May 4, 2019, 2:33 am
One of the main critiques of Dwane Casey as a head coach was his playoff stubbornness. He was too slow to adapt; that the adjustments that eventually came were so haphazard that the Raptors were figuring new things out on the fly with the stakes at their highest. Anyone that watched poor C.J. Miles get roasted by LeBron James and/or Kevin Love time and time again knows why Casey got the axe in the same year he took home Coach of the Year.
As far back as training camp, Nick Nurse preached flexibility. The team rotated its starters regularly, mixing and matching lineups, trying to figure out what fit so they would be malleable at this point in the season.
So far, it’s been more of the same.
After a nightmare Game 3 where the Raptors dipped their toes in the water, it’s time for them to get ruthless in their adjustments and remember what they’ve been preaching all year.
Nurse has been handcuffed a bit, no doubt. The team that could afford to be more flexible has since lost Delon Wright, Jonas Valanciunas and Miles and is currently missing OG Anunoby. Marc Gasol has been added to the mix and is now under a massive spotlight playing against Joel Embiid. It’s hard to build continuity with that type of churn, but the Raptors have enough high-end talent to mitigate and manage these issues.
And for all the blame that may lay at Nurse’s feet, the Raptors will ultimately need to play better.
Spacing is merely an idea if open shooters aren’t even considering the idea of rising and firing. Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry in particular showed a disturbing willingness to pass up open shots in Game 3. They’ve done a poor job at forcing closeouts, and they have yet to make Embiid sweat on the defensive perimeter.
Lowry and Gasol have thrived in facilitator roles this season but they’ll need to be more offensive-minded in order to give Kawhi Leonard a fighting chance.
The Raptors will also need some kind of positive production from the bench. Any positive contribution out of that unit would be their first in two full games.
The diagnosis runs deeper than coaching, and there are more direct ways to sort out the issues that have popped up in Toronto’s two losses — namely hitting open shots and doing a better job of creating and exploting mismatches decisively.
And yet, Nurse was supposed to be the coach to break them out of this stubborn process. His regular season gambit of mixing and matching was meant to insulate the team from moments like this. We’ve seen some positive steps, even in Thursday’s mess, but the team can no longer afford to ease into changes and take lineups out for test drives if they want to avoid a daunting 3-1 deficit.
The primary point of emphasis to this point has been Joel Embiid’s minutes and Nurse’s reluctance to hard-match Philly’s superstar with Gasol.
We saw a little bit more of that in Game 3, with Gasol exiting the first quarter with 4:54 left after subbing out with 2:33 and 2:49 left in Games 1 and 2. He returned with 10:13 left in the second quarter in Game 3 after checking back in at the 7:39 and 7:10 marks in Games 1 and 2, as well. There were still some minutes with Embiid in against Serge Ibaka and Gasol facing Greg Monroe, but there was a concerted effort to account for the center matchup at all times.
The most integral change, however, came in the fourth quarter. Gasol was there for the start of the final frame on Thursday night after returning with 8:37 left in Game 2 and sitting the entire quarter in Game 1 thanks to garbage time. Although the Raptors quickly conceded a big run in the opening, Kawhi-less minutes of Game 3’s fourth quarter, Gasol’s presence on the floor remained the right call. Nurse will need to get more aggressive in chasing that matchup unless Ibaka can come back from the dead.
Speaking of Ibaka, he’s part of the bench groups that have absolutely tanked the Raptors so far. The Raptors have had two or fewer starters on the floor for 31 minutes through the first three games (aside from garbage time) and are an atrocious minus-24 in that time.
Nurse cut out the Jodie Meeks cameo in Game 3, but it’s past time to get rid of lineups that feature three of Fred VanVleet, Ibaka and Norman Powell.
VanVleet has struggled mightily this series and has had serious issues with Philadelphia’s backcourt size, and the aforementioned passivity makes him a non-asset. The former Sixth Man of the Year candidate can’t let a rough stretch sway him from shooting, because that’s his only real utility in this matchup. The Lowry-VanVleet backcourt minutes might also need to be chopped from the rotation until one of them proves to be an off-ball threat again.
