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People often say the NBA playoffs are like an entirely different sport; that what happened between two teams in the regular season might not matter when they match up in the postseason, when they can game plan for each other better, shorten rotations, and increase the physicality. If you didn’t believe that ahead of Game 1 of the first-round series between the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers, you certainly should now.
The Raptors won the regular-season series 3-1 despite Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby missing three of the games. They did it their way: by swarming Joel Embiid and James Harden and forcing turnovers, getting out and scoring in transition, and pummelling the Sixers’ below-average rebounding on the offensive glass. But in Game 1 of the playoffs, none of that worked.
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However, it wasn’t because the Sixers focused on taking it all away. Rather, it was because they focused on doing it themselves, only doing it better than the Raptors. The Sixers beat the Raptors at their own game on Saturday evening, winning 131-111 on the back of sophomore guard Tyrese Maxey’s 38 points.
“I wouldn’t say at any point [were we playing to our identity],” Nick Nurse said about the loss. “Not so much our guys, I just think they were really great. They were fast and physical, making shots and zinging the ball and not turning it over and crashing the glass. They were really great so I give them a lot of credit.”
Instead of playing to their own strengths and slowing the game down to a half-court battle — where the Sixers entered the game with the fifth-best half-court offence in the league compared to the Raptors’ fifth-worst — the Sixers got out on the break and attacked the glass, looking more like Toronto than the Raptors did themselves.
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After forcing turnovers at the 17th-highest rate and getting out in transition at the 20th-highest rate in the league during the regular season, the Sixers tuned the Raptors over eight times and punished them for jogging back or losing their matchup in transition, making them pay with 29 fastbreak points compared to just 10 for the Raptors, essentially the point difference in the game. While that might not sound like a ton of turnovers, the Raptors are used to forcing them at the league's highest rate, and the Sixers turned the ball over just once through three quarters of play (and 23 assists), the fewest by any team through the first three quarters of a playoff game over the last 25 seasons.
After being the worst offensive rebounding team in the league during the regular season, the Sixers attacked the glass relentlessly in Game 1, grabbing 10 offensive rebounds and winning the total rebounding battle 39-36. The Sixers regularly sent multiple bodies to the glass and punished the Raptors for starting their “small” lineup that lacks a centre, with Embiid alone grabbing four offensive and 11 defensive rebounds.
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“I would imagine that was probably number one on their list of emphasis here this week going into the game,” Nurse said about the Sixers’ winning the rebounding battle. “We've had a lot of success on the glass with them on both ends and rebounding is a lot about just straight desire, hustle, and speed and physicality. And they had all of those just a notch ahead of us tonight. I thought they did a good job of blocking us out.
"Maybe we didn't go quite as hard as we normally do. So we need to improve that.”
The Raptors should be able to do a better job protecting their own glass as this series goes along by focusing more on boxing out the Sixers and potentially playing bigger lineups with Precious Achiuwa or Khem Birch in the game. They’re never going to be a great defensive rebounding team based on the way their defence is always in rotation, scrambling in and out of position, but they have shown over the second half of the season that they can at least be a decent one.
But the bigger question is whether or not the Raptors can bounce back on the offensive glass. After being the second-best offensive rebounding team all season, the Raptors grabbed just seven on the night despite missing 42 shots. The Sixers were the more physical team and did a good job boxing out, but between Scottie Barnes, Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Achiuwa, Birch, Thad Young and Chris Boucher, you expect the Raptors to grab more than seven.
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Whether or not they can win that battle could very well be the difference in the series. But on the same night that the league’s best offensive rebounding team, the Memphis Grizzlies, also got out-rebounded, it makes you wonder if offensive rebounds are really something that a team can rely upon with any consistency in the playoffs.
“We’ve got to learn some lessons from today. I think not only tactically but also just mentally and physically. And we’ve got to play a lot better, a lot tougher, bring it to ‘em a little bit more,” Nurse said. “We’ve got to band together and do it collectively and be a little bit more of the hard playing team and a little bit more of a scrambling type team and get to more loose balls and more rebounds.”
