8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Raptors -1.5, Over/Under: 217
With two games in the books, this matchup between the Second-Seeded Toronto Raptors and the Third-Seeded Philadelphia 76ers is beginning to live up to it’s billing, as the Eastern Conference Semifinals transitions to Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for Game Three. After dropping their customary Opener in their First Round meeting with the upstart Orlando Magic, the Raptors (58-24, 2nd in Eastern Conference) quickly remembered that they are in fact the Atlantic Division Champions, and laid the wood to their young counterparts, mercilessly eliminating them after four consecutive victories by an average margin of 14.4 Points per Game. Apart from that early hiccup, it was an altogether impressive showing for a team that many believe is a true darkhorse contender to come out of the East and potentially lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy come June. With that said, this is an immensely important Postseason for Toronto, who in addition to undergoing considerable change after winning a franchise record Fifty-Nine Games in 2017-2018, firing Head Coach of the year Dwayne Casey and trading All-Star Shooting Guard, DeMar DeRozan in exchange former Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard (26.6 PTS, 49.6% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.4 BLK, 25.8 PER), also added another former Defender of the Year, trading for veteran Center, Marc Gasol (9.1 PTS, 46.5% FG, 44.2% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 3.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 16.0 PER) shortly before the Trade Deadline. As a result, General Manager Masai Ujiri has created something akin to a monster, though the common opinion is that how they perform together in these Playoffs will ultimately dictate whether or not this group will be retained long term. That goes doubly for Leonard, whose looming Free Agency has been the subject of much speculation for months now. Needless to say, expectations are HIGH for Nick Nurse and his charges, with nothing short of a trip to the NBA Finals likely being branded as a success. Debate that notion all you like, but if Game One was any indication as to what this team can do when they’re at their best, then those expectations don’t seem to be so outlandish. Simply put, the Raptors manhandled the Sixers in Saturday’s 108-95 victory, which was just their third win in a Game One in their past seventeen tries. Defense was the key to this one folks, as the hosts relegated Philadelphia to a miserable 39.3% shooting from the field, including 11-of-32 from beyond the arc (34.4%), while bullying them on the glass (Plus-6 REB), and forcing them into Fourteen Turnovers. The aforementioned Leonard put together a thrilling performance, scoring a Playoff Career-High Forty-Five Points on 16-of-23 shooting (69.6%), including 3-of-7 from downtown (42.9%), while calmly netting 10-of-11 Free-Throws (90.9%), also adding Eleven Rebounds, and a pair of Assists, Steals, and Blocks apiece. That was the kind of showing that earned the former NBA Finals’ MVP his reputation as the finest two-way player in the game today, and will undoubtedly make him arguably the most coveted Free Agent this Summer. As a team, the Raptors shot torrid 51.9% overall, including 9-of-27 from long-range (33.3%), dishing out a healthy Twenty-One Assists in comparison to committing just Ten Turnovers. Emerging Forward, Pascal Siakam (16.9 PTS, 54.9% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 6.9 REB, 3.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 18.7 PER), had a stellar showing night of his own, scoring Twenty-Nine Points on a white-hot 12-of-15 shooting (80.0%), all the while playing staunch Defense on multiple Sixers, including both Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons (more on them later).
Game Two was a bit of a different story, though the Raptors’ suffocating Defense continued to make it’s presence felt in what was to be a narrow 89-94 defeat. For the second consecutive contest, the hosts vexed the visiting side on the defensive end of the court, relegating Philadelphia to a meager 39.5% shooting from the field, including 10-of-35 from beyond the arc (28.6%), and harassing them into nearly as many Turnovers (19) as Assists permitted (22). Nurse has been creative in throwing different looks at the aforementioned Simmons, frustrating the All-Star point Guard with a multitude of defenders, most notably Leonard, who has been nothing short of an eraser on the perimeter. The problem though, is that the home side were as cold as imaginable on the offensive end, where they only managed to net a dismal 36.3% of their attempts from the floor, including just 10-of-37 from downtown. Granted, Leonard was once again fabulous, leading the way with Thirty-Five Points on 13-of-24 shooting (54.2%), Seven Rebounds, Six Assists, and a Steal, but the rest of the Raptors were decisively less than formidable. Sans Leonard, Toronto shot an abysmal 29.9% from the field, though Siakam (21 PTS) and veteran Point Guard Kyle Lowry (20 PTS) found ways to contribute. Like a frigid Canadian Spring, it took a good while for the hosts to thaw out, shooting 7-of-24 in the First Quarter (29.2%), and trailing by as many as Nineteen Points in the First Half. However, they patiently clawed their way back into the affair, cutting the deficit to as little as One Point in the final period of play. Finally, after a pair of clutch Three-Pointers courtesy of Lowry (14.2 PTS, 41.1% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.5 BLK, 16.5 PER), the deficit was just 87-90 with 1:36 remaining on the clock, when Siakam drove to the rim and cut the lead to one via a layup. After immediately conceding on the opposite end, restoring the lead to three, Lowry turned the ball over in the Halfcourt, though it was recovered by Danny Green (10.3 PTS, 46.5% FG, 45.5% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 13.0 PER), who missed a clean look from the perimeter, allowing the visitors to secure the rebound and seal the victory. Overall, Toronto held it’s sixth straight opponent below 100 points, and in the end simply missed a number of open shots in what turned out to be a very winnable contest, and should favor their fortunes moving forward in this Series, particularly if Philadelphia continues to suffer from their defensive pressure.
