Nick Nurse fine-tuned his new rotation, and the Sixers’ strategy to stop Kawhi opened up a whole host of issues. Can the Raptors close this series out in six?
For the Philadelphia 76ers, the good news is that they were able to slow down Kawhi Leonard. In Game 5, they were able to hold Kawhi to just five points in the first quarter on 2-of-6 shooting, and a “mere” 19 points through three quarters, on 6-of-15 shooting.
The bad news? The Sixers were concentrating so much on Kawhi, they forgot that Kawhi’s got some really good teammates, and the Raptors made them pay.
I guess the worst news for the Sixers is that given Kawhi’s performance in Game 5, he’s probably due for maintenance/re-calibration/firmware update in Game 6. And judging from the gear that Kawhi (and the whole team) was in on Tuesday, he should be heading into Game 6 fresh.
Let’s look at how both coaches approached Game 5, and predict what kind of adjustments the Raptors and Sixers might roll out.
For the Sixers
Brett Brown’s got quite a few issues to solve. After handing the keys of the offense to Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons has looked worse than Pascal Siakam in his rookie year — all Simmons has been able to do is run in transition. In a half-court set, Brown needs to find a way to get Simmons involved.
Then there’s the Embiid situation. Healthy or not, he can only play five, six minutes tops at a time. This means, of course, that the likelihood of the Sixers running plays for Embiid while he’s on the floor is high, making it easier for the Raptors to anticipate. Additionally, because of Embiid’s gas tank, it feels like a waste if the Sixers run consecutive plays without involving Embiid in the action.
In short, Philly’s offense, outside of Butler, is broken right now, but their talent is undeniable. Now, the stakes are even higher. Brown has to figure this out tonight, or go on vacation.
Get Ben Simmons Going
At least Brett Brown can say he tried.
To start the game, the Sixers tried to post up Simmons on Kyle Lowry. As we all know, not the best idea, and Simmons was not able to get a shot. Simmons had to kick it out, and got the ball back near the basket, only to get his lunch money taken by Kawhi Leonard.
The next Sixers possession had Simmons trying to go downhill on Kawhi, only for Kawhi to poke the ball away, leading to another Simmons turnover. Shortly after, Simmons got a good head start going downhill on Kawhi, going one-on-one, but he bricked a lefty layup.
From then on, Simmons was very picky on being aggressive enough to take a shot.
Will We See This Again: The Sixers will probably try to tweak how to get Simmons going, but it’s limited to going downhill in transition, cuts to the basket or broken plays.
If there’s a silver lining for the Sixers, it’s how they were able to slow down Kawhi in part. Similarly to how the Orlando Magic defended Kawhi, Philly packed the paint and pretty much had all of their eyes on Kawhi once he had the ball.
Because the Sixers were well-positioned to double, triple, or even quadruple team Kawhi in the paint, Leonard did not have the same success he had in the first four games of the series.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, the Raptors provided Kawhi with release valves in case he gets trapped, and he was able to safely kick the ball out. The downside here for the Sixers is that they don’t have the discipline to recover once their defense breaks down, and it resulted in quite a few wide open shots.
Will We See This Again: Making other Raptors hit their shot in a hostile environment is worth the gamble. The alternative is Kawhi going off again.
Potential Adjustments for the Sixers
I have no other suggestions on how to make Ben Simmons relevant on the offensive end if the Sixers are running pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off actions that don’t involve him handling the ball. At this point, if he can’t do any of our past suggestions (get into transition or as a cutter), he’ll just have to work on his game this summer.
Defensively, having Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka on the floor together is the biggest thorn in the side for the Sixers. They have to find ways to run one of them off the court to free up the paint — for Simmons, if not just for Embiid.
It perhaps sounds easy on paper, but the Sixers have to challenge Gasol in the paint early and often. They need to try to get Gasol into early foul trouble and get him working on defense as much as possible. In this scenario, Nurse would have no option but to roll with just Ibaka for a longer duration, which could spell disaster for Toronto.
Will We See This: Gasol is always on the border of early foul trouble, so it’s doable.
Push the pace
Run. Run after a turnover, run after a miss, run even after a make. We’ve seen Lowry and the Raptors do this, and Simmons should be able to do this. They don’t necessarily need to wait for Embiid — if he’s out of shape to get back right away, it’s fine. Gasol’s not going to spring down the floor, and if the rest of the Sixers run with Simmons, they can create 4-on-3 opportunities, and potentially free up JJ Redick in the process.
Will We See This: Simmons only saw Gasol and Ibaka on the floor together in the last 3+ minutes of the third quarter, so Brett Brown would have to get creative with his rotation to match Simmons minutes with those two.
Get Jimmy/Embiid PNR Action vs. Ibaka/Gasol
Based on the Raptors’ defensive scheme, Ibaka would switch with anyone as long as he’s not guarding Embiid. If Ibaka and Gasol are both on the floor, Gasol is covering Embiid, and Ibaka would cover someone else, either Tobias Harris or James Ennis III.
What the Sixers can do is get Butler in an early screen action that would get Ibaka switched with him, and then initiate a PNR action with Embiid. This way, there won’t be an Ibaka waiting near the rim for Embiid.
