The Toronto Raptors were pummeled in a crucial Game 3. Absolutely pummeled.
Joel Embiid, who finished the game with 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 blocks, threw down a monster windmill slam off a pump fake. The dunk sent the Philadelphia 76ers up by 26 points, and Embiid added insult to injury by taunting the Raptors’ bench with a hilarious airplane imitation. It was the play that crushed the hopes of Raptors fans everywhere, with many NBA fans bringing up the Raptors’ playoff shortcomings. Another season, many Raptors fans believed, another playoff run crushed by an Eastern Conference superstar.
However, the narrative has since shifted. After Game 3, the Raptors were done. After Game 4, the Raptors were back. Game 5 – they’re contenders.
Game 2 was a grind-it-out loss. Game 3 was a beat down. In a practically must-win Game 4, Coach Nick Nurse knew changes must have been made in order for his team to succeed. A big key to the Raptors 101-96 win in Game 4 was tightening the rotation. Three of the Toronto Raptors starters played 40+ minutes (Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Danny Green), with Marc Gasol playing 39 minutes. Siakam, who played through a calf contusion, played 28 minutes. Coach Nurse essentially ran a 6-man rotation, benching Fred Van Vleet in favour of Serge Ibaka. Van Vleet was shooting terribly prior to Game 4, making only 1 FG in about 61 total minutes of playing time. Instead, Coach Nurse not only let his best players go to work all game, but matched the Sixers’ size. Also, Kawhi Leonard did this.
The BIG Solution
The shortest player in the Sixers’ starting lineup is 6’4″ shooting guard, JJ Redick. In fact, Redick is the shortest player in their playoff rotation in comparison to the 5’11” Van Vleet. The Sixers abused the Raptors’ lack of size in Game 3, out-rebounding them by 10 boards. Coach Nurse battled back in Game 4 by putting Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in the same lineup for the first time ever. In 13 minutes played with a lineup of Lowry, Green, Leonard, Ibaka, and Gasol, the unit had a net rating of +28.7. The massive frontcourt duo of Ibaka and Gasol defended the paint well, forcing the Sixers to take and subsequently miss a majority of their jumpers. Tobias Harris (who hasn’t been the same 3-point threat he was on the Clippers) was held to 2-13 shooting from beyond the arc. Also, Embiid wasn’t able to muscle his way into the paint, finishing the game 2-7 from the field.
Joel Embiid’s health
Moreover, Joel Embiid’s health issues are clearly holding back his talent. He was questionable for Game 4 with flu-like symptoms. His conditioning has always been doubted, with fatigue plaguing him in late-game situations. Embiid even failed to close out on Gasol at the three, who is shooting 44.1% from beyond the arc this playoffs on 3.4 attempts. A mixture of conditioning and recent health issues are keeping Embiid from dominating like he’s used to. The Raptors have been capitalizing on this by scoring off fast breaks. Both Gasol and Lowry have fantastic court vision. Lowry can throw passes that slice through transition defenses. Gasol is notorious for his overhead outlet passes. In addition, Siakam’s agility to well-documented and Danny Green is a pull-up three-point threat. Also, Kawhi Leonard. We all know what he can do with a basketball.
The ‘Ben Simmons Problem’
The Sixers ultimately fell short off an Eastern Conference finals berth last year. The young Celtics abused his inability to shoot outside the paint. In fact, more teams have caught on this season. He hasn’t taken a shot beyond 15 ft, and it’s not a result of Leonard’s defensive greatness. Simmons simply cannot shoot, allowing his defenders to sag off him. And when your primary defender is The Klaw, that doesn’t bode well for your teammates.
However, a 3-2 series lead doesn’t mean it’s over. It’ll be a game of adjustments in a pivotal Game 6 tonight. Even if Embiid struggles through health issues, the Sixers have the talent to force a Game 7. With the impressive battles in both conference, it certainly adds to the excitement of the NBA playoffs.
The Raptors look to close out the series in Philadelphia tonight at 8 pm EST.