The Raptors are back in the driver’s seat once again. Reeling off two straight victories in Games 4 and 5, the team has regained their composure and taken control of their series against the Philadelphia 76ers, which now stands at 3-2.
On the court, Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry are back to letting it fly from deep and Kawhi Leonard has been historically great. In Game 4, he dropped 39 points on 13-of-20 shooting, to go along with 14 rebounds and five assists — and yet he couldn’t even make the Temperature this week! Since my reaction to Leonard and his masterful dunks was profanity, I felt it wasn’t appropriate to include it all here.
Instead, this week we’ll highlight adjustments from Nick Nurse, spark plug Serge Ibaka, and a killer crossover from Kyle Lowry that make up the Toronto Temperature.
Serge Ibaka, Spark Plug
It didn’t look so good for Serge Ibaka early in the series. He was a step slow on defense and struggled in minutes versus Joel Embiid. Old Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Kendrick Perkins wasn’t impressed with Ibaka’s play either, providing analysis on Twitter. Although, Game 4 was a different story for Ibaka. He had 12 points, nine rebounds, three blocks, and two awesome transition dunks running alongside Kyle Lowry.
One play stands out in particular from Game 4, highlighting Ibaka’s defense. After James Ennis III intercepted a Kawhi Leonard pass near half court, Ibaka ran back on defense from his own corner, picking up speed with each stride, blocking the heck out of a Tobias Harris layup attempt. No other Raptor can block shots in the open court like Serge (minus maybe Chris Boucher).
Kawhi Leonard prefers on-ball assaults and Pascal Siakam isn’t quite the shot-blocker Ibaka is. (Surprisingly, Siakam has seen his block totals decrease since his rookie season. As a rookie, he averaged 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes. This season, however, he averaged 0.7 blocks per 36 minutes). So it’s nice Toronto has Serge around.
In Game 5, that run continued for Ibaka, even after he got hit with an accidental elbow from Kawhi which opened a massive gash on his head. In all, Ibaka is now carving out a role as the Raptors’ electric-play maker — routinely changing the momentum of a game with a block or rebound.
Kyle Lowry, Taking Control
Kyle Lowry had his fingerprints all over Game 5. He was aggressive shooting the ball from the tip, scoring eight points on 3-of-3 shooting in the first quarter. It provided an opportunity for Kawhi Leonard to save a little gas and let his team do the dirty work. It was no surprise to see the usage percentage change for both players. Lowry’s usage went up from 15.4 percent in Game 4 to 19.2 percent in Game 5 and Leonard’s usage dipped, from 34 percent in Game 4 to 23.8 percent in Game 5.
It was a throwback performance for Lowry in Game 5. He pushed in transition and scratched and clawed getting into the paint. In the second quarter, he crossed up Greg Monroe at the top of the three-point line, darting into the lane, and flicking the ball over the outstretched hand of James Ennis III. His crossover is particularly special. Just like Tony Parker, he stands upright pacing down the court, then bursts into top-gear, crossing the ball over left-to-right. It is difficult as a defender to adjust, and just like Monroe, it often leaves you stuck in mud.
Lowry made more dynamic plays, beating Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid down the court in a foot race for a layup in the third quarter. Right from the tip, it was Kyle’s night, and it is no coincidence the Raptors won by 36 points. He had eight free throw attempts and was a +31. Aggressive Lowry.
Nick Nurse, Solutions
The style of play looks much different in Game 5 then it did in Game 1. The rotations are different. Jodie Meeks doesn’t play anymore and Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw are on the fringes of the rotation. The shortened rotation has worked for Nick Nurse. Just like in the Orlando series, the solutions didn’t come right away, but they came nonetheless.
The most crucial decision for Nurse was rolling out a lineup with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. The pair played 37 minutes together over Games 4 and 5, rebounding 57 percent of all misses — the third highest rate for any Raptors two-man pairing since the dual-big lineup introduced in Game 4. Not many people were calling for the dual-big lineup (myself included), but I guess Nurse had it in his back pocket.
There have been other smart adjustments too. Nick Nurse limited Fred VanVleet’s minutes to only back-up Kyle Lowry (until last night reached a blowout), and he let Kawhi Leonard move off Ben Simmons to defend a more aggressive Jimmy Butler. Lastly, he encouraged his players to shoot the ball. Both Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol have been more aggressive since the Game 3 loss.
Closing Out Philly
They say the hardest games to play are closeout games. Joel Embiid would seem to agree, predicting a Game 7 by telling Drake on his way out of the building, “I’ll be back”. A closeout game isn’t new for Philadelphia either. Down 3-0 versus Boston last season in the second round, T.J. McConnell got his first career playoff start and delivered 19 points in a 76ers victory. A key factor once again was Embiid who, despite limited raw production (he had 15 points and 12 rebounds versus Boston), was a +22 in his 35 minutes on the court.
Game 6 is going to be tough. The Philadelphia crowd doesn’t want to go home and Joel Embiid will be a couple days removed from sickness. The Raptors have a poor history with Game 6’s, going 2-4 since they started their extended playoff run in 2013. We shall see.
Three-Point Shooting, a Concern?
When Danny Green was asked before Game 5 about the Raptors poor shooting percentage on wide-open threes he credited Philadelphia’s rangy defense. “They are obviously a great team. They are very athletic. Explosive, long. And they can cover ground very quickly. So as much as you think they [three-pointers] are uncontested, they are not as uncontested as they feel.”
It makes sense. Philadelphia’s smallest rotation player, after JJ Redick, is James Ennis, who stands at 6’7” and weighs 210 pounds. It wasn’t surprising to see the Raptors have a below-average series from deep. What was surprising, was just how poorly they shot. In Games 1-to-4, the Raptors shot a combined 36-for-122 (29.5 percent). Danny Green was often smothered in the corner — He went 6-for-19 (31.6 percent) during that four-game stretch — and Fred VanVleet was the smallest player on the court, getting blocked on a few of his jump shots.
Fortunately, the Raptors picked it up for Game 5. The team shot 16-of-40 from deep (40 percent) and Danny Green was 5-for-7, with a few above-the-break threes, a good sign for Green.
The Raptors — besides four first quarter Norman Powell minutes — stuck to a tight seven-man rotation in Game 5. It was Fred VanVleet (who played a much better game) and Serge Ibaka (noted spark plug) off the bench. The new rotation represented a shift from earlier in the series, when Nick Nurse would go nine players deep with a more rigid substitution pattern.
The Raptors, for the first time in a while, are top-heavy. After Ibaka, it’s VanVleet, the seventh man, who has struggled to get his shot off this series. Then, it’s Norm, who has played okay, but not without a few defensive hiccups. And finally, the ninth and tenth men have been Patrick McCaw and Jodie Meeks. McCaw is a defensive specialist at this point in the postseason and based upon Nick Nurse’s rotations, wouldn’t be expected to play long stretches. And Meeks has been relegated to garbage time only, after a few plug-and-play mishaps.
The Raptors will need more bench players to hit as each potential series becomes more difficult. Besides Ibaka, there just hasn’t been a whole lot of production. Look for Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet (if the Raps advance) to carve out a role in the next series.