PHILADELPHIA — With three minutes remaining in the first half Thursday, the Toronto Raptors had cut a once-19-point deficit all the way down to eight, as they tried to punch back at a determined, energetic Philadelphia 76ers team that was thoroughly outplaying them. While 19 points was towering, eight points was manageable. Maybe you cut it to five or six by halftime. Maybe you get to the locker room in a one- or two-possession game.
But then Jimmy Butler happened. With about 90 seconds remaining, he darted under the basket on a switch, ran into a wall of Raptors bigs, and found Mike Scott, who had an easy two in the paint. After Kawhi Leonard missed a three at the other end, Butler brought the ball back up the floor, bricked a three of his own, crashed in after his own rebound, and, in one motion, grabbed the ball, drew a foul, and threw up a ridiculous, off-balance prayer that went backboard and in for the and-one.
That’s a mouthful. But it’s just how things were going for Butler, who, less than a minute later, hit a floater with 10 seconds left on what should have been his team’s final possession before halftime. It wasn’t. He raced back down the floor, stripped Leonard from behind, sprinted in the opposite direction, and scored his sixth and seventh points in the final 78 seconds of the half.
As he walked off the floor, having almost single-handedly restored his team’s lead back up to 15, the Wells Fargo Center crowd unanimously broke into a “Jim-my But-ler, Jim-my But-ler,” chant. His hands held high in the air, Butler nodded his head and motioned for them to continue, only louder. It’s probably what he was imagining in his head when he went Full Metal Jacket on the Minnesota Timberwolves practice court back in October.
“That first half, he was all over the place,” said Danny Green, the Raptors guard. “He was downhill, drawing fouls, getting steals, leading the break. It was a big factor.”
“Pretty much,” added Leonard, “what he’s been doing the whole series.”
Yep. With the exception of a substandard Game 1, Butler’s been a huge problem for the Raptors, who will now try to beat the Sixers on Sunday in the seventh game of this Eastern Conference semifinal, after Philadelphia torched them in Thursday’s Game 6, 112-101.
That final score is flattering to the Raptors, who whittled down the deficit during garbage time. At one point, the Sixers led by a couple dozen. And Butler was the catalyst. Thursday was his fifth-straight game with at least 22 points on at least 38-per-cent shooting. It was also his third game in his last four with at least seven assists, and the fourth in his last five that he’s gotten to the free-throw line seven times or more.
“He just stamped his authority and his skill package and his will — pick whatever words you want. He was all over that game,” said Sixers head coach Brett Brown. “The mood in the locker room as we went through sort of an early shootaround — our version of shootaround — before, you could sense the serious side. They got the moment. And I think he got it as much as anybody, and led us. He was a tremendous leader and his performance mirrored his attitude.”
While we’re discussing problems that have existed for the Raptors throughout this series, we should probably mention Toronto’s inability to hit open three-pointers at the rate they’re capable of. Tuesday’s Game 5 was the first time in the series the Raptors shot better than 33 per cent from distance. Thursday’s Game 6 was the third time they’ve shot worse than 28 per cent. It’s not what you want.
What’s maddening about it is that the Raptors feature no shortage of effective three-point shooters. Green, Leonard, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Kyle Lowry all finished the regular season shooting 35 per cent or better from range. And they’re six of Toronto’s seven most-used players in this series.
It’s become a running joke that Brown must mention at least once per press conference that Toronto was NBA’s best three-point-shooting team after the trade deadline, a fact he reliably cites in explaining the potential perils of double-teaming Leonard.
But after Thursday’s game, the Raptors are shooting 31 per cent as a team from distance in the series and only 33 per cent on threes classified as wide open by NBA.com. Those six players above who shot over 35 per cent during the regular season? Only two — Green at 38 per cent, and Leonard at 36 per cent — are over that mark in this series.
It’s been a massive factor. And with the series coming down to only 48 minutes of basketball, there’s absolutely no telling if the Raptors will regress to the mean or not. The sample’s only one game. It’s absolutely at the whims of randomness and chance. In-and-outs, shooter’s rolls, a foot on the line, hot hands, cold steaks — it’s all possible. Is Sunday the day it turns for the Raptors?
“You hope,” Green said. “Regardless, though, you can’t rely on that. You have to rely on your defence and get stops. If we’re not making shots — if we are, it’d be great — but if we’re not, we have to sprint back, turn, box out, rebound.”
Yes, rebounding would help. The Raptors were crushed on the boards again Thursday, 52-34, allowing the Sixers to fight their way to an absolutely unacceptable 16 offensive rebounds. The Raptors have only out-rebounded the Sixers once in the series (Game 5, when Toronto won the boards, 42-37) and Philadelphia now holds an overwhelming 276-210 advantage for the series. What’s worse is Philadelphia has 63 on the offensive glass. Toronto has 42.
Four of the Sixers’ offensive rebounds Thursday were brought down by Simmons, who now has 11 in the series. At six-feet-10, Simmons is awfully long for a point guard and is bound to put up a decent amount of boards. But the Raptors have consistently failed to box him out on the offensive glass, which has allowed him to extend possessions and create second chances for his team.
“We knew it was going to be a big crash-the-glass type of game for them. That’s where their advantage is,” Green said. “And we didn’t do a good job of boxing out — myself especially — keeping them off the glass, getting stops, and running. And when you put the fact that we missed shots as well on top of that, it doesn’t help.”
No, it does not. At least the Raptors know what they need to do on Sunday. Find a way to stop Butler, keep Philadelphia off your glass, and maybe hit a shot or two while you’re at it. Easier said than done, naturally. But Sunday, if the Raptors don’t improve in those areas, they might be done themselves.