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April 27, 2019

Instant observations: Kawhi Leonard, Raptors hand Sixers a beatdown in Game 1

Sixers NBA

TORONTO — There are some nights when you can throw the kitchen sink at an opposing player, only for him to catch the sink and beat you over the head with it. That's exactly what Kawhi Leonard did to the Sixers on Saturday night, powering the Raptors to a comfortable 108-95 win over Philadelphia.

Not a ton of positive to speak of in that game, so we'll breeze past the good stuff fairly quickly. Here's what I saw on Saturday night, with more to come.

The Good

• If there was any solace to take from a dismal first half for Philadelphia, it was their complete and total dominance on the offensive glass. They got out to a 10-2 advantage over the Raptors at halftime, and that may well be their avenue to winning this series if they can tighten things up elsewhere.

There is a tug-of-war going on in this series, and prior to the game Brown said the team would not allow their fear of Toronto in transition to dictate how they were going to approach the offensive glass. Rather than give up one of their greatest strengths from the Brooklyn series to drop back in transition quicker, the Sixers continued to go hard after misses, and it helped them hang around despite poor offensive performances from guys up and down the lineup.

Most of the conversation during a playoff series turns into shouting about adjustments, but it's important to stay the course when you can. This is an area where the Sixers absolutely must do that.

• Don't have a lot of negative things to say about Simmons after that performance, despite all the concern about this matchup for him coming in. He was the team's best perimeter defender by a country mile, and he did a better job of taking care of the basketball than he has in the other games Leonard played for Toronto this season, which helped the Sixers stay within striking distance for a lot of the game.

If Jimmy Butler is not going to take the initiative as an attacker in this series, Simmons may have to step out of his comfort zone and look to score more. When both starting lineups are out there, the Sixers should be working to force Danny Green onto him, because Simmons showed he can take him down on the block and score.

The downside of Simmons being the only guy who played reasonably good defense on Leonard is that it sort of ruins your ability to play small ball with Simmons at the five. They're probably going to have to have him mirror Leonard's minutes the rest of the way, and while that flatters his defensive contributions, it limits your flexibility when you can't trust anyone else.

(We got a brief glimpse of Simmons at center in the fourth quarter, and I thought their rotations were crisp enough that the Sixers should go to that more throughout the series. It didn't end up mattering, but something to keep in mind.)

The Bad

• The Sixers are not going to beat Toronto if Joel Embiid can't at the very least outplay Toronto's big men. Forget about dominating a game, Embiid has to be the best big man on the floor in almost any realistic winning scenario. Saturday was a display of some of your worst concerns coming into the series, with Marc Gasol never allowing him to feel comfortable on the low block.

Even when Serge Ibaka was on the floor, Embiid couldn't take advantage of that matchup like you'd expect him to. Some of that was a product of a weird gameplan — the Sixers barely even tried to post Embiid on Ibaka, which was a very curious decision — but the big man wasn't very good on offense even when they worked to get him clean looks. 5/18 is just not going to cut it.

The Sixers were still a net positive with Embiid on the floor, because he remains a difference maker on defense, which is a silver lining looking forward at the rest of the series. But they had to play him heavy minutes just to hang around against Toronto. 

• It is going to be a very short series if Kawhi Leonard is completely unguardable. I actually thought the Sixers did a reasonably good job of making Leonard work for his points but Leonard was absolutely unstoppable in the first half on Saturday night.

The most deflating experience you can have as a defender is when stay in front of a guy, force him into the shot you'd live with him taking, and then he makes it anyway. You immediately saw the difference between a team featuring D'Angelo Russell as their offensive centerpiece and one featuring Leonard as the hub. You can rattle a guard making his first appearance in the postseason, but you sure as hell aren't rattling a former Finals MVP with physical defense.

On the other hand, this looks like the first place the Sixers might look to adjust their gameplan moving forward. Jimmy Butler started the game on Leonard, and Leonard made an absolute mockery of him, blowing right by him or shooting over him with ease. Once again, it was Simmons who looked like Philadelphia's best option to slow him down, with Leonard's worst misses all coming with the second-year player on him.

