Kawhi came up big again in Game 4, but this time he got some help from the rest of the Raptors — including the coaching staff. Should the Sixers be worried? More importantly, are the Raptors now in control?
Are we really sure that Kawhi Leonard is all set for a move to the Los Angeles Clippers? After his Game 4 performance, it definitely feels like he’s not ready for his season with the Raptors to be over. When Kawhi’s playing at an extremely high level, things tend to go his way — which happens to be good news, at least for now, for Toronto.
The Philadelphia 76ers still can’t slow down Kawhi, and the Raptors, meanwhile, finally made some changes to fix some of the holes of their recently listing ship. It’s now a best-of-three series with two games in Toronto. And it feels like the team that starts hitting their perimeter shots will win this series.
Let’s look at what both teams have done so far, and what to expect in Game 5.
For the Sixers
The Sixers probably feel like they should have won Game 4. They were in it, and if not for a five-minute stretch where they went scoreless in the fourth quarter, maybe things would have been different.
Outside of JJ Redick, the Sixers never quite got into their comfort zone thanks to some excellent adjustments from the Raptors bolstered their defense. Even then, Redick’s shots were too few and far between. The rest of the Sixers missed a lot of open perimeter shots, and the Raptors going big made it tough for the Sixers to score inside the arc. That was the story of Game 4.
More Point Jimmy
After Game 3, I wrote about how the Sixers used Jimmy Butler as their point guard if/when Simmons is not handling the ball. In Game 4, there was a steady diet of Butler handling the ball via pick-and-rolls with Embiid, trying to create something, or just a plain ISO or post-up to create something for himself or for his teammates.
Butler’s gravity in Game 4 was the main reason why the Sixers were in a position to win the game. If his teammates had converted some of the shots he created for them, things would feel very different today.
Will We See This Again: It’s much more effective than Simmons doing something with the ball, so the Sixers should milk this strategy.
Tobias with the Green Light
Maybe the light was too green.
As a recipient of a kick out around the perimeter, Harris shot an unacceptable 2-of-13 behind the arc. This is a player shooting 44 percent in the playoffs heading into Game 4. However, he’s averaging over four 3-point attempts per game, and 13 seems to be unusually high especially if he’s not hitting them.
Will we see this again: The Raptors routinely left him open in Game 3, and since it worked, I’d expect them to challenge Harris again.
Brett Brown seems to have no counter prepared for the Raptors going with the twin towers, and with Greg Monroe looking unplayable earlier in the game, Brown elected to go small by putting Mike Scott in to give Embiid a breather in the fourth.
Scott was supposed to provide more spacing, as the Raptors were collapsing everything in the paint. However, Ibaka was a load for Scott down low — he got out-muscled more than once for an extra Raptors possession (one that turned into a Marc Gasol 3) — and Kawhi targeted him in the pick-and-roll (which led to another Gasol 3). Scott also turned the ball over, committed a shooting foul, and bricked a pick-and-pop 3.
While it wasn’t necessarily Scott’s fault the Sixers could not score — he was only in less than two minutes out of the 5-minute scoreless stretch for the Sixers — his presence on the defensive end was the problem.
Will We See This Again: Probably, especially if Monroe continues to be a liability.
Potential Adjustments for the Sixers
Do the Sixers really need to change anything? Is it just a matter of hitting their open shots to chase the Gasol/Ibaka combination off the floor?
Should Brett Brown suit up and help guard Kawhi or just wait for Kawhi to fall back to earth? Wait, is Kawhi an alien, not a robot?
Kawhi did a great job mixing up his shot selection to keep his main (and help) defender on their heels trying to guess what he’ll do next. Still, it felt like the Sixers were defending Kawhi decently enough to start the game. Up until Ben Simmons blocked Kawhi’s top-of-the-key three-point attempt around the 4-minute mark in the second quarter, Kawhi had a quiet 11 points on 3-of-7 shooting, with four turnovers.
It looks like Simmons poked the bear in that moment though, as Kawhi got more aggressive, going 10-of-13 the rest of the way for 39 points.
So what should the Sixers do?
Well, for one, they need to trap Kawhi harder. Joel Embiid, Greg Monroe, or whoever is guarding Kawhi’s screener has to blitz him hard — hard enough to make him give up the ball. The Sixer’s half-baked double or shows off PnRs are just giving Kawhi enough time and space to calmly hoist a three-point shot, or a quick hard dribble away from the defenders for a mid-range jumper.
Will We See This: The Sixers have demonstrated that they can do this from time to time, so the answer is yes
Make the Ibaka/Gasol Combo Pay
Brett Brown and the Sixers had the right idea — attacking Ibaka via Tobias Harris, and parking their shooters around the arc. Unfortunately for the Sixers, Harris and Scott bricked a lot of their shots.
Another thing that the Sixers should do is involve Ibaka and/or Gasol in plenty of screen actions, as that was one of their main issues when they played together.
Will We See This: I would expect Brown to try to chase the Gasol/Ibaka pairing off the court in any way possible.
The Sixers ran a ton of PnRs with Jimmy and Tobias using Embiid and Monroe as the screeners. The Sixers also put the ball in Butler’s hands a lot to create something, whether through drive-and-kick, or post-ups. The problem here is that if Simmons doesn’t have the ball, he’s almost useless in the half court set.
