8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Raptors -6, Over/Under: 211
With this Series squared away at two games apiece, the Eastern Conference Finals shift back to north of the border as the Second-Seeded Toronto Raptors host the Third-Seeded Philadelphia 76ers in a pivotal Game Five from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario. The say that a Series never quite begins until one team manages to taste victory on the other’s home floor, and if that’s the case, this is shaping up to be an all-out war. After winning Games Two and Three, the latter in convincing fashion, the 76ers (51-31 in Eastern Conference) must have felt very confident in themselves heading into Game Four on their home court, though we’ll get into that affair in just a bit. In the meantime, let’s take a moment to cover how they got here. For the second consecutive Series, Philadelphia got off to a slow start, getting blasted in Game One in Toronto, 95-108, a matchup in which they struggled mightily from the field, mustering a scant 39.3% shooting overall, while the hosts continuously picked their defense apart, netting a scintillating 51.9% shooting from the floor. Despite that showing, there were a number of things that Brett Brown’s charges did well, outscoring the Raptors from beyond the Arc (Plus-6), and outrebounding them 47-40, particularly on the offensive end where they were Plus-11 in that regard. However, at the end of the day, it was largely a case of one team making shots and the other not. Game Two was a different animal altogether, with both teams struggling to muster much on the offensive end in a defensive battle; the Sixers shot marginally better (39.5%), but suffocated Toronto, relegating the home side to 36.3% shooting, including 10-of-37 from downtown (27.0%). Turnovers were a major problem for the visitors (19), but they once again owned the glass (53-36), and this time enjoyed quite the advantage from the Charity Stripe, draining 24-of-26 Free-Throws (92.3%), which was decisive in the narrow 94-89 victory. Heading to the City of Brotherly Love with the Series tied at 1-1, Philly responded in kind, running their opponent out of Wells Fargo Center in Game Three’s 116-95 triumph, an affair in which the home side exploded on 51.2% shooting from the field, including 10-of-23 from three (43.5%), all the while putting together a much more efficient Assist/Turnover Ratio (29-13). Six different players scored in double-figures for Brett Brown’s outfit, led by All-Star Center 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 totaled Thirty-Three Points on 9-of-18 shooting (50.0%), including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc (75.0%), Ten rebounds, Three Assists, and Five Blocks. 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), who carried them with Thirty Points in Game Two, added Twenty-Two Points on 9-of-15 shooting (60.0%), while J.J. Redick (8.1 PTS, 44.0% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 2.4 REB, 2.7 AST, 0.4 STL, 15.1 PER) chimed in with Fifteen Points on 5-of-9 shooting (55.6%), including 3-of-6 from downtown (50.0%). The 76ers outscored their counterpart 27-14 in the Fourth Quarter, and altogether destroyed them in the Paint (52-36). It was a strong performance led by Embiid, who has been plagued by tendinitis in his knee since the All-Star Break (even missing Game Four of the previous Series against the Brooklyn Nets), averaging just 14.0 Points on a meager 28.0% shooting from the field in the first two entries of this Series. However, as Brown & Co. have no doubt ascertained by now, relying exclusively on their towering big man to lead them past the Raptors is going to buy them a one-way ticket back home.
That was precisely the case in Game Four, in which the hosts blew a golden opportunity to put the proverbial foot on the neck of their opponent, falling in defeat , 96-101. In a game featuring a wealth of ties and lead changes, it was the 76ers who couldn’t make the requisite plays down the stretch, going scoreless for a six-minute period in the Fourth Quarter, en route to shooting a dismal 7-of-21 in that final stanza (33.3%). On the game, Philadelphia shot just 40.2% overall, including 12-of-38 from beyond the arc (31.6%). As foreshadowed earlier, Embiid was a shell of himself in this affair, finishing with a disappointing Eleven Points on 2-of-7 shooting (28.6%) in just over 35:00 of action, though managed to help in other ways, compiling Eight Rebounds Seven Assists, and a pair of Steals and Blocks apiece. It’s a matter of aggressiveness for the 25-year old, and whether or not that bulky knee will allow him to be as active and engaged as his team needs him to be in order to be successful. Case in point; he attempted just Four Field Goals in throughout the first 32:00 of play, which should tell you everything you need to know about where he is physically. With that said, the Sixers made the number of high-profile trades that they made during the season, so that they would be prepared for such occasions, and they saw the good and bad of those deals on Sunday; the aforementioned Butler continued to shoulder the load offensively, scoring a team-best Twenty-Nine Points on 9-of-18 shooting (50.0%), along with Eleven Rebounds, Four Assists, and a Block, while on the flipside, 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) underwhelmed yet again, concluding the meeting with Sixteen Points on a terrible 7-of-23 from the floor (30.4%), including 2-of-13 from downtown (15.4%). The former Clipper has long been one of the more underrated players in the league, but has come up very small in this series, with his shooting woes reading as follows: 33.9% shooting from the field and 7-of-27 from three (25.9%). Granted, he’s had to expend a considerable amount of energy defending the Raptors larger wing players, particularly Kawhi Leonard (who we’ll get into shortly), but the amount of open Three-Pointers that he’s been missing has become alarming. With Embiid’s physical condition becoming more and more of a factor as this Series grinds on, Harris is going to eventually have to step up if Philly is indeed to reach their first Eastern Conference Final since 2001.