One potential change there is to get VanVleet and Gasol on the court together with added minutes for the Lowry-Ibaka duo. Those pairings served all parties well in the regular season, and jump-starting even one of the four players involved could provide a major swing. It’ll depend on Nurse’s willingness to mix up his backcourt rotations and whether he’s worried about Philadelphia’s size in non-starting units.
Powell gives the team some penetration, but Embiid is too good of a rim protector and Powell too reckless a driver and too streaky a finisher to make those efforts mean much. The Sixers are content to let him take jumpers, though at least he’s been willing to take open shots.
The struggles of VanVleet and Powell make Patrick McCaw’s Game 3 stint raise some eyebrows. Though he only checked in for six minutes, he did take the floor before benches were emptied entirely. That had the looks of a conditioning stint, and at this point McCaw should be expected to eat into somebody’s minutes in Game 4. The ex-Warrior gives the team no spacing, but if VanVleet isn’t shooting and the Sixers aren’t bothering to guard Powell, McCaw’s presence won’t change a lick offensively while giving the Raptors a more capable defensive presence.
Despite all the dunking and shimmying from Embiid once the game was out of reach, the Raptors were within single digits to start the fourth quarter before letting go of the rope defensively — all while laying bricks on the other end.
Nurse is catching heat for trying to sneak Kawhi Leonard some rest to begin the frame, and you can bet that Leonard is going to play 24 minutes in the second half of anything other than a total blowout for the rest of the postseason.
There are plenty of tweaks available for Nurse to make, ranging from easy calls to decisions that could have major unintended consequences.
That’s life when you play very good teams. After the team’s success in the first round and Game 1 against the Sixers, it’s understandable that Nurse wouldn’t want to mess with a good thing. In Game 2 we saw some minor changes, but it was Philadelphia that brought most of the new looks to the table.
The Raptors chalked up a close loss to a rough shooting night and paid the price in Game 3.
It’s time for that flexibility to show itself.
1 – Joel Embiid was at his electrifying best on Thursday. The Raptors are probably fine when he’s taking threes (though the final uncontested one shouldn’t sit well) but the Sixers had everything clicking tonight. He’s a menace on either end and with two more days off before Game 4, his knee should be feeling better and better. Game 3 was really the first time we saw Embiid force his way into advantageous spots, and the juice from the home crowd was predictable.
2 – As discussed in our look at Game 2, Thursday was another example of why “hit open shots” doesn’t make the grade at this point in the year. Toronto lost Game 1 in the first round to a Magic team that shot nearly 50 percent from deep but had to feel good about the underlying action overall. They shouldn’t expect the Sixers to shoot 43.5 percent from deep again but waving things away as a matter of pure variance leaves too much on the table, especially with anywhere from two to four games left. There is plenty for the team to pick through tonight.
3 – Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol provide value in tons of other places but they’ve got to provide more offensively. There’s plenty of other culprits but the Raptors need more from two of their top four. Lowry said as much after the game. The non-scoring value wasn’t really there in Game 3 either, as both players got lost in passing mode. Things got off to an ominous start when Lowry missed a layup after getting bumped with no call and Gasol getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar on an early foul.
4 – The Raptors did a poor job of defending pick-and-roll actions involving Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Trailing over the top led to a lot of rhythm jumpers and the Sixers were able to stick Ben Simmons off the ball with no repercussions. That’s largely inexcusable, and it’s a perfect situation for Kawhi Leonard to cheat as a help defender.
5 – James Ennis continues to be huge in this series, and him providing non-zero contributions has given the Sixers the bench advantage entirely. The Raptors have 30 bench points through three games, while Ennis has 34 on his own. There’s more to it than that, but that’s pretty revealing on its own. OG Anunoby’s pre-playoff appendectomy has proven to be a back-breaker.
