Is it Too Early to Get Out The Brooms?
The first game of the second round was the first time the Raptors and 76ers have met in the postseason in 18 years. That series in 2001 went to Game 7, with the Raptors losing by one after a missed buzzer beater by Vince Carter. Just like in 2001, the winner of this series will determine one side of the Eastern Conference Finals. This year's series is important for both franchises as the Sixers haven’t been back to the ECF since that 2001 run in which they made the Finals and the Raptors have only been once in just under two decades.
For the Raptors to come out of this series on top and make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, they must shift their defensive focus, as in their first series against the Orlando Magic they were able to get by with defensive errors, but the 76er’s won’t be so forgiving. As seen in Saturday’s game the Raptors defence was refreshingly strong, with a high level of physicality. The focus defensively will be on Jimmy Butler as he has a strong offensive presence, although nothing too spectacular in Game 1, the Raps have got to keep an eye on him in the upcoming games. In addition to Butler, defensive pursuits will be focused on Simmons, Reddick, Harris and Embiid as they are some of the few players who can get hot at any moment. Raptors bigs, Kawhi Leonard and Pau Gasol, must continue claiming those boards in Game 2, as they did on Saturday, both defensively and offensively. The Raptors minimized the second chance opportunities by the Sixers, through solid rebounding efforts on both the offensive and defensive ends. Offensively they need to continue grabbing at those offensive rebounds and going up strong for the second chance baskets. Kyle Lowry and Danny Green will continue taking their three-pointers when given the opening, but the follow-up needs to be there from the posts, boxing out and making sure to go up for the rebounds, especially if Lowry has an off shooting game. Defensively, Kawhi and Gasol and have had strong performances, both making use of their stature and physicality while living up to their previous Defensive Player of the Year titles.
Raptors Head Coach, Nick Nurse, commented on how there was a slow start at the beginning of the game, but Leonard and Gasol quickly turned that around with vigorous defence and exciting offensive makes. Kawhi made one of the best defensive plays of the game, which began by a massive block on 76er’s Tobias Harris’ layup. Leonard sent it to Fred VanVleet who saw Siakam up the court for a fast break dunk, springing fans to their feet and the setting the team on a roll.
Nurse notes in a post-game interview, following the rocky first few minutes, once the Raptors got settled into the game, they were able to jump on any picked up dribble and shut down the Sixers plays. Lowry played his point guard role well, not at a scoring high, but leading the board with 8 assists, setting up plays and getting the ball to where it needed to be. 76er’s J.J. Reddick kept the opposition in the game through the third quarter, scoring 15 points, before Leonard and Siakam took care of business. Pascal Siakam, as usual, played outstanding on the offensive end, taking advantage of an open lane to the basket, using his athleticism and physicality. He scored 29 points and had seven rebounds, leading the board along with Leonard. A new career high was set by Kawhi coming out of this game with 45 points, along with 11 boards. Never in his career has Leonard lost against Philadelphia; let’s hope this will continue and Raptors can claim this series in four games. Adjustments to further tighten defence and make cleaner offensive plays may be seen in the next games, as Nurse states, “That's what’s interesting about a series: no two games are the same”, planning on making tweaks where need be, going forward against this contending 76er’s roster. The steady start to Game 1 and strong finish calls into question, will Toronto sweep Philly in four, or will it be a long series, with history repeating itself.