Five Thoughts: Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers have taken a 2-1 series lead over the Toronto Raptors, winning back-to-back games after losing the series opener north of the border.
Both teams face serious consequences pending the outcome of this Eastern Conference Semifinal; should the Raptors get bounced, they are likely to lose Kawhi Leonard in free agency, and possibly suffer a domino-effect that triggers a serious roster tear-down.
If the Sixers lose, they will find it extremely difficult to justify paying through the nose to keep this band together, with 60% of their pricey starting quintet (specifically JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris) eligible to depart via free agency this summer. This series could very well shift the balance of power across the NBA landscape, as the eventual loser is likely to relinquish star power that will undoubtedly be sought after by the rest of the league.
So without further ado, here are my five thoughts on the series after three games:
These teams should push each other to their absolute limits. I have this series pegged as a 7-gamer, justifiably going the distance as these two Finals contenders make a serious run at each other. Both teams possess rosters that rank among the absolute best of their respective franchise histories, and are producing a playoff series that is all-at-once engaging, frustrating, and genuinely meaningful. NBA fans deserve an Eastern Conference Semifinal with this much juicy drama and longevity, especially since the past few years have mostly been a wash from the East’s perspective (essentially a year-over-year question of “who wants the honour of getting blown out by the Warriors in the Finals?”). If this series between true NBA heavyweights doesn’t go the full seven games, fans will be missing out on some seriously enjoyable playoff basketball.
This series will make a significant contribution to the “star-power vs. rotational depth” playoff debate. While not as much of a debate as you might think (hint: star power usually wins out), there are still advocates of high-end roster depth among us NBA fans that espouse the values of rotating frequently and sending mixed looks at one’s opponent over the course of a seven game series. This series will go a long way in either solidifying popular logic (should the Sixers and their front-loaded roster win) or supplying evidence to the contrary (should the Raptors and their well-balanced roster prevail).
Seeing as Toronto’s bench has mostly failed to live up to expectations, the Raptors will have to turn things around quickly if they want to leverage their depth into performances that support their roster-construction choices. While Sixers GM Elton Brand was chastised by many across the league for emptying his bench to acquire star players, it may in fact pay off in astounding fashion during this playoff run.
Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard are battling it out for the honor of series MVP. This may not be much of a surprise, as these two players are borderline-unanimously ranked top-10 league wide, top-3 at their respective positions, and are undoubtedly the choice representative from either franchise for this prestigious-yet-totally-made-up honour. Over the course of three games, Embiid has averaged 20.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 blocks in 30.0 minutes. He’s shooting 40% from deep, forcing the Raptors to respect his outside shooting and step outside the paint – exactly where Embiid wants them. While Toronto did a respectable job of shackling Embiid in Games 1 and 2, his dominance in Game 3 might be a sign of things to come, and that could spell trouble for Toronto; unless Kawhi Leonard has something to say on the matter. The Klaw is Toronto’s only player capable of matching Embiid’s on-court impact, and he has been playing out of his mind for the Raptors so far; he’s averaging 37.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists on absurdly accurate shooting splits of 61/38/91 (FG%/3PT%/FT%). Watching these two MVP-caliber players go head-to-head for a shot at the Eastern Conference Finals has to be considered one of the greatest gifts given to viewers in the 2018-2019 playoffs.
Toronto’s organizational playoff culture and history continue to play a factor, despite statements to the contrary. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, Toronto’s primary orchestrators and key holdovers from playoffs past, are failing to show up when the franchise needs them most. Lowry, in particular, is being handsomely compensated (to the tune of $30 million+ per year) and simply cannot justify the performances he's turned in as of late. He knows this, of course, as NBA players are keenly aware of public perception and have easy access to box scores, coaching advice, and all the myriad sources that can be used to tell a player exactly how hard they are screwing the pooch. Despite his statements to the media that he has to be better and support Kawhi, it just seems that Lowry isn't cut from the same cloth in terms of playoff performance. Whether his struggles are mental or physical, Lowry is struggling to be even a third option offensively behind Leonard and Siakam; this is unacceptable. If the Raptors want to change their organizational culture (assuming they get bounced early this year), they will have to start by shipping out Lowry, who is the remaining half of Toronto's legendarily poor playoff duo (the other was sent to San Antonio, where he performed admirably and without the tendency to disappear that plagued his Toronto tenure). After Game 3, the Raptors (and Kawhi himself) seemed deflated and again on the path to forming a self-defeating mentality - they will have to turn things around, and quickly, in order to right the ship and work toward disproving this widely-held belief.
Nick Nurse will have to make up considerable ground in the coaching battle versus Brett Brown. Over the course of three games, Brett Brown has thoroughly out-coached Nick Nurse, plain and simple. Despite obvious struggles on the part of the Raptors' guard rotation and bench, Nurse continues to trot out lineups featuring all three of Lowry, VanVleet, and Powell. He refused to match Gasol's minutes to Embiid's, despite Jojo taking Ibaka to town on every possession down the floor. His poor minutes-management and rotation staggering led to an epic bench collapse in Game 3, where Toronto was unable to compete in minutes where Leonard wasn't carrying the 58-win roster. Nurse continues to experiment in an extremely high-pressure environment, and now his ability to galvanize a clearly shell-shocked team in Game 4 will be tested. Brown has shrunk his rotation, staggered his stars, and maximized Embiid's time on the floor after making adjustments from Game 1. If Nick Nurse cannot react with adequate composure and tact, Brett Brown may be the coaching matchup that sinks this talented Raptor's roster (and jeopardizes the security of Nurse's new job).