6 – Nick Nurse is going to be taking a fine at some point. Between the missed Ben Simmons elbow and the amount of times that Lowry and Leonard have been taken to the floor without a whistle, he’s going to play that card eventually. Pascal Siakam’s stupid trip will take some bite out of it, but it’s coming. The Raptors have been whistled for seven more fouls than Philly and have taken eight fewer free throws. While that’s not really anything to gripe about considering how these two teams differed in foul rates over the course of the regular season, it’s still a card to play. Nurse is going to preach that the team can play better (which is 100 percent accurate, and the main culprit – the officiating has been a non-story in this series), but expect some sort of commentary before this series is over.
7 – Mike Scott went 2-for-3 from the field for five points in 14 minutes, returning from a two-game absence because of a right heel contusion and plantar fasciitis. That completely excised Jonah Bolden and Boban Marjanovic from the rotation and took a few minutes away from Greg Monroe. The Sixers have won the 3-point battle so far this series and now get their actual stretch four back.
8 – The Raptors still have yet to hunt out J.J. Redick on defense and have done a poor job of forcing Embiid to defend outside shooters (sorry, Pascal Siakam). To this point the only time that Embiid’s been forced to the perimeter is when Siakam is left to fire off triples from above the break. That’s not good enough if you’re the Raptors, and one wonders if they’ll start increasing Siakam’s usage as an off-ball screener to try and force Embiid into a switch onto literally anyone else. Siakam is clearly getting frustrated, and clanging iron early isn’t helping him between the ears.
9 – Embiid and Redick have a wonderful chemistry in the two-man game, and with the way the Raptors have played the duo defensively it’d be surprising if they didn’t get into more sets involving that action. It forces tough decisions since none of the non-Gasol Raptors have a shot at covering Embiid inside the arc and Gasol has no shot at getting out on Redick flying off a screen. It’s an exploitable look that they haven’t gone to a ton just yet.
10 – We haven’t seen a ton of double-teaming throughout this series, at least not as a consistent strategy. The Sixers brought it out a few times in the fourth but things got out of hand quickly enough that we didn’t get an extended look at it. That’s going to be another battleground as this series plays out. Philadelphia should rightfully force anyone other than Leonard to beat them at this point, while the Raptors shouldn’t forget what they’re capable of after a brutal performance. Danny Green got back on track in Game 3 and they’re enough of a veteran team to trust in one another given the collective track record. Getting the Four Non-Kawhis (the name of my punk band, too) in a man-up situation is something that the Raptors shouldn’t be running from. It’s why you trade for a guy like Gasol in the first place.
May 21, 2019, 12:02 amDamian Lillard - G - Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard had his best game this series in Monday's 117-119 Game 4 loss to the Warriors with 28 points and 12 assists to go with four rebounds and four 3-pointers.
Lillard went 11-for-24 from the field and hit a signature logo 3-pointer, but in the end he couldn't convert on his layup or his 3-pointer in OT to keep the Blazers' season alive. He's been playing through a rib injury which explains why he's been a bit off on offense. Tonight he brought it all in an attempt to survive, but it just wasn't enough against the juggernaut Warriors.
May 21, 2019, 12:00 amCJ McCollum - G - Trail Blazers
C.J. McCollum scored 26 points on 10-of-22 shooting with two rebounds, seven assists, a steal, two blocks and five 3-pointers in Monday's Game 4 against the Warriors.
McCollum has been the Blazers' most consistent threat on offense in this series, but he was unable to convert on some tough shots late in OT to keep the Blazers' season alive. He's improved upon last postseason, but this year ended the same as the Blazers were swept.
May 20, 2019, 11:59 pmMeyers Leonard - F/C - Trail Blazers
Meyers Leonard had a career-high 30 points on 12-of-16 shooting with 12 rebounds, three assists, a steal, a block and five 3-pointers in Monday’s Game 4 loss to the Warriors.
