The Raptors looked like a nightmare matchup for the Sixers in their 108-95 home victory in Game 1 of the East semifinals on Saturday. According to the scoreboard, it was a 13-point Toronto win, but it never seemed that close. Four minutes into the game, the Raps took the lead and never gave it back. With Game 2 on Monday night, here are six questions the Sixers are going to have to answer if they want to stay in the series.
Who Will Defend Kawhi Leonard?
Kawhi Leonard made the Sixers look helpless on his way to dropping 45 points in Game 1. Leonard hit contested midrange jumpers, spun into the lane, and pulled up from 3. The word “unstoppable” gets thrown around a lot, but that’s what Leonard was Saturday. Ben Simmons said after the game that the Sixers need to treat Leonard like he’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, by showing more help to get the ball out of his hands. I wish him good fortune in the wars to come.
Turning Leonard into a playmaker is a good idea only in theory. Passing isn’t Leonard’s preference, but it’s not an exploitable weakness. He’s shown in recent years that he can throw strikes to cutters and shooters when he needs to. The 2017 postseason, back when Leonard’s future seemed to be with the Spurs, was a good example. Before Zaza Pachulia ended his season in Game 1 of the West finals, Leonard played the most complete basketball of his life and averaged 27.7 points, 4.6 assists, and only 2.2 turnovers in 12 games. Leonard is unfazed no matter the situation, including when double- and triple-teams come.
Leonard makes this triple-team look like it’s a half-speed practice scrimmage. Many players would panic here. The Raptors had the league’s sixth-best 3-point percentage, and both Marc Gasol (44.2 percent from 3) and Pascal Siakam (36.9 percent on corner 3s) are wide open on the play above. All it takes is a simple kickout for Gasol to find Siakam. There were countless other instances when Leonard drove and scored, but had Gasol wide open at the top of the key. If Leonard isn’t feeling it like he was in Game 1, he can create for others.
Last round, the Raptors shredded the Magic any time they trapped or helped—would the Sixers really have any more success than Orlando? Rather than overhauling their defensive strategy, perhaps they should swap matchups. Leonard owned Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, and shot 5-for-5 when defended by Harris and 5-for-6 against Butler. The numbers are indicative of how Leonard used his strength to overpower Butler and his body control to slip by Harris. It’s this blend of physical traits and his ability to maintain possession of the ball that makes him such a tough cover. At 6-foot-10 with a muscular frame, Simmons is best equipped to Leonard’s athletic prowess. In Game 1, he held Leonard to just 4-for-9 shooting. It’s a small sample, but Simmons did a good job of fighting over and through screens to stick with Leonard, and his point-of-attack defense was superior to Butler’s and Harris’s.
What About Defending the Rest of the Raptors?
If Simmons becomes the primary defender on Leonard, then Butler could swap to Kyle Lowry. But instead of putting Harris on Siakam, perhaps it would make sense to put Harris on Gasol and Embiid on Siakam.
Gasol usually spots up from the top of the arc or the wing, while Siakam is in the corners. If Embiid is on Siakam, he’s in better position to help in the paint to contain those inevitable drives by Leonard.
Maybe the Raptors will counter by having Siakam isolate Embiid. But is that not a win for the Sixers? Or maybe they’ll shift Gasol to the corner and put Siakam on the wing. Isn’t that also a win for the Sixers? Siakam shot only 27 percent on above-the-break 3s this season. Maybe the Raptors will post Gasol on Harris, like Siakam did in Game 1. Harris got dominated by Siakam, who scored 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting when defended by Harris. But Siakam is a more efficient post scorer than Gasol, and Embiid is a better defender who can contain Siakam’s dribble drives. It’s a risk the Sixers should take.
How Wide Is the Bench Gap?
Heading into the series, there was a lot of talk about how weak Toronto’s bench has become following the Leonard and Gasol trades, but it’s practically Ocean’s Eleven compared with the Sixers reserves. Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell blow away Brown’s options. Jonah Bolden is one of the least reliable defenders in the postseason. T.J. McConnell is T.J. McConnell, for better or worse. Mike Scott’s absence due to a foot injury means the Sixers have to rely on Furkan Korkmaz and Boban Marjanovic, neither of whom has any business playing in this series.
Gasol drained open pick-and-pop 3s because Marjanovic and Embiid stayed camped in the paint, and when they stepped out, the Sixers got beat inside. The only positive in Game 1 was James Ennis, who played well on both ends. The Sixers should bench Boban and increase Ennis’s minutes. He’s a competitive defender who can hit spot-up 3s. Isn’t that what they got him for?
