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May 02, 2019

What they're saying: Sixers' adjustments were key to changing series vs. Toronto

So how will the Raptors respond in Game 3 in Philly?

The Sixers have long had the reputation of a team averse to change under Brett Brown. Whether the subject was his rotations or Philadelphia's handoff-heavy offense, rigidity was viewed as an anchor weighing down a talented starting five.

What we have seen play out during the playoffs so far has been the opposite — the Sixers have responded swiftly to problematic matchups and holes within their gameplan, which has allowed them to rally to defeats in the first game of each of their first two series. It took until Game 4 of the Boston series last year to make a change to Philadelphia's starting lineup, but the alterations have been quicker and more significant in 2019, to the benefit of the Sixers.

Will those adjustments hold up under further scrutiny, and will the Sixers have another wave of adjustments ready if that's the case? It's time to look at what they're saying about this series heading into Game 3.

The Sixers won Game 2 with adjustments. How will Raptors respond?

Mike O'Connor | The Athletic

Shifting Joel Embiid onto Pascal Siakam proved to be an excellent read of the matchup from Brett Brown, and it's one that Mike advocated for in advance when most of us (myself included) were simply worrying about the Kawhi Leonard beatdown.

Since he was ahead of the curve heading into Game 2, it's worth checking out what Mike has to say heading into Game 3.

I’d expect the Sixers to trot out the same matchups tonight in Philadelphia, and the Raptors to come with counters. That starts with involving Siakam in more perimeter-based actions — handling pick-and-rolls, curling around pin-downs and running through staggered dribble hand-offs. In Game 2, most of Siakam’s shot attempts came from isolations or as the roll man on pick-and-rolls. Embiid swallowed those up with ease.

Should the Raptors make that adjustment, expect Embiid to pay those sequences little mind. He should be able to duck well underneath all of Siakam’s hand-offs and pin-downs, and wait to meet him on the drive. Toronto can, and will, make Embiid work harder to keep up with Siakam, but the Sixers will still live with that matchup. I’d bet that Embiid remains effective against Siakam. [TheAthletic]

Some shooting variance may benefit the Raptors in Game 3, but this is still the matchup I'd assume the Sixers will live with. That'll necessitate crisp rotations elsewhere on the floor, so the Sixers will need to come out with the same energy they showed on Monday to kick off the home leg of the series.

East playoffs could end in leaguewide chaos

Tim Bontemps | ESPN

Those in Philadelphia are primarily focused on how this playoff run will impact the future of the Sixers, but there are major free agents with decisions to make on all of the top teams in the conference. From Jimmy Butler to Kawhi Leonard to Kyrie Irving to Khris Middleton, there are (potentially) major consequences for every team if they sputter out in the second round.

On the Sixers' end, some of the consideration will be purely financial.

Butler's market is a little more complex. He has a lot of miles on his body, and certainly had tumultuous stays in both Chicago and Minnesota. Yet he still remains one of the league's elite two-way wing players and, more important, he's a big-game player -- as he showed with his Game 2 performance in the second round of the playoffs against the Raptors to lead Philadelphia to a series-shifting victory. With several big-market teams holding max cap room and a desire to chase star free agents, it is hard to see Butler failing to get a max deal, too.

If Philadelphia was to re-sign both players and keep Redick, the luxury tax might be impossible to avoid -- and that's before filling out the bench, or giving Ben Simmons the max contract extension Brand has already said will be coming his way. [ESPN]

Another thing to consider — do Butler or Tobias Harris even want to come back if the Sixers lose this series comfortably to Toronto? Being the fourth, or even third option on a team with serious pressure to win might not be what these guys are looking for long-term. It's easier to take a step back and sacrifice touches if you feel you're a true contender. If the Raptors flip this series around and win in five or even a comfortable six, it'll prompt a lot of careful consideration from the parties involved.

You're going to get nothing less than the best effort from this group while the playoffs are going on. But as we've learned from recent NBA history, you should take nothing for granted in free agency.

Jimmy Butler is showing Sixers they need him

David Murphy |

The question with Butler has never been whether he was capable of taking over games or not. Butler proved himself in that regard almost immediately upon arriving in Philadelphia, even if it wasn't an every night occurrence. It was the behind-the-scenes stuff, the miles on his body, and his age that prompted the most concern when discussing a long-term investment.

But Butler's ability to be the team's glue in these playoffs, to say nothing of when he has had to be their alpha, has changed the dialogue a bit.

At the beginning of the postseason, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that Tobias Harris had surpassed him as an organizational priority for July, when both players can hit free agency. In the regular season, Harris’ skill set looked like the better fit in a rotation that would be built on a foundation of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Butler had his moments, no doubt, but he also had long stretches where he looked like an afterthought within the framework of the offense.

Seven games into the postseason, the whole script has flipped. In the aftermath of Game 2, Brett Brown referred to Butler as “a rock," and that’s exactly what he has been since the start of Round 1. A significant portion of his value comes from the subtle sorts of things that are tough to monitor and contextualize in real time: the breakneck speed at which he can get back on defense, the verticality he displays in contesting outside shots, the loose balls he corrals, the offensive rebounds he initiates even when he does not come down with the board himself. []

Only the Sixers can answer the questions about Butler's influence behind the scenes, but publicly, we have seen him at his best for most of these playoffs, and we have seen growth in the relationship between Butler and Joel Embiid, which should not be taken lightly.

