• The Raptors were left searching for answers after an embarrassing effort in Game 3.

    Beyond Kawhi Leonard’s constant brilliance, the team came up short in multiple facets and wasted another sterling effort from its superstar. From coaching to mindset to simple execution, the other Raptors were simply not good enough.

    Make no mistake – Leonard’s dominance coats this entire series. He’s owning every aspect of the game, and his bench stints have taken on added weight as both teams can feel the game sway when a transcendental star lets everyone else have their fun for a few minutes. Kawhi’s been a rumbling storm cloud for the Sixers and a 6’7” fire blanket for the Raptors.

    Without him, Toronto’s efforts on the margins are meaningless. But in Sunday’s Game 4, those additional contributions delivered a crucial win.

    Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol were under the microscope after subpar performances in Game 3, with both players rightfully catching criticism for passing up scoring opportunities. Lowry in particular pledged to play more aggressively, and both players followed through to give the Raptors some much-needed secondary scoring.

    Lowry got off to a great start, scoring seven points on 3-of-4 shooting in the first quarter. Though he finished the contest with 14 points, it was how he scored his early buckets that set the table for the rest of his day.

    His first make was a quick drive past Ben Simmons and an asleep-at-the-wheel Joel Embiid for an early layup, and he promptly followed that up with a pull-up three in semi-transition. That’s the type of shot Lowry takes freely when he’s at his best:

     

    Gasol passed up a few good shots, but was generally decisive about putting the ball in the hoop when he got to an advantageous spot. He’s tall enough to not get preoccupied with Embiid lurking in the paint and has a soft enough touch to drop in floaters over Philly’s drop-back coverage.

    When Lowry is a threat to score and Gasol is assertive in his decisions, this is the type of play you get. Embiid and Butler both follow Lowry towards the bucket, and by the time Embiid gets back out on Gasol the shot is already in the air:

     

    There was also this nice cut from Gasol, which we may need to see more of if the Sixers continue to double Leonard. They were able to coerce him into seven turnovers on Sunday, and smart, quick safety valves like the one provided here will be crucial.

     

    Beyond that, Gasol was simply able to hit some timely shots, none bigger than his triple to knot the game at 84. He provides Leonard an outlet and makes the Sixers pay for committing four (!!!!) defenders to stopping Leonard’s drive:

     

    Remember that shot – we’ll come back to it later.

    From a coaching perspective, Nick Nurse seemed hesitant to make extreme adjustments after so much success in the regular season and first round, dipping into half measures that left the Raptors vulnerable for far too long.

    He did no such dabbling in Game 4, changing his bench rotation and substitution patterns to better match the Raptors with the Sixers’ top-heavy group.

    Patrick McCaw came off the bench first, not Norman Powell. The Raptors completely cut their three-bench group aside from a 1:23 stretch in the first quarter, with McCaw and his length replacing Powell. Fred VanVleet, Powell and McCaw played just seven, four and five minutes, respectively.

    The deployment and performance of the bench group fed into one another, and Nurse was drastic in cutting what wasn’t working. Notably absent from that classification, however, is Serge Ibaka.

    Ibaka turned in his best performance of the playoffs with 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. He was needed for 32 minutes as the Raptors were working with a limited Pascal Siakam, and he ended up sharing the court with Gasol for 23:25 in Game 4 after the Raptors deployed the pair for 34 minutes through the regular season and first round combined.

    Nurse’s hand may have been forced by the circumstances, but he was rewarded for sticking his neck out on a lineup combination that had only been a transitional group until Game 4.

    The duo went plus-7 in their time on the court and were huge in counteracting Philly’s major size advantage, though it has to be noted that Embiid was playing under the weather.

    Still, Ibaka picked a heck of a time to clock into this series, giving Toronto a lift from a bench that had been entirely lifeless for two consecutive games.

    Although the Raptors trail Philadelphia 187-154 in total rebounds and 42-27 in total rebounds, Game 4 saw both teams pull down 43 boards with the Sixers holding a modest 11-8 edge offensively. The Sixers boast a 54.1 rebound percentage in the second round, with a 79.2 percentage on the defensive glass. In Game 4, those numbers fell to 51.0 and 75.0, respectively.

    Going big also resulted in some easier offensive work without asking Leonard to shoulder any burden. The clip cuts things a bit short, but VanVleet comes around Ibaka and Gasol in a double drag screen before the video starts. From there, the two bigs move in opposite directions. Embiid’s drawn to the perimeter by the screen action and challenges Gasol up top since he’s already in the neighborhood while Ibaka does an excellent job pinning a smaller defender under the hoop:

     

    Here’s an even better example, with this colored by the context of Gasol having taken five shots and three 3-pointers (hitting his previous attempt) in the first 21 minutes of the game. Watch how Embiid abandons the paint to get out on Gasol and prevent an uncontested three:

     

    After two games of beating around the bush, the Raptors were quick to choose whether they were shooting or passing and wasted no time in attacking mismatches.