If I’m a Ben Simmons fan, I would have been livid that coach Brett Brown was drawing plays for James Ennis III to get a shot. Or with the number of possessions when Harris was given the freedom to do something with the ball.
It doesn’t help that Kawhi is covering Simmons for the most part, but is there something that Brett Brown can do to get him some buckets? More importantly, can Simmons be an off-ball threat in a half-court set?
Simmons needs to get the ball to push in transition, and in turn create his own shots by going downhill at the net. Simmons has to crash the defensive boards to get started, or he needs his teammates to find him fast after getting the rebound.
The half-court move for Simmons is to cut to the basket once his other teammates put their PnR in motion. Having him sitting near the dunker’s spot is not going to be that effective, especially if the Raptors go big again.
Will We See This: The Sixers are moving away from Simmons and becoming more and more of a PnR team/Jimmy Butler team. I would say 50/50.
For the Raptors
Nick Nurse and the Raptors made some drastic changes to pull out Game 4. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done, as it took a heroic effort from Kawhi to even the series at 2-2.
It will be interesting to see if Nurse will further tweak some of the adjustments he made in Game 4. While Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka finally provided some additional scoring punch, they need to do more. That means Nurse has to find ways for anyone not named Kawhi to get easier scoring opportunities.
Kawhi Took Jimmy’s Buckets
Last week, I wrote about how maybe Kawhi should cover Butler. Well, for the last six minutes of the game last Sunday, Kawhi covered Butler and pretty much shut him down. Butler ended up with just four points in that stretch, and two of those came from free throws after a shady call on a Kawhi steal.
Will We See This Again: Most likely not for a full game, but in crunch time, we (and the Sixers) should expect this.
Through four games, I did not suggest an Ibaka-Gasol pairing. Why? Based on their minutes together, it was ugly. Perhaps those minutes need to be revisited to see how many of them were played against actual big lineups vs. lineups with a small ball centre.
Against the Sixers, who had a shaky perimeter shooting outside of JJ Redick, the Spanish connection shut down the paint. In the fourth quarter, they were instrumental in shutting down the Sixers for a five-minute stretch. Sick, hungover, or whatever Embiid’s excuse may be, he was not the only one who struggled to score in the paint.
This particular adjustment did wonders for the Raptors’ on-going problems late in quarters. They were able to fight on the glass, match-up with Embiid, keep their play-making options open, and minimize the minutes of Fred VanVleet (sorry to say).
There was also a stretch to start the fourth when the Raptors went extremely big — Lowry, Kawhi, Pascal Siakam, Ibaka, and Gasol. During this four-minute span, the Sixers scored just nine points, with no field goals inside the arc, and one of the two perimeter shots happened out of luck (Butler’s fumbled spinning three-pointer).
Will We See This Again: We should, and Nurse could get creative on how to use this found money.
Potential Adjustments for the Raptors
Toronto’s Game 4 win is not a finished product for Nick Nurse and the Raptors. They need to find ways to get consistent scoring outside of Kawhi. If the Raptors can maintain the level of defense they’ve shown on their wins, Nurse can then focus on getting the offense going.
Kawhi-SO Release Valves
Kawhi had an uncharacteristic seven turnovers in Game 4, the only blemish to his sensational performance. A good majority of them came as Kawhi was trying to find his teammates with a pass on the move. Often the rest of the Raptors were guilty of watching Kawhi cook and didn’t move off-the-ball to potential open/passing lanes.
Kawhi has shown in the past that he can be a willing passer and will hit the open man on the move. If Nurse can get the rest of the roster moving through the seams of the Sixers’ defense, it should free Kawhi from a potential loading up by Philly.
Will We See This: Right now, Kawhi’s too good for the Sixers so it may not be needed. Still, it would be good to have that option available for Toronto.
Since this series is as old-school as it can get, the Raptors might as well double down and own the mid-range area.
The way Embiid, Monroe, and the Sixers in general are defending the Raptors’ PnR actions, the mid-range is wide open for Lowry and Gasol to do their thing. I know we all want Lowry and Gasol to shoot 3s, but if mid-range jumpers are available for them to put up points on the board, they should take advantage of it.
Siakam also has a floater that he can use, so the Raptors should be running PnRs with him as the screener to challenge Embiid’s gas tank and mobility throughout the game.
Will We See This: This could be more found money for Nurse and the Raptors.
Fixing VanVleet’s Minutes
I’m not fully ready to give up on Fred VanVleet, as I believe he’s still playable if used properly. First, Toronto should use him as a shooting guard, letting others (mainly Kawhi or Kyle) set the play with FVV as the release valve shooting option. Second, VanVleet should only play with the big lineups, again as a spot-up shooter. And third, connected to the previous point, he should only be out there in crunch time (or the fourth quarter, really) if JJ Redick is on the floor. Everyone else on the Sixers is just too big and long for FVV to deal with.
VanVleet’s inability to get the ball to Kawhi and him pounding the ball 15 seconds of the shot clock is killing him and the Raptors. But he still is one of the team’s better perimeter shooters, and Nurse should stick with what VanVleet does best.
Will We See This: We may not, given Toronto’s success in Game 4, but I hold out a bit of hope that Fred can bounce back.