April 18, 2022
When you score 131 points, win by twenty points, and have the crowd chanting for a starting guard and the backup center within the span of a single game, you are not likely to be the team tweaking things before your next playoff game. Indeed, the Sixers and Doc Rivers say they are focused on themselves first, not trying to get too far ahead of themselves in the chess match.
"There's things we saw we have to do better and that we have to adjust to on defense and offense," Rivers said Sunday. "As far as what they do, you don't want to over anticipate. They could look at it as Joel didn't have a big night and everybody else made shots, and they like what they did. The bottom line is you're not going to recreate the wheel, you just stay solid and be prepared for any adjustments they make."
When things have gone south for his teams, Rivers has been derided by critics as stubborn and reluctant to adjust. It hasn't always been an unfair label, but most NBA coaches would tell you there's a thin line between making the necessary changes and losing sight of what makes your team successful. After a game as good as the one they played Saturday, they have earned the right to focus on themselves, building off of one of the more impressive offensive outings in recent playoff history.
On Toronto's end, they are going to make changes out of necessity, which would have been true had they emerged from the 20-point loss completely unscathed. Injuries and illness take that a step further — Toronto has three players listed as doubtful for Monday's Game 2, with Scottie Barnes (ankle) and Gary Trent Jr. (non-COVID illness) ranking higher on the importance scale than Thaddeus Young (thumb). Unless one defies the odds, the Raptors are likely to be down two starters and a reliable bench vet.
This begs the question: what do they have available to throw at Philly, and where might they decide to bank on a better version of what they're already running? When Nick Nurse spoke to reporters at practice Sunday, he seemed to lean heavily toward the latter, the caveat being that no coach is going to reveal their intent ahead of time.
"I thought what we had planned was good last night," Nurse said, "and we would stick with a lot of that. It just has to get executed a lot better. That would be my thought, as of now."
A good place to start is their handling of the corners, where the Raptors are inclined to pinch and cheat and crowd the middle of the floor in order to suffocate you when you go to the basket. As an example, look at how they're set up on this Harden drive before he takes his first step inside the arc, three guys touching the paint with Embiid lurking near the hoop:
And Philly doesn't have a pair of bad shooters in the direction Harden is pushing the ball in — Danny Green had an off night Saturday, but he and Tobias Harris aren't guys most teams allow to just hang free. The Raptors believe in their ability to contract and expand quickly, betting on their length and athleticism to recover.
On the tape, though you can credit the Sixers for being aware of and exploiting this tendency, the Raptors had some obvious execution errors that could be cleaned up with attention to detail. This three for Maxey in the corner, for example, is nothing more than the Raptors botching a switch. Just terrible:
If the Raptors continue to roll with this general style, the Sixers have paths to offensive success by simply maintaining their style of play. One of the guys who earned credit for that at the facility on Sunday was Joel Embiid, who by his own admission has struggled to be at his best vs. Toronto over the years.
"Some people said he didn't play well, I think Joel had a great game. It was one of the best floor games I've seen him play in a long time. He was trusting, making the pass and finding guys, and giving himself up offensively time and time again," Danny Green said Saturday. "Obviously he took his time and was aggressive when he needed to be, took his shots and imposed his will by getting fouled. But for the most part when he caught it, he was looking to bait them to make plays and finding guys."
"They're going to leave their guys because they have to double Joel, they have to double James, they have to protect the paint they have to rotate. So whether it's me, whether it's Shake, whether it's Tyrese, guys are going to be open, Georges. I think they may make an adjustment, but as of right now, they're going to let other guys beat them."
Green, who was part of Nurse's Raptors team that won the title in 2019, has firsthand knowledge of what Nurse is willing to do and try in order to tilt a series in his favor. The Raptors famously played box-and-one against Steph Curry in the Finals that year, one of the many wrinkles they threw at Golden State to deal with a famously loaded (though admittedly banged up) lineup. This version of the Sixers feels less susceptible to crumbling when faced with, say, a 2-3 zone defense, but it seems a sure bet we see the Raptors try things like it at some point.
The easiest adjustment and most important decision for Nurse will come down to lineups, though the "who" and "how" are intertwined.
When the dust settled, Precious Achiuwa who spent the most time guarding Embiid, and Achiuwa was on the floor during Toronto's third-quarter run that briefly put Philadelphia on edge. I think Embiid left some points on the table against him and he's far from the "ideal" option to battle No. 21, but Achiuwa is the only guy who gives them a chance guarding Embiid while also serving as a valuable switching and rotating piece who can handle Harden. We saw Harden flustered by Achiuwa at times in the final regular-season meeting between these teams, and that trend continued Saturday.
Harden's lack of success attacking the painted area as a scorer could embolden the Raptors to help toward the middle less. Cut off Harden's outlets to the corners, and it becomes harder for their role players to get rolling, putting more pressure on Harden to shrug off finishing woes. But that's assuming they can preserve the initial matchups they want. Harden was able to dictate who he had in front of him at times in Game 1, taking advantage of a guy like Fred Van Vleet as the initial defender. And if they don't move bodies toward the rim, the Sixers have a seven-foot MVP finalist who might get loose a few more times.
If the Raptors opt to play Khem Birch more, that tips the scales further toward Philly. I don't think he offers any additional Embiid protection and he's certainly a less capable iso defender matched up with a perimeter player. Toronto's depth is valuable not because they have a ton of it — Nick Nurse plays his top guys heavy minutes all season — but because they mostly allow them to play a coherent, cohesive style for all 48 minutes. They're going to take a hit in that department without Barnes, and Young's absence would dent that even further.
To their credit, the Sixers are not looking at those factors in their favor and talking like a team that has accomplished anything. From the vets through the young guys, they've all spoken about putting the hot start behind them quickly.
"I think the only thing I'm going to remember is us winning. That's all that matters at this point, and now it's in my rearview mirror," Maxey said Saturday night, moments after his 38-point classic. "It's time to look ahead to Game 2, get focused, and get prepared.
The beauty of playing frontrunner is that they need to be prepared to absorb and deflect a counterpunch, not throw any of their own yet. But that is a skill of its own, and consistency has not been a lengthy visitor for this group. Game 2 should bring plenty of surprises.
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