The margin for error in the playoffs is extremely small. In the regular season you can blow the one game where you miss all your free throws, the one game where you don’t make the adjustment you need to make, the game where you went cold in the minutes you needed to win. You just need to be ready to bounce back. The Raptors had myriad games like this throughout the regular season. They inexplicably lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers, they dropped a game by 30 to the Orlando Magic. Sometimes your opponent shoots 50 percent from three. Sometimes you struggle in a matchup you normally win. In the regular season you just move on.
In the playoffs, that one game is potentially a fourth of your season. Everything that you let slide in the regular season becomes amplified. You can’t afford to make needless mistakes.
The Toronto Raptors needed to do a couple things in tonight’s game. They needed more from their bench. They needed to match Marc Gasol’s minutes to Joel Embiid. They needed ancillary players like Gasol and Kyle Lowry to provide more scoring. They need to make their threes. They needed to maintain the advantages they’d established throughout the first two games of the series by winning the minutes in which all ten starters were in the game.
They did none of these things, and the result was a resounding 116-95 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 3.
The Raptors had “one of those games” right from the jump, losing the first quarter starter vs. starter minutes that had previously been their saving grace in the series. Joel Embiid, kept in check by Gasol through two games, started hot. Embiid drew a foul on Gasol on the block and then hit a jab-step three in his eye a few possessions later. He’d stay hot, burying Gasol right under the basket on a post-up, a rarity in the early games of the series.
The Raptors had two things that kept things close early on, transition play and Kawhi Leonard. Pascal Siakam got out in the open floor for some easy baskets, and Danny Green hit a couple of trailer threes. Their half-court offense, meanwhile, was entirely buoyed by Leonard, who was getting whatever he wanted in the midrange through the pick-and-roll. Leonard was, throughout the night, the one consistent bright spot for the Raptors, as he maintained his first quarter brilliance en-route to a 33 point performance.
Conspicuous by their absence in Toronto’s first quarter offense were Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry. Both were rarely called upon in the halfcourt, and yet both by and large struggled to create effective offense when the Raptors went to them. Lowry was able to get involved as a playmaker in transition, finding Siakam, but he struggled as a finisher, missing his pull-up three point shots and getting blocked at the rim on more than one occasion.
The Raptors’ bench minutes were, for once, a small boon. Sure, they still struggled to score, but largely held the Sixers in check down toward the end of the first quarter. The Raps ended the first frame down just three, kept in it by the bench’s run and Leonard’s brilliance.
With Leonard exiting the game, things fell apart to start the second quarter. The Raptors missed open jumpers and the Sixers capitalized by getting out and running the floor for easy points in transition. The main culprits in this run were Lowry and Fred VanVleet, both put up several missed three-point shots in this stretch that contributed to their combined 0-of-9 showing from beyond the arc. In addition, the lack of size on the floor meant any missed boxouts were amplified, as the Raptors lacked the height to effectively pull down contested rebounds. This led to easy baskets for the likes of Embiid and James Ennis, of all people. All told, the Sixers widened their three point lead to double digits, and then held it there even as the Raptors’ starters trickled back in. The Sixers would go to the half up 64-53, as a late three-point flurry from Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick undid any damage the Raptors’ starters did upon re-entering.
As the third started, the wheels very nearly seemed to come off once again, and were only held in place by a heroic effort from Kawhi Leonard. The Sixers were able to grow their lead as large as 18 in the quarter, as Redick remained hot and Embiid hit another three, but Leonard scored 14 in the frame to help keep the Raptors in it.
Any offense which didn’t come from Leonard felt laborious, as the Raptors repeatedly passed out of good looks for contested ones, forcing up late shots, as unnecessary ball movement came back to bite them. Through Leonard’s efforts the Raptors won the quarter, pulling to within eight as the fourth began. But their struggles to get anyone else going loomed large.
Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse attempted to buy Leonard a few minutes to rest at the start of the fourth, and the floodgates that had been threatening to break all throughout the third burst open. VanVleet and Lowry both remained unable to make a shot. Pascal Siakam faltered, unwilling to take advantage of the space given to him on offense by Joel Embiid, he forced things at the rim and struggled to finish. Eventually, Siakam’s frustration with this pattern got the better of him, and, after being blocked at the basket, he intentionally stuck out his foot to trip Embiid on a play that would be ruled a flagrant foul.
Things were no better on the defensive end for the Raptors, as Jimmy Butler was getting right to the rim and Embiid was getting whatever he wanted. The Sixers’ lead quickly swelled to 16 before Leonard re-entered, and his re-entrance would do nothing to stem the tide. Things only grew further out of control, as the Raptors’ defense simply stopped playing, at one point allowing Embiid enough time to drive down the lane for a windmill dunk contest finish in a half-court possession. Embiid would end with 33 points and 10 rebounds, looking dominant for the first time all series. The lead grew to 26 by the halfway mark of the quarter, at which point the Raptors threw in the towel and allowed garbage time to proceed.
It’s easiest to point to Lowry and Gasol as the main culprits in this loss. Both finished with just seven points, and were -30 and -28 on the night respectively. As horrific as they both undoubtedly were, the continued abysmal play from Raptors’ bench, most notably the play of VanVleet, who was 0-for-7 on the night, might be even more concerning. The Raptors’ can expect Lowry and Gasol to bounce back to a degree, but at this point it’s hard to say whether they can expect anything whatsoever from their bench in this series.
The Raptors have, as previously mentioned, laid eggs like this before. In each instance they’ve bounced back, but now the clock is ticking. Down 2-1 in the series with the Sixers, with the next game on Sunday in Philadelphia, coming up empty at the wrong time has left them with their backs against the wall.