PHILADELPHIA — Often, every game in a playoff series is unique, with no real connection to the games that precede or follow. But the first three games of the Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers have felt like an evolution.
- Game 1: The Sixers just aren’t on the Raptors’ level.
- Game 2: Maybe the Sixers are on the Raptors’ level.
- Game 3: Hey! When did the Sixers get so good?
Philadelphia’s wire-to-wire, 116-95 victory in Game 3 was a new team finding itself on both ends of the floor and putting together its best performance of the year.
Neither of these teams entered this series with a clear sense of who they were. The Raptors’ starting lineup had played together in just 19 games prior to Game 1, while the Sixers’ starting lineup had played together in just 14.
The Raptors had Kawhi Leonard, and that was enough in Game 1. But since then, Toronto’s attack hasn’t evolved beyond a whole lot of Leonard and some Pascal Siakam on the side. Leonard has averaged 37.7 points on an effective field goal percentage of 67 percent in the series. Siakam, for the most part, has come along for the ride, averaging 23.3 on an effective field goal percentage of 55 percent.
After that, things have been dicey. The other Raptors have been unable … and somewhat unwilling … to score. On Thursday, after Leonard scored 14 points in a remarkable run in the third quarter, helping the Raptors shave an 18-point deficit down to seven, the Sixers adjusted and sent two defenders at him.
“You had to do something,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “And we chose to go after him and get the ball out of his hands.”
That should have opened things up for Leonard’s teammates, and when he gave up the ball, the Philly defense was in rotation. But Toronto was unable to take advantage. The ball moved, but the Raptors didn’t make (or even take) enough open shots.
Raptors Offensive Rating
“It felt like there was a lot of guys passing up shots,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “There were a couple of possessions where I was like ‘There it goes up’ and four more passes would go by. It seemed like every guy that had it was open and he’d move it to the next guy.”
“I just think we’re making the game harder than it has to be on ourselves,” Danny Green said. “Sometimes, just make the easy play and go from there. Take the first open look or the first easy shot. A lot of times, we’re over-swinging it or over-thinking it or taking too long to swing it.”
The Raptors simply aren’t making the Sixers pay for the attention they’ve put on Leonard, whether that be the double-teams they threw at him late in Game 3 or just showing him extra bodies on the strong side of the floor.
We’ve got to help him. Myself especially, I’ve got to help him score more. … He’s playing unbelievable right now. We’re not giving him any help.”
Kyle Lowry, on Kawhi Leonard
“We’ve got to help him,” said Kyle Lowry, who has averaged 12 points and shot 2-for-14 from 3-point range in the series. “We’ve got to help him. Myself especially, I’ve got to help him score more. I’ve got to help him on the floor. We’ve all got to help him. He’s playing unbelievable right now. We’re not giving him any help. Me, I’m not giving him any help. We’ve got to help him.”
That was six got to help hims, by the way.
Credit the Sixers’ defense. Their rotations were on point, running some Raptors off of catch-and-shoot opportunities. And when Toronto attacked closeouts off the dribble and got into the paint, Joel Embiid was there to block their shots or scare them from even taking them.
Embiid matched Leonard’s 33 points in Game 3, shooting 3-for-4 from 3-point range and 12-for-13 from the free throw line. And he added 10 rebounds, three assists and five blocks, including two rejections of Siakam on a 21-2, fourth-quarter run that turned the seven-point lead into a 26-point cushion and brought out the third string for both teams.
“[Joel] is our crown jewel defensively,” Brown said, “and I suppose offensively too, but certainly defensively. And his rim protection and shot-blocking ability tonight stood as much as anything in an incredible performance.”
The defense was there in Game 2, when the Sixers won a game in which both teams scored less than a point per possession. The rapid evolution of this series really surfaced on the other end of the floor, where Philly scored 110 points on 85 possessions (1.29 per) before extended garbage time on Thursday.
Embiid was the fulcrum of the offense as much as he was the defense. The 3-for-4 from 3-point range was an anomaly, but he also did a lot of work inside, both in the post and as a roll man. And with Philly playing more pick-and-roll than they’ve done in the past, there were opportunities for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris off the dribble. For one of the first times since the Sixers’ talented starting lineup came together, all five guys were able to get theirs on offense without anyone taking a real back seat.
And while the Raptors are seemingly making things too complicated, the Sixers have seemingly just taken care of the basics, as Butler would put it when he was asked about the team’s chemistry on pick-and-rolls.
“I think ‘chemistry’ is a bad word,” Butler said. “Like everybody wants to say that because we play together however many games or we didn’t play together however many games. It’s simple enough to know that when you have some good basketball players out there, the game happens, you make the right plays, you do what you’re supposed to do with the basketball. That’s all it is. The game is really simple. I think at times we as players decide to make it hard, but if you’re open, shoot it. If you’re not, pass.”
The Raptors would do well to follow Butler’s advice in Game 4 on Sunday (3:30 ET, ABC). If they don’t, the evolution of this series could lead to the extinction of their season.
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