easiest path here is to match Gasol’s minutes with Embiid, regardless of the situation. Meanwhile, Ibaka’s spent a lot of time as a part-time starter, and should not have any issues playing with the starters, the bench, or whomever.

Siakam is playing almost the entire game, catching one big breather in the second quarter. However, one thing that the Raptors can do is either give him the quick blows that the Sixers are giving Simmons, or the two minute rests that Butler is getting.

The Sixers are throwing Jonah Bolden, Greg Monroe, Amir Johnson, and Boban Marjanovic out there for a few minutes at a time. The Raptors need to be cognizant of this and attack these guys immediately. They are bad defenders especially on the move (sorry, Amir!) and should be subjected to ISO or PNRs above the break.

Approximate minutes distribution/rotation by the Sixers and Raptors for Game 2

Playing VanVleet in 8-10 minute stretches should go, and he and Powell should not play together for a long stretch, especially if Lowry is on the floor. Please no more Jodie Meeks unless it’s garbage time.

OG Anunoby is definitely missed here, and if he’s not coming back soon, Nurse should do what Brown has been doing: throwing all of his reserve big men out the for a couple of minutes and see how it goes. A Miller-Siakam-Ibaka might be better than trotting out a VanVleet-Powell-Meeks lineup. Heck, Nurse could even try a Siakam/Kawhi-Boucher-Ibaka frontcourt for a couple of minutes.

Oh, and why is Danny Green sitting for 6-8 minute-stretch at a time?

Will We See This: Nurse hinted on matching up his rotation, so we’ll have to wait and see.