Those playoff ghosts aren’t gone yet! They re-emerged last night and gave Philadelphia control of the series.
Remember this feeling? This feeling of helplessness, as an opponent absolutely clowns our team — and our team just folds up? It’s the worst feeling you can have as a fan, to see your team get run off the floor right in front of your eyes.
That game sucked. What else is there to say?
Kawhi Leonard Knows All About “The Hump” Now
When Kawhi Leonard was asked about the Raptors’ playoff struggles at the start of the postseason, he shrugged it off. Had nothing to do with him, or this iteration of the team, right? And, it was being borne out; since Kawhi Leonard arrived, we were all looking forward to finally have a proven playoff performer, a bona fide superstar, the best player in a series… and he’s it. Leonard has been even better than we could have expected.
And yet… despite the new coach, and the three new starters, and plenty of new bench players… that hump is still there. What we saw last night was like so many Raptors playoff moments past: The team seems to fall apart as soon as the game tightens up. Put a challenge in front of them? They freeze. They can’t hit shots. They can’t run the offense. Their defense collapses. The adjustments come too slowly to make a difference. And before you know it, it’s over.
And the other team? They get open shots and easy lay-ups, they throw down monster dunks, they hoot and holler to the crowd… the Raptors don’t just get beaten, they get embarrassed.
I thought this year would be different. I don’t mind losing to a scrappy Orlando team on a buzzer-beater. I don’t mind losing a defensive slugfest like Game 2. I don’t even mind a double-digit loss!
But getting clowned like that? I’m so tired of it. I so want that narrative to change. I want the Raptors to do the clowning for once! It’s exhausting.
And I feel bad for Kawhi… but, hey. He’s one of us, now.
Please, Shoot Me. Uh, I Mean, Shoot the Basketball
On one early first-quarter possession last night, Leonard passed out of a double-team to an open Marc Gasol. Shockingly, Gasol was not shot-ready, and he passed it to an open Kyle Lowry. You won’t believe this, but Lowry was also not shot-ready. So, he passed it to an open Pascal Siakam. Now, Siakam wasn’t shot ready either, but three-pointers from the wing aren’t his bag, so I don’t mind that; he drove to the hoop instead (and got bailed out by a late call). The point is that this possession was emblematic of the Raptors’ struggles all series: The Raptors are relying on Leonard and Siakam far too much, and getting far too little out of everyone else.
I get Gasol and Lowry want to get everyone else involved. And passing is contagious, which is usually good! But you can’t leave all the scoring to one or two guys, and when the opportunity to shoot presents itself, guys have to be willing to take them — at least to keep the defense honest.
(Also — when Lowry does shoot — he has to stop “trying to draw contact” on his shots. We all know the drill — he leaves his feet, tries to exaggerate contact, and throws up a wild shot with no hope of going in, hoping to get a foul call. But it’s the playoffs. He’s not going to get those calls in the playoffs! Even James Harden gets fewer calls in the postseason. Kyle’s got to be smarter than that.)
Both Gasol and Lowry are high-IQ players and generally, I love watching them play. But part of being a smart player is knowing when your teammates need more from you in one area or another — such as scoring. They have to be ready and willing to score when opportunities arise.
It’s The Little Things, Man
Here’s one thing that just makes me pull my hair out, that good teams do, that the Raptors… don’t.
Kawhi Leonard played the entire third quarter last night, and while you could say they needed every minute of him… I’d argue they didn’t need the last 30 seconds.
The Raptors deflected a ball out of bounds with 27.5 seconds left, and as soon as that whistle blew, Kawhi should have been out of the game. After that whistle, there was a 76ers offensive foul, a Raptors turnover, a Raptors foul, a Philly out-of-bounds turnover, and a clock issue. All told, 2:38 of “realtime” passed at the end of that quarter, that Kawhi could have been on the bench resting, for the fourth.
Instead, Kawhi stayed on the floor, not coming out until the buzzer.
And in the fourth, Pascal Siakam picked up a flagrant foul with 10:05 to go. That put the Sixers on an 7-0 run… And yet, Kawhi didn’t come back in until after the next possession. Why didn’t he get ready to sub in during the flagrant review?
All those seconds all counted. The score was 89-81 at that 27.2 mark mentioned above, and by the time Leonard came back, it was a Philly 11-1 run the game was over.
I know Leonard needs rest. But you can creatively steal moments of rest that don’t leave you bleeding points for three straight minutes of game time.
Size Also Matters
Philadelphia is a big team. This isn’t news. What is news is that the Raptors think they can compete by consistently playing lineups that include Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell — i.e., the three smallest players on the floor. They played 8.6 minutes together last night! That’s insanity.
This is the lineup that started the fourth quarter, when Philly went on it’s 11-1 run. To be fair, that was mostly just Joel Embiid being a monster… but the point still stands: VanVleet and Lowry need to stagger their minutes, they can’t play together, and they absolutely can’t both play with Powell.
Nick Nurse staggers Gasol and Ibaka, right? Why not stagger VanVleet and Lowry the same way? Playing them together doesn’t make much sense anyway, when I see VanVleet trying to run a pick-and-roll with Marc Gasol (and blow it by delivering a shitty drop pass) while Lowry’s stuck on the opposite wing.
The Raptors aren’t going to get an influx of size overnight. But they can mitigate the damage Philly’s size does by not playing their three smallest guys at the same time. The Raptors are being out rebounded by 11 rebounds per game. That’s got to change.
The Bench is Broken
Speaking of guys who can’t play together — Games 1 and 2 told us that Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka are struggling mightily as a group. So, it would only make sense to break them up. Get Ibaka some more minutes with Lowry and Siakam; those guys started like 40 (very successful!) games together. Get VanVleet some minutes with Leonard, Green and Gasol — so he doesn’t have to do as much. Spot Powell in where you can.
I’m no coach but surely any of that would be better than what we got from those three guys together in Games 1 and 2, yeah? And yet, they saw 6.8 minutes together again last night.
Once again I can’t blame this entirely on Nick Nurse; these guys have to play better. Fred VanVleet, in particular, has been so utterly awful… he looks unplayable. I don’t know what happened to our guy, Steady Freddy, who anchored our bench, played well as a starer when needed and was shooting the lights out after coming back from injury. His first shot attempt last night was a layup… that he laid right in to the outstretched hands of Mike Scott. It was one of the worst layup attempts I’ve ever seen in the NBA. He finished 0-for-7, and is now 1-for-11 with four total points in the series — in 21 minutes per game.
The series isn’t over yet! One game doesn’t make a series, even if it was embarrassing and brought back far, far too many bad memories. The Raptors have come back from 2-1 deficits before to win, including from an utterly embarrassing Game 3 in Milwaukee in 2017.
But this is it: For everyone that said this team was different, that it wasn’t the same guys and the past didn’t matter and they would respond differently, this is their opportunity to prove it.