Playing without a backup center would also mean Simmons or Embiid would serve as the only non-floor spacer in a five-man unit, which could help the Sixers on offense if they’re running pick-and-roll with Simmons or Embiid instead of Boban, and Butler driving hard down the lane as the ball handler. Brown needs to shake it up.
By deviating slightly on defense, perhaps the Sixers can force the Raptors to do the same on offense for an aggregate win. The reality is that the Sixers are the less talented team in this series and are facing the most talented player. There’s no stopping Leonard. If you play him one-on-one, he can turn on Michael Jordan Mode and kill you with isolations. If you double or triple, he’ll swing the ball to a shooter. The Raptors built a versatile offense with shooters and creators all over the floor. The Sixers need to put Simmons, their best perimeter defender, on Leonard, and work to limit everyone else as best they can.
Can Embiid Overcome Gasol?
Raptors president Masai Ujiri acquired Marc Gasol to stop Joel Embiid. Embiid scored 29 points and shot 10-for-29, including 0-for-9 from 3, in the past two seasons against Gasol; the veteran Spaniard neutralized the Cameroonian star once again in Game 1 and held him to three points on 1-for-8 shooting over 29 possessions. Embiid obliterates his opponents with brute force by drawing fouls and establishing deep positioning to get easier shots closer to the rim. Embiid was the only qualifying player this season to draw a foul on more than a fourth of his post-up possessions, according to Synergy Sports. But Gasol is a mountainous man who’s allergic to fouling. He has old man strength that’s enhanced by a deep knowledge of opponent tendencies, and the fundamentals to absorb back-down blows. It won’t be easy for Brett Brown’s coaching staff to get Embiid going, especially since he’s limited by tendinitis in his left knee, but they have to find a way. Running more plays to set up the post may help.
The Sixers use a horns action to create a lob look for Jimmy Butler, but the Raptors have two defenders ready to help. Philadelphia has no counter as Embiid dribbles into a post-up against Gasol starting from the perimeter. Aimless possessions won’t work against Toronto. Gasol is too good.
Can Philly Execute Its Sets?
The Sixers must have crisper execution of their set plays. In the play below, Butler has to set a harder screen on Gasol to create extra space for Embiid to position himself closer to the rim.
Though Gasol still can’t be moved, at least Embiid would be in the paint. Embiid was routinely starting his post-ups 10 to 12 feet from the rim, where it’s tougher to turn into a hook shot or rip through to draw fouls. Embiid’s propensity for drawing fouls makes him a great post threat; Gasol’s defense makes him average. Posting Embiid against Gasol might be fruitless anyway, so it was puzzling how infrequently they tried to attack lesser defenders.
The Raptors resist switching screens involving Gasol, but sometimes they are forced to. That’s how basketball works. You don’t always get what you want because offense dictates how you defend. Yet the Sixers didn’t do enough to take Toronto out of its comfort zone. Midway through the first quarter, the Embiid set an on-ball screen for Tobias Harris, who snaked to the middle of the floor as Embiid rolled hard to the rim. Harris’s defender, Danny Green, had no choice but to switch onto Embiid, causing Toronto to double with Leonard. That’s a win for the Sixers. Embiid scored on a bank shot, but also had both Harris and Butler wide open had he chosen to kick the ball out.
Can the Sixers Punish Serge Ibaka?
The Sixers also didn’t punish Ibaka with Embiid enough.
Ibaka is dead here. JJ Redick sets a hard screen on him, Embiid is parked underneath the rim and easily draws a foul. While Embiid scored 13 points on nine shots when defended by Ibaka, three of the shots were contested perimeter jumpers and only one was a post, which is exactly what the Raptors want. Instead of calling plays like the one above which resulted in Embiid burying Ibaka, Brown called pindowns to spring Embiid open for 3s, or Embiid would pick-and-pop or attack closeouts.
Is that negligence on the part of the Sixers’ coaching staff? (Maybe.) Is it fatigue for Embiid? (Definitely—he’s injured and out of shape. Ibaka burned him on multiple occasions in transition.) Either way, the Sixers need to create more opportunities for Embiid closer to the basket during the 15 or so minutes that Embiid and Ibaka are both on the court and Gasol is off. It’s their chance to get Toronto into foul trouble. It’s their chance to get Embiid going. It’s their chance to close the gap.