Philly started asking Simmons to take the assignment more as early as the second quarter, and they might need him there for every possession Leonard is on the floor.

• One area where the Sixers have to lock in on this series is in transition. The Raptors love to get out and run when the opportunity presents itself, having several guys who can grab-and-go with a defensive rebound is a major asset when the game slows down in the playoffs.

They were simply not good enough early on. When Leonard or Pascal Siakam knock down contested jumpers, you can live with that. But the Sixers let Siakam just waltz down the lane in transition a couple of times, allowing him to get to the basket without any resistance. That was one of the top items on the scouting report entering the series, and the Raptors straight up outworked Philly at times in transition.

If a team out-executes you, you're not happy with it but you live with it. Nobody wants to look back at the tape and see you losing on plays on pure effort.

• The fear coming into the series was that Boban Marjanovic would be completely unplayable against a Raptors team that features bigs who can step out and shoot. Those fears were confirmed almost immediately, with the Raptors absolutely brutalizing Philly whenever Boban took the floor on Saturday.

The Raptors were a hell of a lot better than the Nets were at putting Boban into no-win situations. Whenever he had to help to contain one of Toronto's drivers, namely Leonard, the Raptors were able to produce open threes, and he simply doesn't have the recovery speed to get out to the perimeter and bother Toronto's shooters.

Whether we see an adjustment from here is up for debate. I spent a decent amount of time before the series explaining why I think Boban and Bolden are both bad options, but I think you have to at least try the latter to see if it works out for you. Bolden actually played reasonably disciplined defense at the four spot on Saturday, and while his responsibilities are different there than they are as the backline anchor, he at least has a chance to make things interesting.

• I'm not sure if the real Jimmy Butler is still on his way through customs, but boy did he lay an egg in Game 1. The Sixers desperately need him to show out to have a chance in this series, and he offered almost nothing on both ends of the floor.

I'll give him somewhat of a pass for Leonard going off, because there's not always a lot you can do when one of the league's best players is cooking. But we saw Butler revert into the strangely passive guy he was at times during the regular season, and he passed out of shots at the rim that should be no-brainer takes, if not makes. When he did take shots, they were often the worst, most contested looks he possibly could have settled for.

The reason Butler has been able to get away with not necessarily being an elite shooter over the years is that he was a master at drawing contact and getting himself to the line. We have seen that in fits and starts with the Sixers, but they need it every night in this series, and they can't get there if Butler doesn't at least look to attack.

• Tobias Harris got his soul snatched in that game on at least three different occasions. The Raptors had three highlight reel blocks on him at the rim, and while he competed hard on the defensive end of the floor, he never got anything going from the field and finished the night 6/17. We'll see if he can repeat the turnaround he managed against Brooklyn. I'd say it's less likely against an elite defensive team.

The Ugly

• Brett Brown tried to hide his hand before the game when asked about who would take the backup wing minutes the Sixers needed to fill with Mike Scott out injured. I doubt anybody would have guessed the answer would have been Furkan Korkmaz, who played his first real minutes in quite a while on Saturday.

I know Brown wants to put shooting on the floor to create space for his ballhandlers, but this can't be the best option they have. Korkmaz is a total zero on defense, and if he doesn't hit shots, you're not going to get absolutely any value out of playing him. Zhaire Smith at least gives you a chance at the defensive end, and Korkmaz proved long ago that he's not equipped for this sort of moment.

This is going to have to change for Game 2, even if Brown decides to go with T.J. McConnell instead, who I think is a bad option in this series. Korkmaz being on the floor is like putting a neon sign that reads FREE POINTS on the court as your fifth guy. If Brown puts him out there again in Game 2, he deserves every bit of criticism he will get.

• I don't think the officials had too big of an impact on that game, but the sequence in the third quarter that led to JJ Redick's technical foul in the third quarter. Redick was rightfully heated about getting popped in the mouth, and while he could have made that point without drawing the technical, it’s hard to find much fault with him being mad about taking a shot to the grill.

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