TORONTO — As talented as the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers are, and as incredible as Kawhi Leonard has been offensively, this conference semifinals series has quickly turned into an old-school, Eastern Conference grind.
The pace has relatively slow and defense has ruled the day, with the two teams combining to barely score a point per possession (386:385) through two games. The Raptors have now held their opponent under a point per possession in six straight contests, but the Sixers were the better defensive team in Game 2 on Monday, and they evened the series with a 94-89 victory.
Leonard and Pascal Siakam torched the Sixers for 74 combined points on 74-percent shooting in Game 1 on Saturday. Those numbers surely weren’t sustainable. But the Sixers weren’t going to stand pat and count on regression. Instead, they Sixers put their best and biggest defenders on the Raptors’ forwards from the jump in Game 2. Ben Simmons had the Leonard assignment, and Joel Embiid guarded Siakam.
The adjustments worked. Leonard still scored 35 points on Monday, but wasn’t as comfortable stepping into his pull-up jumper as he was two nights earlier and made just 3-of-12 shots from outside the paint.
Siakam toasted Embiid with a Siakam special (reverse pivot spin move) early in the first quarter. But more typical of his night was the previous possession, when Embiid sat back on a Kyle Lowry-Siakam pick-and-roll and Siakam missed a one-handed push shot from 14 feet out. The favorite for the Kia Most Improved Award was 7-for-12 in the restricted area, but shot more and worse (2-for-13) from outside it.
“I like that shot,” Siakam said of his floaters. “I got to make that.”
He can say that, but there’s a big difference between a layup and a shot just a few feet from the basket. In the regular season, Siakam shot 71 percent in the restricted area, but just 43 percent on other shots in the paint. Both of those numbers are better than average, but keep him from getting all the way to the rim, and dramatically increase the chances of getting a stop.
The Raptors weren’t completely stunned by the Sixers’ adjustments. But it took time. In the first quarter of Game 1, they scored on 15 straight possessions – on their way to 39 points by the end of the period.
On Monday, the Raptors scored just nine points on their first 15 possessions. The Sixers’ defenders stayed in front of their man, their rotations were sharp, and the Raptors couldn’t get where they wanted to go.
Our defense at the start of the game was almost as good as it could be.”
Sixers coach Brett Brown
“I thought our defense at the start of the game,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said, “was almost as good as it could be.”
The assignment changes left Tobias Harris guarding Marc Gasol, but the Raptors’ center was unable to take advantage. His post-ups sparked a 7-2 run in the third quarter, but Gasol finished with just five points on 1-for-6 shooting.
“I feel like putting Harris on Marc probably got us out of rhythm a little bit,” Leonard admitted. “Once we started figuring it out, I feel like we started playing better.”
Not much better. That 7-2 run via Gasol post-ups was the only time the Raptors scored on more than two straight trips down the floor in the first 45 minutes.
With Leonard drawing more than just Simmons’ attention, there were opportunities for other Raptors to make shots.
According to Second Spectrum tracking, Leonard passed the ball twice as often in Game 2 (38 times) as he did in Game 1 (19). But the Raptors shot just 10-for-37 from 3-point range. Danny Green, who ranked second in 3-point percentage during the regular season (45.5 percent), was 1-for-6 on Monday. When the Raptors finally put together a string of four straight scores late in the fourth quarter, Green got a wide-open 3-point attempt to tie the game with 10 seconds left … and it rimmed out.
“I think we’re doing a pretty good job of attacking them and getting downhill and getting it inside,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “They’re sending a lot of bodies. We saw that in the first series and we’ve got to make the right reads out. When do, you’ve got to knock them down. You can take ’em all day, you’ve got to make some.”
“We got lucky there at the end,” Brown admitted.
The Sixers haven’t been efficient offensively in either game of this series. Embiid is 7-for-25 from the field, Butler and Harris have each made fewer than 40 percent of their shots, and Philly has committed 36 turnovers in two games. But it doesn’t matter how many points you score, as long as you score more than your opponent. And the difference between Games 1 and 2 has been on the Raptors’ end of the floor.
On Monday, it was the Sixers who dictated what happened. As a result, they’ve taken home-court advantage as this series heads to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4.
“When we play like that, guard like that,” said Jimmy Butler said, “we’re such a good team.”
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