Leonard had 25 points in the first half thanks to his 5-for-6 shooting from deep and both of those numbers already set new career-highs. Thanks to his hot hand, the Warriors had to respect him out on the 3-point line which freed up space for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to operate on the perimeter.
May 20, 2019, 11:58 pmAl-Farouq Aminu - F - Trail Blazers
Al-Farouq Aminu scored zero points on 0-of-2 shooting with a rebound and a block in Monday's Game 4.
Aminu stunk it up again, but the Blazers didn't get much help from their bench either. Rodney Hood (40 minutes, seven points on 3-of-11 shooting with two rebounds, two assists, two steals and a 3-pointer) and Evan Turner (six points on 3-of-4 shooting with two rebounds and a steal) didn't do much, showing that coach Stotts didn't have many options to choose from.
May 20, 2019, 11:56 pmStephen Curry - G - Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry led the Warriors to a 119-117 OT Game 4 on Monday with 37 points on 11-of-25 shooting with 13 rebounds, 11 assists, a steal and seven 3-pointers.
Curry put on an off-ball clinic tonight, running circles around the Blazers to get open even though he drew consistent triple-teams. Steve Kerr wanted to end this series tonight so Curry played the entire second half including OT and the move paid off. There shouldn’t be any more noise about Curry’s ability to perform in the playoffs as he destroyed the Blazers in every coverage they threw at him. It’ll be all eyes on Curry again in the Finals as they look to three-peat.
May 20, 2019, 11:54 pmDraymond Green - F - Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green notched a 18-14-11 triple-double to go with three steals, two blocks and a 3-pointer in Monday’s Game 4 win over the Blazers.
Green has proven over the past two games that he still has the ability to kick it into high gear. His defensive tenacity and anticipation might be the best in the league as he’s a one-man wrecking crew on that end of the floor. His only triple was a big one late in OT and his ability to ignite the Warriors on a big run thanks to his defense and passing were huge reasons why the Warriors swept the Blazers.
May 20, 2019, 11:52 pmJordan Bell - F - Golden State Warriors
Jordan Bell started in Monday's Game 4 against the Blazers and scored seven points on 3-of-5 shooting with two assists and a steal.
Bell drew his first career playoff start after Damian Jones (DNP-CD) looked overwhelmed in his Game 3 start, but ceded the closing minutes to Kevon Looney (29 minutes, 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting with 14 rebounds, a steal and a block) who played the best out of all the Warriors' centers. Looney's timing and offensive rebounding have been huge for Golden State and his ability to switch on to perimeter players has also been a huge reason as to why he sees the floor more than the other bigs.
May 20, 2019, 11:52 pmKlay Thompson - G - Golden State Warriors
Klay Thompson struggled in Monday's Game 4 win over the Blazers with 17 points on 7-of-21 shooting with six rebounds, two assists, two steals, a block and three 3-pointers.
Thompson has been forced to put the ball on the floor more with the Warriors lacking playmakers and you can clearly see him out of his comfort zone. His defense was stifling tonight in crunch time as he perfectly contested both of Damian Lillard's shot attempts at the end of OT.
May 20, 2019, 11:49 pmAlfonzo McKinnie - F - Golden State Warriors
Alfonzo McKinnie started in Monday’s Game 4 win over the Blazers and scored 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting with two rebounds and a 3-pointer.
McKinnie drew the start in place of Andre Iguodala (calf strain) and had the worst plus-minus out of all the starters but came up with some big offensive rebounds in OT. He can’t space the floor any better than Shaun Livingston (22 minutes, eight points on 4-of-4 shooting with a rebound, an assist, a steal and a block) who plays much better with the Warriors’ starters so the starting job is just in name.
May 20, 2019, 9:02 pmJordan Bell - F - Golden State Warriors
Jordan Bell will start at center in Monday's Game 4 for the Warriors.
Bell has played between 11 and 15 minutes in the three conference finals games, and he's unlikely to play too much more than that tonight. Look for Kevon Looney to continue to get more minutes than Bell tonight.
Source: Anthony Slater on Twitter