    To recap, Nurse eliminated go-nowhere lineups while introducing a new player to the series and rolling the dice on an infrequent pairing. Lowry and Gasol were diligent about looking for scoring windows but still worked to feed advantageous situations. Ibaka returned from the shadow realm and helped the Raptors on both ends of the floor, outscoring the Philly bench on his own and thriving in a role-player spot that had gone unfilled since Game 1.

    Perhaps no possession better encapsulates all of the adjustments made between Games 3 and 4 than the one below.

    Remember Gasol’s big 3-pointer from earlier? Here he is in the same spot, only this time he demands attention from Tobias Harris. Lowry occupies Jimmy Butler’s attention and keeps him from providing adequate help, forcing Embiid to move away from the rim. Leonard attacks towards the basket where Harris used to be, and Ibaka steps up to complete the sequence by burying a jumper as Leonard draws Embiid as the second defender. What’s more, this possession comes as a result of a Leonard offensive rebound where Ibaka is able to impede Embiid’s attempt at batting the ball back out.

    Everything the Raptors talked about, needed and received converged on this one sequence.

     

    The Raptors were able to check all the proper boxes on Sunday, with their support players answering the bell in a serious way.

    There will be more counters from the Sixers, but for at least one afternoon Toronto proved that they have what it takes to adapt on the fly. Now equipped with the knowledge that they can bounce back from a big punch, the Raptors embark on a best-of-three with homecourt in their favor.

    Other Observations

    1 – This was a game that both teams should remain somewhat annoyed by. The Sixers missed a ton of shots at the rim, especially in the first half, and there were enough unkind bounces to point to bad luck rather than defensive impact. The Raptors continued to miss wide-open threes (7-of-20) and are now 31.4 percent on those shots in the series (22-of-70). Philly went 4-of-16 on those shots in Game 4 and are a more reasonable but still ugly 40.4 percent (23-of-57) in the second round. The Raptors have to be hoping that their shooting corrects, because that’s a substantial margin in terms of shot generation.

    2 – The clock might’ve struck midnight on Greg Monroe. He was played off the court in his 11 minutes, finishing at minus-18 and failing to maintain the rebounding advantage he’d created through the first three games of the series. He also picked up a technical foul, which shouldn’t sit well with the coaching staff. The Sixers haven’t displayed any level of comfort with the center options behind Embiid, and if Monroe turns back into a pumpkin it’ll force them to get a little creative.

    3 – With Monroe’s utility waning, this series seems to be screaming for Mike Scott. If the Raptors continue to lean on their biggest lineup, Scott is a natural counter to force Serge Ibaka out to the perimeter. Tobias Harris is already a tough cover for Ibaka, and Scott might force the Raptors back into smaller groups that will struggle with Philadelphia’s size.

    4 – Kyle Lowry was undoubtedly more aggressive to begin Game 4, but he also gets a tip of the cap for helping one of his struggling teammates get going with some nice, unselfish plays. The mics even caught Ibaka dropping a, “good pass, K-Low.” Ibaka is one of those players who seems to thrive on the emotions of the game, and building his confidence up early is never a bad thing for the Raptors.

    5 – This game could’ve gone off the rails for Ibaka, who deserves tons of credit for not wilting. He was rejected at the rim twice on beautiful Embiid blocks and missed his three 3-pointers by a disturbing amount. He might’ve only hit the rim once. Ibaka should be offended by how open the Sixers left him outside the paint and while his threes aren’t the shots Toronto is after, he also gets credit for taking the open shots presented to him. He can hit those and shouldn’t be dissuaded from those looks, lest the Raptors fall back into the Game 3 overpassing trap.

    6 – Embiid was clearly playing at far less than 100 percent, though his impact on the game remained as large as Philadelphia could’ve hoped. It’s fairly difficult to go plus-17 in a five-point loss, especially when you play as much as Embiid does. That he was able to hold so much influence while taking just seven shots (with one a contested deep three in the waning seconds) is reassuring for the Sixers.

    7 – While having Kawhi Leonard move onto Jimmy Butler isn’t great for the Sixers, who are already struggling to get their secondary scorers going, you have to wonder if they’re not a little bit excited about the possibility of getting Ben Simmons moved onto a hobbled Pascal Siakam, Danny Green or Kyle Lowry. He’s been quiet for the first four games of this series and shaking Leonard as a cover might allow him to actually get the ball and make plays. On the flip side, the Raptors might not be opposed to Simmons fighting for more shots if it tilts things away from Embiid and Butler.