The Raptors have the best player in the series

Bruce Arthur | Toronto Star

We've grown so accustomed to Embiid's dominance that the concept of facing a team with a superior player seems foreign. But the guy leading the Raptors is indeed the best player in this series, and that's no disrespect to the big man's accomplishments this season.

When you're putting up monster numbers regardless of the defense played against you, you've earned that title.

It’s an obvious statement, but it’s harder to win an NBA playoff series when you don’t have the best player in the series. Rosters matter, schemes, coaches, and three-point shooting variance. But having the best guy helps an awful lot.

As the Raptors landed in Philadelphia for Game 3 of this second-round series Thursday night, there didn’t seem to be a doubt that they had the best player in the series. They have the LeBron now. Yes, Joel Embiid is a force of nature, but so far he has been a simmering, oversized volcano, letting off gas.

Leonard, meanwhile, has played with the implacable inevitability of a bureaucracy. Two games averaging 40 points on 61.9 per cent shooting, plus nine rebounds, four assists, 1.5 steals, occasionally vicious help and on-ball defence, and a blocked shot in Game 2 that was like a brick thrown through your front window. You know, as a warning. [TheStar]

It seems impossible that he'll average 40 points per game for the series, but after watching him go bonkers for the first two games, would you bet against it?

How the Sixers slowed down the Raptors

Steven Loung | Sportsnet

Loung gets at the heart of why I thought Toronto struggled on Monday night. The Sixers figured out the best defensive alignment against the Raptors, but they also goaded them into isolating throughout the game, and that's a style of play that can have unintended effects on your team.

A player going one-on-one means the other four teammates on the floor are just standing around watching, an offensive look that’s much easier to defend. Addtionally, these players going one-on-one aren’t necessarily used to doing so the way Leonard has been with Toronto this season, so by handing the Raptors mismatches, the 76ers also took Toronto out of its comfort level. 

It was a risky gambit by Brown to concede these kinds of mismatches to Toronto, but it was a different enough look that it was able to work just enough. [Sportsnet]

The Sixers found this out in Game 1, and a lot of their post-mortem focused on how disconnected they played on offense. Both teams will be looking to move and share the ball as the series shifts to Philly.

Embracing change is a key to playoff success

Jeff Zillgitt | USA Today

Adjustments are not just a buzzword, they are essential to beating teams the deeper you go into the playoffs. So far, the Sixers have proven willing to make them, and it has aided their quest to bring an NBA title back to Philadelphia.

Brown made strategic adjustments, including one that went largely unnoticed. Contrary to what most coaches do, Brown decided to have his offense in front of the Sixers bench in the second half – the road coach gets to choose – and it paid off. He was able to direct his offense in the second half, especially late in the fourth quarter, without using timeouts.

He called a play that led to Joel Embiid’s game-securing layup with 24 seconds left, boosting Philadelphia to a 94-89 victory, which evened their Eastern Conference semifinals series at 1-1.

“I wanted to get off to a good start and we had our defense in front of us in the first half,” Brown said Wednesday after Philadelphia’s practice in preparation for Game 3 on Thursday. “I thought our guys did a great job defensively and offensively. You want to be able, especially with a new team, a young team, to communicate some execution things and really, had the offense been going away from me, I very well could’ve and might’ve called a timeout when I didn’t. We were lucky to have been able to be in that position.” [USAToday]

In unrelated news, Brett Brown is still in search of his very first win as Sixers head coach. Have to think he's desperate to get over the hump.

Inside the 'low minute group'

Rich Hofmann | The Athletic

The advantage the Sixers have somehow managed against the Raptors in bench points has been nothing short of incredible, as we touched on Tuesday. Philadelphia's bench has struggled to produce all season, so coming up large in their biggest series of the year was quite a twist in the story of the team.

Rich talked with a few of the reserve players in the aftermath of a big performance in Game 2:

Monroe is well-traveled (he could get a championship ring from three of the remaining East teams!), and he’s good natured about it. As someone who has seen the direction the game has trended over the past five seasons affect him more than most players, Monroe is familiar with the low-minute group. He said it has been called “church league” at some of his other stops.

The second group in the scrimmages are the young players still with the team on two-way contracts, Shake Milton and Haywood Highsmith. Milton — who had put up big numbers in the G League and impressed at times this season as part of the Sixers’ rotation — is still getting to work on his game. But he’s also there to run some of the opponent’s offensive concepts for his teammates who are eligible for the playoffs. Assistant coach Jim O’Brien appears to have taken the responsibility of setting up which plays he wants Milton and Highsmith to run.

When Embiid faces the Raptors after the first few games, he has experience seeing their offensive sets develop on the court. When Johnson and Monroe see how Toronto gets Kawhi Leonard moving to his right off a pindown screen into a pick-and-roll, at least they have seen someone else run it. [TheAthletic]

Championships are ultimately determined by a team's best players, which is why the Sixers underwent a radical rebuild and then made franchise-altering trades when they emerged on the other side of it. You need stars first and foremost, or nothing else matters.

But the contributions Philadelphia has gotten from players further down the roster have been critical in these playoffs, and they will need continued production from guys like Greg Monroe and James Ennis if they hope to win a title.

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