The Raptors’ performance in Game 3 against the Sixers was terrible. But, believe it or not, there were some silver linings to be found.
But a lot of that was just players having really bad games. Some of it was poor tactics and poor preparation — such as coming into the game with a plan to establish Marc Gasol as a scorer because the 76ers had shown a willingness to cover him with Tobias Harris. A good idea, except then they stuck with that plan even as the Sixers put Joel Embiid Gasola, leading to several wasted possessions trying to force offense through an unfavourable matchup.
There are dozens of examples of frustrating strategy like that, and many more examples of players simply playing badly. Gasol and Kyle Lowry passing up open three pointers repeatedly to make an unnecessary extra pass, allowing the defense to recover, Fred VanVleet seeming to forget how to play basketball at all, Serge Ibaka doing the bad kind of Serge Ibaka things, and so on.
But were there any positive signs for the Raptors? Assuming the players can return to the decisive and effective play they displayed throughout round one and Game 1 vs. Philly, let’s review some small differences between Toronto’s collective performance in this series.
Serge Over Marc?
One obvious trend in this series has been the Raptors winning Marc Gasol’s minutes, but losing Serge Ibaka’s minutes rather dramatically. A big part of the reason for this has been Nick Nurse’s insistence on not matching Gasol’s minutes to Embiid’s, which puts Ibaka in a poor position to succeed — and arguably led directly to Toronto’s Game 2 loss.
So, in Game 3, did that hold up? It certainly did not. In fact, Ibaka was a +4 on the night, the only regular to post a positive plus-minus. While Gasol was a staggering -26 in only 29 minutes, by far the worst per-minute losing rate on the team.
So, what happened? Based on the round so far, you’d think that even if the team was laying an egg, you’d still see the Ibaka minutes be at least as bad as the Gasol minutes.
Unfortunately, in Game 3 Gasol lost his magic touch against Embiid. Although the Raptors’ centre had been doing a credible job on Embiid in the first two games, in Game 3 the Sixers’ big man found his touch beyond the arc and managed to produce some serious offense while being guarded by Gasol for the first time this series.
Embiid absolutely dominated this matchup for the first time this series, and honestly for the first time in the two players’ careers. In the 21 minutes he spent matched up to Gasol, Embiid put up 29 points on 20 used possessions, largely thanks to getting to the free throw line 13 times, drawing eight fouls in that time.
And as much as that matchup fell apart for the Raptors in this game, it seemed more like an off game for Gasol and the defense in general than any sort of trend we should expect to continue. So the positive sign is that they managed to cover off 21 of Embiid’s 28 minutes with Gasol, and going forward the Raptors should expect those minutes to be less damaging — assuming they can maintain (or even improve) that coverage, as they did in Games 1 and 2.
As for Ibaka, not only did he have a good game surviving the short stretches where he was matched up to Embiid (the stretches being short helped, but the 76ers only won those seven minutes by two points), but he played nine of his 16 minutes away from Embiid. Still not an ideal hard matching of the two big centres, but far better than in Game 2 when Ibaka effectively played every minute of his time lined up against Embiid. And it paid off, as hard as it is to see behind the disastrous Gasol minutes.
Ibaka managed a +4 on the night, meaning he was +6 in the nine minutes he played away from Embiid. Right in line with the small sample success he had away from Embiid in Game 1.
If the Raptors are pulling out all the stops to take the now-crucial Game 4, this is one obvious move: get all of Ibaka’s minutes away from Embiid and he can be a useful rotation piece. Throw in the added benefit that the 76ers’ unusual distribution of Embiid’s minutes means Ibaka would get a lot more time alongside Lowry, the only player who seems to be able to assist on an Ibaka bucket, and we might see some meaningful bench production as well.
Speaking of Lowry
Gasol had a bad game, turning down open shots and struggling to have an impact on either end. But Kyle Lowry was nearly as bad in this one, and as much as he usually has a massive impact on the team even when he doesn’t score, in this one he was a complete sinking anchor.
The Raptors had only a 92 ORTG when Lowry was on the court in Game 3, a better mark only than the three main bench rotation pieces. In the 10 minutes Lowry sat, the offense jumped to a 114 ORTG.
Meanwhile, Lowry’s on-court DRTG was the third worst on the team at 131 points per 100 possessions, and when he sat the team’s DRTG dropped to 85.
This is a dramatic change from what we’ve seen of Lowry’s impact throughout the playoffs so far (and, frankly, his entire career in Toronto). Prior to Game 2, Lowry’s playoff impact has looked far different.
With Lowry on the court, the Raptors had an ORTG 30 points better than when he sat. That’s the fourth best offensive impact on the team (behind Gasol, Danny Green, and Leonard, who has been an absolutely incredible driver of offense, with an impact of 47 points per 100 possessions). Defensively, the team was 25 points per 100 possessions better with Lowry than without — a mark far and away the best on the team, with the nearest competitor being Serge Ibaka with a six-point improvement. Lowry, in fact, was the only starter with a measurable positive defensive on-off split, with Leonard and Gasol being break-even players, and the team a few points leakier with Green or Pascal Siakam (strength of opposition probably explains these smaller splits).
Obviously a wildly different picture than in Game 3. And his career splits are more in line with how the playoffs have gone thus far.
I don’t think we should expect these oddities from Game 3 to repeat. If the Raptors can return to form in Game 4, and continue to improve their rotation choices, they should be able to come out with a split in Philly and a tied series coming back to Toronto.
Frankly, with better rotation choices they’d have won both Toronto games and be in a better spot even with that stinker in Game 3. But so long as they correct course and return to what made them so recently look like contenders, there’s no reason to think Game 3 spells an imminent end of the road for this year’s Raptors.