Meanwhile, these slow starts are beginning to become a bit of a habit for the 76ers (51-31 in Eastern Conference), who are also in the midst of what figures to be an extremely important Postseason for a Franchise that will be forced to make some hard choices as they embark on the next stage of their fabled Process. As is the case with their counterpart in this Series, Philadelphia would ease those decisions in the wake of a lengthy Playoff Run, for after all this is where their march came to a halt a season ago. While they were very much everyone’s favorite story in 2017-2018, this year has been different, for the first time in over a decade their were true expectations heaped upon them, which were only heightened after the Front Office made not one, but two, major trades during the season, the first of which bringing the disgruntled Jimmy Butler (18.2 PTS, 46.1% FG, 33.8% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 4.0 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 19.8 PER) to the City of Brotherly Love, and the second acquiring Tobias Harris (18.2 PTS, 46.9% FG, 32.6% 3FG, 7.9 REB, 2.9 AST, 0.4 STL, 0.5 BLK, 15.3 PER) in a Trade Deadline Deal with the Los Angeles Clippers, which as you can imagine dramatically altered the makeup of this team. Furthermore, that process within the process has been stymied by the bulky knee of one Joel Embiid (27.5 PTS, 48.4% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 13.6 REB, 3.7 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.9 BLK, 26.1 PER), who missed a wealth of outings after the All-Star Break due to Tendinitis, all the while attempting to play through it in these Playoffs. The feeling around the league is that Brett Brown & Co. won’t be able to keep both Butler and Harris, with one or possibly both parting way in the Offseason, further making this particular Postseason all the more vital for the Process moving forward. So how are they doing, you ask? Just as the Raptors did, the Sixers dropped their First Round Opener at home to the young Brooklyn Nets, and just as their counterparts did, they immediately responded by sweeping them over the course of the ensuing four games with relative ease. This of course, set up a star-studded matchup with Toronto, whose size, physicality, and versatility appeared to play the perfect foil to Philadelphia’s nucleus of star power. However, as we detailed earlier, it’s become abundantly clear that their opponent is to perfect a foil, for to proclaim that Brown’s charged have struggled mightily on the offensive end of the court through the first two games of this Series would be rather kind. Thus far, they’ve only managed to knock down 39.3% of their attempts overall, including 21-of-67 from beyond the arc (31.3%), with Turnovers being a major reason for their difficulties. As is the case with most teams led by young Point Guards, the Sixers haven’t taken great care of the basketball this season, turning it over 14.9 times a Game (25th Overall), with a Turnovers Percentage of 12.9% (24th Overall). And while that figure is high due to so many new faces in the Rotation, they’ve largely been able to compensate for that weakness by moving the ball fluidly, averaging 26.9 Assists per Game (5th Overall). In these East Semifinals though, they’ve coughed up the rock Thirty-Three times, or in other words, 16.5 times a night, with their Assist total sitting at Forty-Five (22.5 A/G). Simmons (16.9 PTS, 56.3% FG, 8.8 REB, 7.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.8 BLK, 20.0 PER) and Embiid have accounted for Six Turnovers apiece thus far, which is a real problem when you consider that Brown prefers to run his offense through both players. The other prevailing problem is the big fella himself, and whether or not that bulky knee will afford him the movement required to shake Toronto’s legion of large defenders. Brooklyn tried to rough him up in the First Round, but ultimately failed to succeed because they simply didn’t have the size. That’s not the case in this Series, where the Raptors can throw Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and even Leonard at Embiid, forcing the 76ers to manufacture their offense in other areas.
And manufacture offense they did in Game Two, though it was at times just as painful to see as it was on Saturday Night. The 94-89 victory saw Philadelphia roll up their proverbial sleeves and get physical with Toronto, shutting down the hosts apart from Leonard, who as we already stated has been operating at another level in this Series. Brown implored his troops to attack the glass with relentless fervor, which they did so in spades, outrebounding the Raptors by a whopping Seventeen Boards. This aggressive showing also earned them the luxury of getting to the Charity Stripe, where they earned a distinct advantage over the home side, knocking down all but two of their Twenty-Six Free-Throws, outscoring their opponent by Eleven Points. For those considering this group’s future as presently constructed, Butler was the unmitigated hero of the day, stepping up to lead Philadelphia to their first victory north of the border in fifteen tries, scoring Thirty Points on 9-of-22 shooting from the field (40.9%), including 4-of-10 from beyond the arc (40.0%), and 8-of-8 from the Free-Throw Line (100.0%), along with Eleven rebounds, Five Assists, and a Block. Indeed, after he scored twelve in the Fourth Quarter alone, his Coach was so impressed with his star swingman that he proclaimed that that was James Butler. And it’s a good thing that he stepped up for the rest of their star quartet had a rough night to say the least. The aforementioned Simmons had nearly as many Turnovers (4) as Points (6), while despite heling tremendously on the glass (11 REB), Harris dropped just Nine Points on 3-of-11 shooting (27.3%). And then there was Embiid, who on the whole looked to be very bothered with the Raptors’ defense, scoring just Twelve Points on 2-of-7 shooting (28.6%) with Six Turnovers, though accounted for his team’s most crucial Field Goal, putting together a dissertation in perfect footwork, taking both Gasol and Leonard to the rim, where he laid in a basket to stretch the lead back to three with Twenty-Four Seconds left on the clock. Fortunately, there was help from other areas, with J.J. Redick (18.1 PTS, 44.0% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 2.4 REB, 2.7 AST, 0.4 STL, 15.1 PER), James Ennis (5.3 PTS, 41.0% FG, 30.6% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 0.8 AST, 9.9 PER), and Greg Monroe (13.7 PTS, 65.2% FG, 4.3 REB, 2.3 AST, 31.7 PER) accounting or a total of Thirty-Four Points on 12-of-27 shooting (44.4%), with the latter providing crucial minutes off the Bench.