    8 – Although, this is the type of play that Simmons can orchestrate with breathing room. And keep in mind that this is after a timeout:

     

    9 – One deep cut from this series is that the Raptors have Sergio Scariolo, Spain’s national coach, on staff. With Marc Gasol also on the roster, it wouldn’t be surprising if we see the team start to weave in more Spain pick-and-roll. For the uninitiated, it’s a pick-and-roll at the top of the arc where a third player sets a back screen for the original screener before popping out for a shot. Here’s a look at it in action – Kawhi Leonard gets a buttery mid-range jumper but Kyle Lowry is wide open for three, and there is a window for the ball to hit the rolling Gasol – and that’s without the Sixers helping off players in the corners. Gasol should know this action like the back of his hand, so we might see more of it going forward.

     

    10 – Patrick McCaw made a decent first impression on the series. He played limited minutes but was able to create a transition opportunity (that Ibaka dunk linked above) and didn’t look too out of place defensively considering he jumped into the mix halfway through the series. McCaw was in the game before Norman Powell, and with the way that the Raptors’ actually-good shooters are missing shots there’s no harm in playing a superior defender who isn’t willing to shoot on his limited touches.

Fantasy News

  • Vlatko Cancar
    SF, Denver Nuggets

    Vlatko Cancar (ankle) hurt his ankle during Sunday's practice.

    The ankle injury may put his availability in question for opening night. An update should be coming out with more information regarding the injury, but Cancar should not be on any draft boards regardless.

    Source: Harrison Wind on Twitter

  • Rodney McGruder
    SG, Los Angeles Clippers

    Rodney McGruder (high ankle sprain) is questionable to play in Tuesday's opening game versus the Lakers.

    McGruder is noted to be progressing well, but high ankle sprains tend to be tricky and if re-injured could shelf a player for several weeks. If McGruder is healthy enough to suit up he figures absorb some of Paul George's would-be minutes.

    Source: Tomer Azarly on Twitter

  • Alen Smailagic
    PF, Golden State Warriors

    Alen Smailagic (right ankle sprain) has a chance to play in Thursday's season opener.

    Smailagic was expected to miss a decent amount of time, so him not being ruled out is somewhat shocking. There is no reason to look at Smailagic in any drafts, but him missing time could funnel more minutes to Jordan Poole.

    Source: Logan Murdock on Twitter

  • Willie Cauley-Stein
    C, Golden State Warriors

    Willie Cauley-Stein (left foot strain) will not play in Thursday's season opener.

    WCS has been cleared fr non-contact drills, but with Kevon Looney looking health it makes the call easier to take the cautious approach. WCS will be looking like Looney's primary backup.

    Source: Logan Murdock on Twitter

  • Dennis Smith Jr.
    PG, New York Knicks

    The Knicks will not announce their starting point guard until Wednesday.

    Death, taxes and Knicks head coach David Fizdale doing Fizdale-like stuff. The battle has been between Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr., while Frank Ntilikina sits in the background. It appears that after a few more days of practice Fizdale will have the sample size he needs to make confirm his starter, but for now they both remain as late-round fliers.

    Source: Marc Berman on Twitter

  • Kyle Kuzma
    PF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Kyle Kuzma (left foot stress reaction) has been ruled out of Tuesday's season opener.

    This isn't a shocker considering Kuzma has yet to be cleared for contact. He is still participating in non-contact half-court drills, but has no firm timetable to return.

    Source: Bill Oram on Twitter

  • Kevon Looney
    PF-C, Golden State Warriors

    Kevon Looney (right hamstring strain) will play in Thursday's game and possibly open as the starting center.

    Looney practiced on Sunday and looked good to go. Looney is the favorite to start, it just seems like his health will determine whether or not he does. Looney offers late-round appeal in standard leagues and remains a sleeper on most boards.

    Source: Monte Pool on Twitter

  • Isaiah Taylor
    PG, Toronto Raptors

    The Raptors have waived Isaiah Taylor.

    Taylor signed to a partially guaranteed deal back in September, but did not stand out did training camps. He had a stint with the Hawks back during the 2017-18 season and will likely get picked up by another team and relegated to the G-League.

    Source: Josh Lewenberg on Twitter

  • Paul George
    SF, Los Angeles Clippers

    Paul George (right rotator cuff and left labrum tear) does not have a timetable in which he could participate in full-contact drills.

    Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said the team is expecting to be without George with at least the first 10 games, which would put his return to mid-November. Moe Harkless looks like the most likely candidate to fill in for George during his absence.

    Source: Mark Medina on Twitter

  • Jalen McDaniels
    PF, Charlotte Hornets

    The Hornets have converted Jalen McDaniels to a multi-year contract.

    McDaniels was playing on a two-way contract before being signed longterm. This will open up another possible two-way contract for the Hornets.

    Source: Rick Bonnell on Twitter