* Tonight on TNT: 76ers vs. Raptors, Game 5 (8 ET)
It’s not clear that, by the end of the Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, we’ll know which is the better team.
One of these teams is going to beat the other four times. But it may just be a case of survival, one team scratching out four wins and moving on to the conference finals.
Through four games, this has been the least efficient series in the conference semifinals, with the teams combining to score just 104 points per 100 possessions. The two teams rank sixth and eighth in offensive efficiency among the eight teams playing in this round.
“We haven’t been in great rhythm here in the last few games,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse admitted Tuesday. “That’s playing the same team over and over.”
The Raptors did score 101 points on 93 possessions in Game 4, their second-best offensive game of the series. The Sixers have been the better offensive team overall, but have really had just one good offensive game and three rough ones. Game 2 was one of two in these playoffs where a team won while scoring less than a point per possession.
A slow grind
This series has also been played at a pace (95.4 possessions per team per 48 minutes) slower than that of any NBA team in the regular season. And that could an issue for the Sixers, who played at a faster pace than the Raptors in the regular season and at a much faster pace than Toronto in the first round. The 95.4 rating is only 0.3 possessions per 48 minutes slower than the Toronto-Orlando series, but it’s 10.2 possessions per 48 slower than the Philly-Brooklyn series.
Prior to Game 4, it was noted that the Raptors weren’t scoring in transition as efficiently as they did in the regular season. With J.J. Redick having shot 5-for-6 from 3-point range in the first six seconds of the shot clock, the Sixers have actually scored very efficiently in transition in this series: 1.33 points per transition possession. But they haven’t gotten the same number of transition opportunities as they did in the regular season or in the first round.
In the regular season, Philly scored 1.07 points per possession (a bottom-10 rate) on 20.0 transition possessions per game. In the first round against Brooklyn, the Sixers scored just 1.00 points per possession on 19.0 transition possessions per game. In this series, they’ve scored those 1.33 points per possession, but on just 13.5 transition possessions per game.
Against Brooklyn, Ben Simmons averaged 3.6 shots per game in the first six seconds of the shot clock, according to Second Spectrum tracking. In the conference semis, he has just five total field-goal attempts in the first six seconds.
The Raptors have seemingly won the pace battle, in part because they’ve averaged only 5.5 live-ball turnovers per game, with Brooklyn having averaged 7.8 in the first round. But Sixers coach Brett Brown explained after Game 2 that, with his team’s shorter rotation and the remaining players playing more minutes, it’s more difficult to push the ball in transition on every opportunity.
“We’ll try from time to time to play as fast as we can,” Brown said, “but the reality is it’s just a grind. And when you shrink your rotation, you’re probably not going to be able to call upon that type of freshness as much as if you were playing like a normal 9 1/2, 10 [guys].”
Problems in the paint
The bigger difference between Toronto’s two wins and Philadelphia’s two wins has been on the Toronto end of the floor, where he Raptors have scored 109.4 points per 100 possessions in Games 1 and 4, and just 96.8 in Games 2 and 3.
But one number stands out in regard to the Sixers’ offense in wins vs. losses. In their two wins, they’ve shot 45-for-77 (58 percent) in the paint. In their two losses, they’ve shot 37-for-79 (47 percent) in the paint.
“We have to own some of it,” Brown said Monday of his team’s inability to finish in Game 4. “You give credit to Toronto’s length and their attention to that area.”
Indeed, the Raptors played bigger in Game 4 and Serge Ibaka blocked three shots inside. In the regular season, Philly ranked fifth in field goal percentage in the paint (57.4 percent), but 17th in effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (49.3 percent). So defending the former seems like a good priority for Toronto.
Of course, if the Raptors are going to collapse in the paint and focus on contesting shots inside, the Sixers will get open looks on the perimeter. They made 12 threes on Sunday, but Tobias Harris (2-for-13) and Mike Scott (0-for-3) were a combined 2-for-16 from beyond the arc.
Over the four games, Harris (7-for-22) has attempted more catch-and-shoot 3s than J.J. Redick (9-for-20), which is probably a good thing for the Raptors. Right after Kawhi Leonard hit the biggest shot of the series on Sunday, Harris missed a wide-open corner 3 when the Toronto defense collapsed on a Joel Embiid roll to the rim.
If Harris made that shot, it’s back to a one-point game with about 40 seconds left. Alas, he missed and the Raptors made enough free throws to seal the game and even the series.
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