PHILADELPHIA — Come to think of it, Marc Gasol’s first shift was pretty telling.
So much of the chatter between Game 1 and 2 of this Eastern Conference semi-final was about Gasol in one way or another. About the Philadelphia 76ers adjusting their defensive matchups to put Joel Embiid on Pascal Siakam and Tobias Harris on Gasol. About the Toronto Raptors centre’s reluctance to attack that presumed mismatch. About how Raptors head coach Nick Nurse chose not to tether Gasol’s minutes more closely to Embiid’s throughout Game 2. About the Raptors needing Gasol to score like he used to.
Well, here’s how Gasol started Game 3. About a minute in, Embiid goaded Gasol into an early shooting foul, went to the line, and sunk both his shots. On the ensuing Raptors possession, Gasol took a feed off a pick-and-roll with Leonard, hesitated to attack Embiid, stopped cold on the edge of the paint, and ultimately travelled. A minute after that, Embiid faked a shot, faked a drive, got Gasol on his heels, and drilled a three-pointer over his 7-foot-1 opponent. A possession later, Embiid dribbled in from the left corner one-on-one with Gasol, backed him all the way to the restricted area, and spun to the basket for an easy lay-up.
It was 11-5 Sixers less than four minutes in, and Embiid had seven, all against the matchup the Raptors wanted. And it just went on like that. Not only for Embiid and Gasol specifically, but for the Sixers and Raptors generally, as Philadelphia got what they wanted, when they wanted, and ran away with an overwhelming 116-95 victory.
"We got out-played in just about every area we could get out-played. In overall physicality, energy, cutting, rebounding, passing, all that stuff," Nurse said. "We got thoroughly out-played and it’s been a while. It’s been a while since you’ve seen this team play this way."
If Gasol of all people, as steady and unflappable a Raptor as they come, was suffering a start that horrific, what was in store for his teammates? Nothing good, it turned out, as for the first time in the series, Philadelphia’s starting lineup put it on their Raptors counterparts, setting the tone for a game that quickly went off the rails for the Raptors.
Coming into the series, Philadelphia’s starters were the best lineup in the playoffs, and Toronto’s were second-best. But through two games it was all Toronto, as the Raptors’ starters were playing to a 25.1 net rating, while the Sixers’ top lineup had a net rating of minus-2.4. It’s not enough to win or lose a game, obviously, as the series was tied after two. But those lineups are each team’s most-used by dramatic margins. If the trend held throughout the series, it would be a massive advantage for the Raptors.
But that’s where we get back to Gasol’s start to Game 3, which set the table for Toronto’s starting lineup to get run out of the gym.
Over 20 minutes, the Raptors’ starters posted a minus-33.7 net rating, built off a pretty good 115 offensive rating, and an absolutely unacceptable 148.7 defensive rating. They were outscored by 12. The Sixers’ starters? It was the inverse, as they put up a 37.5 net rating (137.5 offensive rating, 100 defensive rating) while outscoring the Raptors by a dozen.
For the first time in the series, it was Toronto’s starters that jumped off the scoresheet with double-digit minuses, not its bench. Lowry, minus-28. Gasol, minus-26. Siakam, minus-18.
“Give them credit, they played a hell of a game. They put some pressure on us,” Siakam said. “We’ve got to play better. We’ve got to bring more energy. We’ve just got to bring it more. I think these past two games, they wanted it more than we did. And that’s the way it looked out there.”
You could see what Siakam’s talking about in the little things, like rebounding and free throws, which were a massive problem for the Raptors. Philadelphia went into halftime with an advantage of 9 on the boards, while the Raptors missed five of their 17 free throw attempts in the first half. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia’s point guard, had three of his team’s seven offensive boards through the first 24 minutes.
In the end, it was a 45-35 rebounding edge for the Sixers, who came down with nine on the offensive glass. Meanwhile, when Embiid wasn’t finishing windmill dunks and giving a rowdy crowd the Hulk Hogan ear wave, he was blocking five shots, including one in the fourth quarter that sent Siakam flying under the basket like he’d been hit by a truck.
"Obviously, they have size. But I think they just have will. They want to just go and get it. We’ve got to show more resistance and want it more than they do," Siakam said. "We’ve got to bring the intensity. At first on defence. And then just making it harder for them. We’ve got to box out. They’re getting rebounds and its hurting us. We just have to be more physical."
With apologies to Danny Green — whose 13-point, minus-8 night wasn’t as bad as some of his teammates — the only Raptors starter who can emerge from Game 3 unembarrassed is Leonard, who damn near dragged his team back into the game with an unbelievable run that spanned the entire final eight minutes of the third quarter. Either fed up, motivated, or both, Leonard decided to just run the Raptors’ offence through himself, again and again taking the ball at the top of the arc, directing his teammates to screen here or clear out to there, and bullying his way to a bucket.
Leonard scored 14 points inside those eight-minutes, equaling the amount the Sixers scored in that stretch as a team. The Raptors won those minutes, 24-14, and went into the fourth quarter with only an eight-point deficit and a completely uncalled-for opportunity to make a late run and steal a win. It’s a little baffling to think what the numbers of Toronto’s starters would look like without Leonard’s mini-takeover. Lowry and Gasol were on the floor for most of it, and still finished with those minus’s in the high 20’s.
"We’ve got to help him, we’ve got to help him. Myself especially," Lowry said of Leonard. "I’ve got to help him score more. I’ve got to help him on the floor. We’ve all got to help him. He’s playing unbelievable right now. We’re not giving him any help. Me, I’m not giving him any help. We’ve got to help him."
If Game 2’s loss was a tactical one, with those nuanced adjustments to defensive matchups and schemes allowing the Sixers to steal a win in Toronto, Game 3 was simply a mauling. It was a lopsided mismatch of two starting lineups playing at two very different levels of competitiveness. It started with Embiid on Gasol specifically. It continued with the rest of the starters in general. And it ended with Toronto overwhelmed. While Game 2 sent the Raptors searching for adjustments, Game 3 sends them searching for their identity.
"I think the first adjustment we’re going to have to make is we’re going to have to play a hell of a lot harder and play a hell of a lot more physical," Nurse said. "If we don’t do that, the prettiest things we decide to do offensively won’t matter.