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May 03, 2019

Sixers' Brett Brown is winning the coaching battle against Raptors' Nick Nurse

In today's edition of Five Star Review, we look at everything from Brown's big series to Embiid's elevated play — and even those Kyle Lowry flops

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Today's game: Philadelphia's major Game 3 win over the Toronto Raptors, powered by Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler. 

Brett Brown, winning the coaching battle

Three games and two wins are not enough to decide a series. But we can say this after Games 2 and 3 — Brown is absolutely handing Nick Nurse his ass in this series so far.

The most important adjustment we saw in Game 2 was Brown sliding Joel Embiid onto Pascal Siakam and allowing Ben Simmons to take on Kawhi Leonard on a more full-time basis. Coming into Game 3, you would have expected the Sixers to keep everything the same, and for Toronto to develop some counters after having two days to think about those switches.

Wrong. The Sixers were proactive instead, and they shifted Embiid back to Marc Gasol and went with a more traditional lineup out of the gate, only to switch Embiid back onto Siakam later in the game. It was a rough night for both players whenever they were guarded by the big man, and the Raptors didn't have great answers for any alignment the Sixers rolled out there beyond, "Go do stuff, Kawhi Leonard."

Philadelphia has unorthodox rotations that get their starting group on the floor to begin second and fourth quarters, and Nurse has failed to respond to matchup issues the rotations have caused. Brown has made sure to get Embiid on the floor with Serge Ibaka as Toronto's center as much as possible, and the Sixers are absolutely battering the Raptors during those minutes.

Ibaka is... Sixers NETRTG with Embiid is... 
 On court 40.1
 Off court 9.4


Those are numbers that make it look like the Sixers are playing the New York Knicks when the Raptors go their bench.  And it's a direct product of how the Sixers have subbed their guys and shortened their rotation to put high-impact players on the floor as much as possible.

As we detailed in the wee hours of Friday morning, Philadelphia's plan to get Embiid involved in a multitude of ways was also a big key to Philadelphia's blowout win in Game 3. The Sixers have figured out a counter to Gasol's stout defense on Embiid, and they did so coming off of a big win on the road, which could have lulled them into a false sense of comfort heading home.

There has been none of that so far. Anytime the opposing coach is questioning his team's effort in a postgame presser, you know that you've taken the upper hand. That was all Nick Nurse wanted to discuss on Thursday night when questioned on adjustments the team might make.

"I think the first adjustment we’re going to have to make," Nurse said Thursday, "is we’re going to have to play a helluva lot harder, right? And we’re gonna have to play a helluva lot more physical. And if we don’t do that, the prettiest things that we decide to do offensively aren’t gonna matter much."

Brown has pulled all the right strings so far. There's plenty of time left for this to go south, and I would expect some different looks from Toronto on Sunday. One area I think we'll see them explore — screening for the screener to free up shooters like Danny Green, if not for shots from deep than at least to get them space for cuts.

But this is what everyone has wanted to see from the head coach in a pivotal playoff run. It's up to Brown and everyone else to buckle down and take a commanding lead in Game 4.

Joel Embiid's commitment to owning the defensive end

Philadelphia's franchise player is a man of many talents, though I'm not sure anything he does is more important than his tone setting on the defensive end. As he goes, the Sixers go, and it's impossible to quantify his total impact there.

This is the quintessential Embiid sequence for my money —  rather than half-ass it with a smaller player attacking him in space in transition, Embiid hurls himself through the air to alter Norm Powell's attempt at the rim, careening into the first row in the process. After dusting himself off, all he does is hit the trail three and leave his hand lingering in a ticked off Gasol's face.


Embiid has missed two full seasons due to injury, the end of a third with a torn meniscus, broke his face on his teammate last season and has been at less than full strength during this playoff run. He doesn't think about any of it when he's on the floor playing. It's impossible to say if he will pay a price for that style of play down the road, but there is a reason a guy like Jimmy Butler is willing to charge into a fracas for Embiid. He is the sort of leader you would lay it on the line for.

When Embiid is on the floor, the Sixers have a chance. It's really that simple.

Jimmy Butler raising his game in the playoffs

If Embiid has been the driving force behind Philadelphia's playoff success, Butler has been the clear No. 2. They have asked him to respond differently to new challenges in each game, and he has found a way to make an impact almost every time.

"The playoffs [are] a different sport. It's a whole different kind of everything in general," Brown said after Game 3. "Jimmy's focus, I think his leadership, attention to detail with the pieces, the integral pieces that we're trying to get done defensively are heightened. We need it all, we need it all. It's appreciated and respected."

Every time you look up, it seems like Butler is making another huge play. He hasn't necessarily been a high-impact guy as an on-ball defender in this series, but he's doing all of the dirty, nitty-gritty work away from the ball with Ben Simmons focused on Kawhi Leonard. He even had to play through some pain in Game 3, after his attempt to break up a pass jammed the fingers on his non-shooting hand and had him wincing for a few minutes.

Butler has certainly had the ball in his hands a ton during this series, but he has not had to dribble the air out of the basketball to get his. Credit his growing partnership with Embiid there. These two are looking for each other more than ever, and when Embiid is dribbling out of wide-open threes to create shots for Butler, you know they're in a good place.


When Gasol and Ibaka have had to defend Butler on an island, it has been a bloodbath. You have seen everything you'd want to see out of Butler if you're Elton Brand and Co., and they will hope this ride lasts for quite a while.

As a sidebar — many of you in the comments have railed against the general concept of Embiid shooting threes as I've bickered to the contrary all year. Whose side is Butler on here, you ask?

I'll take my apologies at a time that has yet to be determined.

The Sixers winning the bench battle handily

The Sixers' had a 50-15 bench scoring advantage coming into Game 3. They have stretched that to 73-30 after the third game of the series, even with extended garbage time junking up the stats at the end of a blowout Thursday.

While the Gasol trade gave the Raptors a great starting unit and a player who slows down Embiid, it came at the cost of several important cogs on their bench, and this is the first time it has really hit home since the Raptors made the trade in February. Fred Van Vleet and Serge Ibaka have been critical components of Toronto's team all year, and they are getting completely played off of the floor in this series.

Toronto's lack of star power beyond Kawhi Leonard is absolutely killing them because they simply can't survive without him on the floor against this Sixers team. The Raptors have an offensive rating of under 55 for this series when Leonard hits the bench, and you're not going to win games, let alone playoff games when that is the case.

The only real response here is for the Raptors to play Leonard for 40-45 minutes every night the rest of the way. His shots stopped dropping late on Thursday, so even that may not be a cure-all.

Kyle Lowry's flopping theatrics

Lowry's disappearance in the playoffs has been an annual tradition for about a half-decade now, but set aside his struggles to get going and his aversion to shooting for a second. The guy is not even giving himself a chance to make plays at times, as he throws himself into stationary defenders and prays to get a bailout call from the officials.

They humored him a few times in Game 3, but overall it has been to the Sixers' benefit for Lowry to be more concerned with hunting fouls than hunting his own shot. He creates separation and has a lane to the hoop, and then he flings himself into the nearest Sixers defender, yelps "AY!", and his attempt flies off of the glass into the arms of a nearby Sixers player.

If that's the Lowry the Raptors are going to get, they are cooked. We shall see if he's more interested in an actual attempt at playing basketball moving forward.


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