PHILADELPHIA — The Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers has turned into a game of survival.
The Raptors prevailed in Game 4, a 101-96 victory that evened the series at 2-2, because Kawhi Leonard continues to play absurd basketball. Sunday's damage: 39 points, 14 rebounds and five assists, along with the biggest shot of the series so far, a pull-up 3-pointer over Joel Embiid at the shot-clock buzzer that put the Raptors up 94-90 with 1:01 to go. Through four games, Leonard is averaging 38 points on a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 69 percent.
That effective field goal percentage, with more than half (51/89) of his shots having come from outside the paint, is better than anybody in the league shot on at least 300 field goal attempts this season – with the top seven guys being bigs who took almost all of their shots in the paint.
"The stuff that he can do to create his own shot," said Sixers coach Brett Brown, "is Kobe-like for me. He's just so gifted in relation to doing that."
Nobody else on the Raptors has an effective field goal percentage that even reaches the league average (52.4 percent) in the series. Pascal Siakam (50.0 percent) is the closest, but was clearly suffering from his bruised right calf on Sunday, shooting 2-for-10, including 0-for-7 outside the restricted area.
So, with or without a healthy Siakam, Raptors' coach Nick Nurse has been searching for answers – "You're looking for some type of spark," he said pre-game – someone or something he could count on, knowing that Leonard could not beat the Sixers by himself. Patrick McCaw was introduced to the non-garbage-time portion of the series on Sunday, but the big change for Toronto in Game 4 was Toronto playing … big.
Since the start of this season, Serge Ibaka has almost exclusively played center. After starting alongside Jonas Valanciunas each of the last two seasons, Ibaka played just 13 total minutes with Valanciunas before the trade deadline. After Valanciunas was dealt to Memphis for Marc Gasol, Ibaka and Gasol played just 31 regular-season minutes together. Through eight playoff games, Ibaka and Gasol were on the floor together for just three total minutes. And through the first three games of this series, they had each shot 6-for-20, with Ibaka registering a minus-17 in his 49 minutes.
But with 5:27 to go in the first quarter on Sunday, Ibaka checked in for Siakam instead of Gasol. And it wasn't just about Siakam's injury, because the starting power forward played almost 29 minutes on Sunday, including a couple of minutes in a do-or-die fourth quarter with both Ibaka and Gasol on the floor and Leonard playing the two.
When Siakam has sat, the Raptors have typically played Leonard or Norman Powell at the 4. On Sunday, Nurse chose to go big, quite an adjustment to make with the Raptors facing a 3-1 series deficit if it didn't work.
"Tonight was one of those nights," Ibaka said, "where we say, 'You know what? Even though we didn't have an opportunity to play together a long time, we're going to just try it out there.' We've been playing basketball for so long. We're just going to try to figure it out and play hard."
The two bigs played more than 23 minutes together on Sunday, with almost half of that coming in the fourth quarter, when the Raptors' season was seemingly on the line. The game was tied at 75 entering the fourth and Toronto was down four after the first few Philly possessions.
But Nurse stuck with the two bigs and actually played them with Siakam and Leonard for a couple of minutes in that fourth quarter. The risk paid off. Ibaka and Gasol combined to hit three big shots, they spaced the floor well enough to let Leonard do his thing, and the Raptors held Philly to just 5-for-21 shooting in the final period to regain homecourt advantage in the series.
With our small lineup, they were just throwing it up there and revving their engines and flying to the rim. Tonight, we just had more size.
"The biggest thing I felt tonight was the rebounding," Nurse said, of the bigs playing together. "It just felt like we were getting pushed around a lot by the glass the last two games. That would happen with our small lineup, they were just throwing it up there and revving their engines and flying to the rim. Tonight we just had more size, that way, and it kind of looked like the rebounds were affected by that."
The Raptors' defensive rebounding wasn't any better in the Ibaka-Gasol minutes (when they grabbed 16 defensive rebounds and the Sixers' grabbed five offensive boards) that it was otherwise (19 and six). But it was better than having Siakam on the bench and a smaller power forward on the floor through the first four games (18 18 defensive rebounds, 10 Philadelphia offensive boards).
With the rebounding improvement, the Sixers scored just 40 points on 44 possessions with Ibaka and Gasol on the floor together. They scored 56 points on 50 possessions otherwise. On the other end, Gasol (7-for-13) and Ibaka (6-for-12) each made as many shots as they had made through the first three games. It was just enough support for Leonard for the Raptors to get the biggest win of their season.
"He's comfortable being a 5," Gasol said of Ibaka. "I'm able to play both positions a little bit. So it's simple. Defensively we mix it up, and the actions that they try to run we just need to figure out, and talk, and communicate and be on the same page, not just the two of us, but the whole team."
Philly's output was affected by another ailment befalling Joel Embiid, who felt ill all day and shot just 2-for-7. The Sixers still outscored the Raptors by 17 points in Embiid's 35 minutes, but they were unable to survive the 13 minutes Embiid was on the bench: the Raptors won those handily, 33-11.
"We're all going to look at what he shot from the floor, his free throws, whatever," Brown said of his center. "Cut to the chase, go to the bottom line, and look at his plus-minus. Despite him being ill and despite seven shots, or what he shot at the free throw line, and really his free throws were quite good up until the fourth period, he ends up a plus-17. It's just another reminder of how important he is to our team."
Maybe that's the big story from this game. But Embiid's plus-17 breaks down to a plus-1 in the 20 minutes he played with both Ibaka and Gasol on the floor, and a plus-16 in fewer than 15 minutes against just one of two.
The NBA playoffs are different than the 82-game grind of the regular season. Sometimes, they require something that you've never done before. In Game 4 on Sunday, the Raptors went big for the first time this season and, as Nurse put it, "did just enough" to get a crucial victory.
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