April 30, 2019
If the Sixers were going to win a series against the Toronto Raptors in Round 2, pretty much everyone made the same assumptions about what that series would look like. Joel Embiid would be dominant, Ben Simmons would improve against Kawhi Leonard, and one (or both) of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris would go on a scoring tear, exploiting the weakest link in Toronto's chain.
The Sixers returned back to Philly tied 1-1 in spite of Embiid playing poorly, Harris a non-factor, and Simmons still struggling at times on the offensive end of the floor (though he has been a titan on defense). And one of the reasons they've been able to do that is because they've gotten big contributions from their bench against a team considered better and deeper beyond their starting five.
Philadelphia has hardly had playable bench guys at their disposal all season, pre or post-Butler trade. But after two games in Toronto, they have opened up an unfathomable gap between the bench units this series, outscoring Toronto's bench 26-5 in Game 2 after outpacing them 24-10 in Game 1. 50-15 may be a bit misleading because there was garbage time to end Game 1, but their combined effort in Game 2 helped seize the momentum on the road.
As the veteran center explained to a small group of reporters in the locker room after Game 2, there is very little Greg Monroe hasn't seen in the NBA at this point. He has played for all four of the Eastern Conference playoff teams remaining, and it seems impossible that he's only 28 because he feels like a relic from a bygone era. It was only four seasons ago when he was asked to play power forward next to Andre Drummond in Detroit, a choice that feels closer to 1989 than 2019 basketball.
All Monroe was asked to do was take the same defensive assignment as Joel Embiid on Monday night — Pascal Siakam, a tremendous, athletic forward and one of the league's breakout players of the season.
Somehow, some way, Monroe made it work. There were stunned reactions when Monroe took the floor for the first time in Game 2, but he rewarded Brett Brown's faith in him with excellent effort on both ends of the floor.
"He told me yesterday at practice, and that was really it," Monroe said of his pregame discussion with Brett Brown. "It doesn't get any bigger than this, on the road, Game 2, we were down 1-0. I'm happy he trusted me, I was ready. I felt comfortable with everything we do, everything he asked me to do, so anytime someone gives you that amount of trust it gives you an extra vote of confidence."
On paper, Monroe's flaws seemed too similar to Boban Marjanovic consider him as a real alternative in this series. But he proved to be just quick enough to make up space where Boban could not, and his soft hands made him a real asset out of the pick-and-roll on Monday, which the Sixers have desperately needed for a while.
Toronto tried to put Monroe on an island and bait him into fouls, but the veteran center just wasn't having it. When he was switched onto Kyle Lowry late in the first half, Monroe simply stood his ground and allowed Lowry to flail in the air, and then followed up the defensive stand by running the floor and picking up an assist in transition.
(Credit Butler on this one too, obviously, for cutting off Siakam's path to save Monroe on the first read.)
The only downer was Monroe exiting the game in the second half with an ankle sprain, but Monroe seemed to be in good spirits after the game. Scans came back okay, and from his understanding, it was just a rolled ankle and nothing more. The Sixers will hope that is the case, because he was legitimately helpful in Game 2, in spite of the furrowed brows his signing prompted in April.
The winner of Philadelphia's bench tournament emerged on the other side as maybe their most important non-starter. Ennis' return to the court in the Brooklyn series helped the Sixers shift their lineups, and his ability to guard several positions has been a godsend with Mike Scott on the shelf.
The bulk of Ennis' time in Game 2 was spent away from Toronto's top targets, but he guarded nearly everyone on the floor. He spent 14 possessions on Danny Green, eight each on Leonard and Siakam and Fred Van Vleet, four on Marc Gasol, one on Jodie Meeks. Ennis was moved around the floor all night, and Toronto made just 1/5 field goals attempted against him, scoring at a rate of 95.7 points per 100 possessions as a team.
"I love defense, so whenever I get a challenge like [Kawhi Leonard], I like to take challenges like that and just play physical," Ennis said on Monday night. "I want to compete, I want to win and sacrifice my body, whatever the coach wants me to do, I'll do it."
That means competing for every inch. Rather than allow Fred Van Vleet to shoot a desperate three to close out the first quarter, Ennis snuffed Van Vleet and roared back toward his bench afterward. Instead of leaving Ben Simmons to handle Leonard on his own in transition, Ennis was part of the collective effort to slow him down, and he created Leonard's lone turnover in Game 2 by beating Toronto's best player to a spot near mid-court.
Every team needs a James Ennis.
It was not the backup center role many thought he would have at this point, and Bolden has been a bit player in this series. But in slower games when the margins matter more, every little bit counts, and Bolden has looked much more at home as a power forward next to a traditional center.
Toronto came up with a big rally in the third quarter, nearly taking the lead after some weird lineup choices nearly derailed Philly in the middle of the quarter. But after Ennis came down with an offensive rebound and drew a foul, Bolden extended the possession even longer with a rebound on his own. After fighting through Leonard and Serge Ibaka, he reset the offense, and the Sixers got Embiid back to the charity stripe to push the lead to six.
On its own, it was a very small play. But one effort play here, another there, and execution to capitalize on it can be the difference in a playoff game. The Sixers won this game by just five points on Monday, and if you pile enough of these up in a series decided by small margins, you can emerge as the victor even without your best team effort.
Moved out of the center spot, Bolden has also proven he can stay on the floor without fouling, one of the biggest drawbacks of his game to date. If he can be trusted to slide his feet and contest without putting people on the line, suddenly the Sixers have more combinations to put on the floor. Given a vote of confidence in the team huddle by Jimmy Butler on Monday night, Bolden played his part in equalizing the series.
Simmons' defense on Leonard and Butler's shooting barrage were the stars of Game 2, but if the team hopes to go deeper and deeper in the playoffs, their unsung role players will need to continue filling in the gaps behind them.
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