Meanwhile, the gambit that is the 2018-2019 Raptors (58-24, 2nd in Eastern Conference) continues in this Eastern Conference Semifinal, as they return home for a pivotal Game Five that should ultimately go a long way towards deciding not only the immediate, but long-term future of this franchise. We’ve discussed at length as to how this team shook things up in considerable fashion this past Offseason, parting ways with recently coined Coach of the Year Dwayne Casey, replacing him top Assistant, Nick Nurse, and trading longtime All-Star, DeMar DeRozan, to the San Antonio Spurs for the wantaway 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). Let’s not forget that they also doubled down on those championship designs with a midseason trade 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), giving them one of the most physically-imposing Frontcourts in the league. So how is this all paying off, you ask? Well, after eliminating the young Orlando Magic in what can only be described as a Gentleman’s Sweep in the First Round, Toronto made a statement in Game One, thrashing Philadelphia in a 108-95 affair that was nearly as close as the final score would indicate. The hosts shed their historical Game One struggles in style, shooting a blistering 51.9% from the field, while dishing out Twenty-One Assists in comparison to committing just Ten Turnovers. The aforementioned Leonard was phenomenal, scoring a game-high Forty-Five Points on a stellar 16-of-23 shooting from the floor (69.6%), including 3-of-7 from downtown (42.9%), and 10-of-11 from the Charity Stripe (90.9%), alongside Eleven Rebounds, and a pair of Assists and Steals apiece. Accompanying him is the NBA’s frontrunner for Most Improved Player, 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), who logged Twenty-Nine Points on 12-of-15 shooting (80.0%), including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc (75.0%), and Seven Rebounds. These two players have gone on to loom heavily over this Series, with Leonard looking every bit the MVP candidate that he’s been billed to be, averaging a ridiculous 38.0 Points on 61.8% shooting overall, including 46.4% from long-range, along with 9.0 Rebounds, and 4.0 Assists, with Siakam adding 19.8 Points, 5.0 Rebounds, and 1.8 Assists, and 2.0 Steals before suffering a right calf injury in Game Three’s 95-116 defeat. The ensuing two losses sustained by Nurse’s charges saw them cool considerably on the offensive end of the court, shooting a combined 39.1% overall, including 36.6% from beyond the arc, while logging just 31.5 Rebounds, and dishing out a meager 17.5 Assists. The issue, particularly in Game Three, is that the other prominent figures of the Supporting Cast, including veteran Point Guard, Kyle 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), Serge Ibaka (15.0 PTS, 52.9% FG, 29.0% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.4 STL, 1.4 BLK, 18.7 PER), and the aforementioned Gasol have been non-factors; in Game Three, those three players accounted for a scant Eighteen Points on a dreadful 6-of-22 shooting (27.3%). Needless to say, these are some of the most experienced members of the rotation, and Toronto will need them to support Leonard if this remarkable gambit is indeed to pay off.
If a more balanced performance is what Nurse was looking for out of his side, than he must have been happy with Game Four’s 101-96 victory, for the Raptors grinded out a nip-and-tuck affair that embodied Playoff Basketball. Defensively, they placed the clamps back onto Philadelphia after Game Three’s breakdown, relegating the hosts to just 40.2% shooting overall, including 12-of-38 from beyond the arc (31.6%), while matching them on the boards (43-43 REB), and corralling the aforementioned Embiid for the third time thus far in this Series. Offensively, they got back to what worked for them in Game One, shooting 46.1% from the field, while pushing the tempo when it benefitted them to do so, outscoring the Sixers 17-10 in terms of Fast Break Points. But the most telling factor was that long-sought balance, with five different players scoring in double-figures, led once again by Leonard, who continues to impress with a 33-point showing in Sunday’s triumph, punctuated by a late dagger from downtown. However, he was far from alone, with the triumvirate of Gasol, Lowry, and Ibaka combining for Forty-Two Points on 19-of-38 shooting (50.0%). Additionally, Gasol provided staunch defense on Embiid, with Ibaka providing timely help when called upon, while Lowry logged Six Rebounds and Seven Assists in comparison to committing just One Turnover. Furthermore, 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), an added luxury of the Leonard Trade, who has been solid throughout the Series, totaled Eleven Points (8-of-8 FT) along with Four Rebounds and Two Steals, all the while providing excellent defense of the host’s Backcourt. Siakam, who was initially expected to miss the affair altogether with that calf injury, ended up clocking 29:00, and finishing with Nine Points, Three Rebounds, Two Assists, and Three Steals.