To summarize, the Sixers won the turnover battle 8-4, the fastbreak battle 29-10, and the offensive rebounding battle 10-7 — none of which they were projected to win. They were also the better team in the halfcourt, but we all knew that would be the case heading into the series.
One way to view this game would be that it was an anomaly as the Raptors forced the fewest turnovers in the last 25 years of playoff basketball (through three meaningful quarters) while grabbing fewer offensive rebounds than they have all season, and that should all improve.
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But the other way to view this game is that the Sixers played Toronto’s own game and did it better than them, taking away any perceived advantage the Raptors might have had. If they do it again, this series might be over faster than anyone anticipated. The Raptors got off on the wrong foot in their first-round playoff series with the 76ers. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
Breaking it down
While the Raptors' defence was less than ideal in this one, it is likely to improve going forward just by the nature of watching film and playing with more focus and discipline.
But the area of the game that I want to break down further has to do with the free-throws. Everyone knew the charity stripe was going to be a big area of focus in this series, with the Sixers getting there at a league-high rate in the regular season and Embiid and Harden ranking first and third in attempts per game. But as I wrote about last week, referees tend to allow more physicality and call fewer touch fouls during the playoffs. That was not the case tonight.
VanVleet picked up his second foul of the evening less than a minute into the game, with the first being called on a hand on the back of Maxey. And the Raptors, who already play an aggressive style of defence and were hoping to ratchet it up even more in the playoffs, were caught off-guard by the whistle, with the Sixers getting to the line 34 times to the Raptors’ 23.
“It's tough. You don't want to lose too much aggressiveness. I think that was probably the toughest part,” VanVleet said about his early foul trouble. “We were already on our heels a little bit. Our defence was a step slow, so just trying to set the tone. But definitely it's hard to play that way.”
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Nurse said the counter to the foul discrepancy is that the refs have to also call fouls on Embiid when the Raptors beat him to his spots and he barrels them over or elbows them, but a key storyline to watch as this series goes on is whether or not the refs allow more physicality. And, if they don’t, whether or not the Raptors are able to adjust.
Maxey deserves a ton of credit for the Sixers' win. The 21-year-old guard scored 38 points including five threes to give the Sixers the edge in this one, constantly blowing past the Raptors’ first line of defence and, more importantly, hitting a range of tough floaters and layups over the second line of defence.
“They got him going early with a couple of good little sets that got him downhill, he got some really naked looks,” Nurse said about Maxey. “I think we did a lot of some of that stuff in the first half was just on us, we just weren’t quite connected defensively, making the right reads on some of that stuff, there was just too many just wide, wide open looks.”
While the Raptors obviously have to take those open looks away, the more concerning part is that with all the attention they are sending towards Embiid and Harden, Maxey is going to have opportunities to attack a shifted defence, which is where he excels. But in the playoffs you have to pick your battles, and short of shifting the attention away from Harden and towards Maxey — a solution that opens up its own problems — the Raptors should focus on limiting Maxey’s own creation, especially when Embiid is off the floor.
One way to do that is to have Anunoby guard him, since he has the speed and length to keep up better than any other Raptor.
News and notes
Barnes was a bright spot for the Raptors in his playoff debut, scoring 15 points with 10 rebounds and eight assists before going down with a left ankle sprain in the fourth quarter. It did not look good, but fortunately his X-rays were negative after the game. He will get additional tests done on Sunday.
Young also left the game and did not return with a sprained left thumb, and his X-ray was also negative. He will also get additional tests done Sunday.
Anunoby returned after playing just six out of the Raptors' final 18 games and looked great, guarding Embiid primarily and scoring 20 points on an efficient 9-15 shooting. He was the only Raptor hitting outside shots in the first half and his floor-spacing, tough defence and rebounding were all really valuable in this one. It’s good to have him back.
On the other side of things, Boucher, Achiuwa and Gary Trent Jr. — all playing in the first or second playoff series of their careers — struggled in Philadelphia in Game 1, lacking effort, shot-making, and attention to detail. Some of that was to be expected with the increased pressure of a playoff road game, but the three role players will simply need to be better if the Raptors are going to have any chance to come back and win this series.
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