Will We See This: Unlikely, though maybe if Brett Brown reads this piece early enough…
Is it too much to ask a soon-to-be 35-year-old to play 40 minutes?
For the most part in this series, JJ Redick’s minutes are tied with Embiid. His DHO plays with Embiid are one of the ways the Sixers get the ball to Embiid and warp the Raptors’ defense. Jump out at an open Redick and Toronto risks opening a lane for Embiid, stay close to the latter and the former springs open for a 3. It’s trouble.
Brown needs to find a way to get Redick his shots around the perimeter to open up the floor for the rest of his teammates. His minutes with Embiid are important to establish the big man, but the Sixers need him to do more than being a facilitator for Embiid.
Will We See This: 50/50. In Game 5, Brown used Redick for seven minutes straight in the second quarter. Unfortunately, it looked like he needed some rest, and it coincided with Embiid’s return to the floor.
For the Raptors
Game 5 was probably the reason why Nick Nurse hesitated to make any drastic adjustments in Games 2 and 3. Had Danny Green and the rest of the team hit their shots like they did on Tuesday, maybe we’re looking at a gentleman’s sweep.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and like every team in the playoffs, the Sixers made their adjustments. For a moment, the Raptors were on the ropes, and Nurse was forced to make his first major change of the playoffs.
Even when Embiid was sick, there’s one thing that remains apparent for Toronto: Ibaka can’t guard Embiid alone for a long stretch. Nurse tried to move Gasol’s minutes a little bit to decrease Ibaka being on an island with Embiid in Game 3, but it wasn’t enough.
Starting in Game 4, due to Pascal Siakam’s injury, Nurse was forced to go to an option that didn’t work much in the regular season: Putting Gasol and Ibaka on the floor at the same time.
The strategy worked well, as the Raptors were able to keep Embiid in check and fix the rebounding and defensive issues that came with the bench unit. The Sixers weren’t able to take advantage of having Ibaka on Tobias Harris, and that proved to be one of their undoings.
In Game 5, Nurse fine-tuned this strategy by mixing up where the help defense would be coming from and ensuring that Ibaka was waiting under the rim once Embiid got in the paint. Having Ibaka on the same floor as Gasol also provided a safety net for the latter to hedge or switch as needed without worrying about Embiid, as Ibaka would cheat off Harris to rotate over to help.
Offensively, the Raptors went at Embiid as often as possible to further empty his gas tank, and did the same to Greg Monroe to force the Sixers to shorten Embiid’s in-between rests.
Will We See This Again: Hell yeah!
Aggressive Supporting Cast
From Kyle Lowry’s early energy, to Siakam unconsciously taking above the break three-point shots, to the whole team getting into transition, and executing their non-Kawhi plays, the Raptors’ supporting cast showed up and gave Kawhi a much deserved “night off.”
With the rest of the team coming alive, they methodically put cracks into the Sixers’ defensive plan as the game went on. It left the Sixers hesitating between ganging up on Kawhi or getting back to their coverage. That hesitation was more than enough for Kawhi to put on a show and dunk on the Sixers’ heads a few times.
Will We See This Again: Out on the road, Kawhi will need all the help he can get.
Potential Adjustments for the Raptors
The Raptors can pretty much double down on what they did in Game 5, and that could be more than enough. Naturally, I expect the Sixers to come out swinging, and the Raptors need to be prepared for that.
Keep Butler in check
Danny Green is doing an admirable job trying to contain Butler, but he still remains a problem for the Raptors. Nurse should continue to put Kawhi on him from time-to-time if necessary.
In the fourth quarter of Game 4, Leonard ended up switched onto Butler quite a bit, and Philly’s go-to gamer didn’t score for a few minutes. It’s a strategy Toronto should keep in mind — though they didn’t need it much in Game 5’s blowout.
Will We See This: We’ve seen Nurse go to Kawhi in crunch time in Game 4, and if the game is close, we will probably see it again.
Draw Embiid Out and Attack the Paint
The Sixers’ interior defense is suspect if Embiid is nowhere near the paint, and on the road it’s important for the Raptors not to settle for perimeter shots. If Toronto can make Embiid use up energy trying to help on defense all the way from the three-point line that would count as a small victory. Worst case scenario, it will make the Sixers defense collapse in the paint with or without Kawhi, and those could be great kick-out opportunities for a three-pointer.
Will We See This: It worked in Games 4 and 5, so there’s no reason not to see this again.
Defensive Death Lineup
In Game 4, the Raptors went for a few minutes in the fourth quarter with a Gasol-Ibaka-Siakam-Kawhi-Lowry lineup. That lineup did not disappoint defensively, and outside of Butler’s lucky three-point shot, they effectively shut down the paint, and only yielded uncomfortable three-point attempts.
Given the Sixers’ futility from the perimeter, this could be something that the Raptors can lean on in a pinch. I’m pretty sure they’ve practiced this lineup now a few times since, as it’s been effective on defense, and capable enough at generating offense.
Will We See This: It would be cool to see, but I hope it won’t be needed.