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NBA playoffs 2019: Raptors adrift in Game 3 loss to Sixers, and they need to find themselves quickly

For large portions of their last two games against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Toronto Raptors have been adrift. Their offense, which ranked fifth in the regular season and was even more efficient in their five-game winning streak that ended on Monday, has bogged down. The team that went 17-5 in the games Kawhi Leonard missed has been absolutely awful without their superstar on the floor:

On Thursday, Leonard checked out in the first quarter with Toronto down by four. It trailed by nine when he came back about four minutes later. The next time he went to the bench, at the end of the third quarter, the deficit was eight. He sat for less than two and a half minutes, enough time for the Sixers to go on a 9-1 run that turned into a 21-2 run and appeared to break the Raptors’ spirit. 

No possession from that Leonard-less stretch is more damning than this one, in which Toronto never puts pressure on Philadelphia’s defense and Norman Powell settles for a contested stepback 2 late in the shot clock:

My colleague Reid Forgrave called the 116-95 rout in Game 3 something short of a coronation for the Sixers, who fed off Joel Embiid’s energy and two-way dominance. If the Raptors are going to even up the series on Sunday, they will need to do the same with Leonard instead of hoping he will bail them out. 

As I watched them get outplayed, looking less dynamic and less sure of themselves than they have in some time, I kept thinking about my conversation with Nick Nurse in Toronto in January. Unlike most coaches, Nurse is not a control freak. He wants his players to play with decisiveness and aggressiveness rather than looking back at him for instructions. Sometimes, he told me, he has to check his gunslinging instincts and ask himself if he should be more meticulous and provide more structure. 

Nurse believes in empowering players by giving them freedom. He is a jazzhead who thinks offense should be improvisational and unpredictable. Inherent in his coaching style is a trust that the Raptors will be able to solve problems. You can see this even in the infrequency with which he calls timeouts — in a Sports Illustrated story by Michael Pina published Thursday, he is quoted saying that he probably lets players play through rough stretches more than he should, but he has some of Phil Jackson’s let-them-figure-it-out ethos “in my blood.” 

There is an undeniable appeal to granting players responsibility and challenging them to trust the system regardless of whether shots are going in. “He allows us to play,” wing Danny Green told me months ago, in the middle of his best season in years, which he credits to the confidence that Nurse’s approach breeds. 

There is also a downside: In certain regular-season games, Nurse sensed that his players would have preferred everything to be lined up for them. He chalked that up to the “schedule, opponent, the biorhythms of the day.” On the court, that manifests in poor decision-making and shoddy execution. In that sense, the ugly game that put Toronto down 2-1 in the second round wasn’t all that different than its early-January loss in San Antonio or its mid-November loss to New Orleans. The consequences, however, are entirely different. 

In the playoffs, teams that want to compete for a championship cannot afford to have many games in which only one player is in rhythm. Nurse told reporters after Game 3 that the Raptors’ poor shooting affected every other aspect of the game. There were possessions in which he kept thinking a player was about to take a shot, only to watch him pass it up and miss an opportunity. Kyle Lowrytold ESPN’s Tim Bontemps that he and Marc Gasol, who shot a combined 4-for-16 and scored seven points apiece, were being “passive to a fault” and “have to be more selfish.”

Lowry is right. Everybody digs beautiful ball movement, but there is such a thing as overpassing — you can identify this when it looks like a team is playing hot potato rather than manipulating the defense. A lack of an attacking mindset can result in turnovers like this:

Mere days ago, I wrote about Gasol’s basketball IQ, arguing that this trait becomes more important in the playoffs. He and Lowry are clever passers who affect the game in all sorts of subtle ways, and this season they’ve sacrificed usage in order to make their teammates better. I love subtlety as much as any NBA geek you know — hey, check out my profile of role player extraordinaire P.J. Tucker! — but even I will acknowledge that you don’t want five Shane Battier’s out there in the playoffs. Toronto does not need to abandon its system and force-feed Gasol in the post, but he must shoot when he’s open and avoid winding up in situations like this:

Against Philadelphia, a huge and athletic team that understands its defensive game plan, advantages disappear if they aren’t capitalized on quickly. This is the Raptors’ biggest issue going into Game 4 — Embiid’s presence at the rim and the Sixers’ team defense have made them veer off course, away from the identity that Nurse has tried to foster.

It feels like ancient history, but six days ago Philadelphia started the series looking a lot like Toronto did on Wednesday, trailing by as many as 20 points in a discouraging 108-95 defeat. It is easy to write off that game based on the way this series is trending, but it’s not too late for the Raptors to make people forget about their blowout loss the same way. After all, in the first round against Orlando, they won four straight games after laying an egg in the opener. The Sixers are far more talented than the Magic, though, and on Wednesday they were confident and clicking in a way that Toronto was not. 

If the Raptors fight back and win this series, they could make the NBA Finals and talk about this as a turning point. Teams that get that far are usually said to have been hardened by overcoming adversity, but the nature of adversity is that it is no fun at the time. With almost no room for error, the Raptors have to get their act together immediately.

Other Sixers-Raptors thoughts:

  • Give Brown some credit. Ben Simmons is basically letting Jimmy Butler play point guard in the halfcourt. Embiid is finally rolling to the rim. Mike Scott and James Ennis are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. Greg Monroe is playable. For the second straight series, Philadelphia has made adjustments and improved throughout. It has taken time, but Brown and his coaching staff have made this funky, top-heavy and relatively new roster make sense.
  • If Toronto doesn’t bounce back on offense and loses the series as a result, then there will be a lot of discussion about what we saw from this team in the regular season. It was always noticeable that the Raptors played more cohesively without Leonard, and it was always weird when Lowry was indecisive. Their overall efficiency was great and they shot incredibly well after acquiring Gasol, but the bench was an issue all along, too.
  • Speaking of that bench: Toronto desperately needs more from Fred VanVleet. He has shot 1-for-11 in the series.
  • I had my doubts that the Sixers could get away with continuing to send help Leonard’s way, but as long as he and Pascal Siakam are essentially creating all of the Raptors’ offense, this strategy will work. Just like the Denver Nuggetshave to make some dang shots to help out Nikola Jokic, Toronto has to remind Philadelphia that its other players can score. 
  • I’m still not sure how to properly put Embiid’s Game 3 performance in context. From the shot-blocking to the celebrations to Butler telling him to shoot 3s and him actually making them, it was a Sixers fan’s dream. I spent about 1,000 words on the subject of how Toronto needs to be much better, but if Embiid plays like that for the rest of the series, being much better might not be good enough. 
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