TORONTO – By every measure, Toronto’s starters were dominant in Round 1.
Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol brought everything to the table you would expect from them – both individually and as a unit.
According to NBA.com, the Raptors’ starting five ranked second among five-man lineups that played 48 minutes or more together in the playoffs thus far with a mammoth net rating of 46.3. For context, that number was 12.2 in the regular season.
“We have a lot of great, talented players,” Danny Green told reporters at the Toronto Raptors practice facility on Thursday, “but we also have a pretty good [collective] IQ, so we can talk to each other. Marc makes it easy. Obviously, Kawhi is making it easy. Kyle makes it easy.”
There’s a real togetherness that group has shown in this post-season that should inspire plenty of confidence heading into Round 2.
“With all the experience we have, and playing against each other for so many years, that cohesion has happened a lot faster. It feels like we’ve been together longer than we have. Hopefully, we continue to grow and get better – and win games in the process.”
The Raptors’ starters are on a roll heading into the series against the Philadelphia 76ers, and it’s something their opponent can relate to. As mentioned, Toronto’s starters are second in net rating in the playoffs. In first? The 76ers’ starting lineup of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid, with an unthinkable 62.2 net rating.
The sheer depth of talent and, to this point, high performance of each teams’ starters headline why we can expect fireworks in Round 2 compared to the last round.
Part of that will also be because of the style of ball on display. Facing a big team built around its front court, the Raptors are eying an opportunity to run against the Sixers.
“I think our identity, our nature, is to play with some pace,” said head coach Nick Nurse.
The Raptors scored 115.5 points against Philadelphia during the regular season – the most against any remaining team in the East – and the team’s offence got progressively better as the Magic series wore on and the Raptors were able to dictate the pace of play more and more.
But Philadelphia doesn’t mind a fast-paced game. Their first-round series against Brooklyn – won handily in five games – featured the fastest pace of any in the playoffs thus far. During the regular season, the Sixers ranked eighth in pace compared to 15th for the Raptors, but both clubs registered in the top 10 in points per game per 100 possessions, an indication that we should collectively see a more high scoring, fluid offensive series than Raptors-Magic.
Gasol-Embiid matchup will be crucial
Gasol already showed why the Raptors acquired him at the trade deadline during Round 1 against Orlando, where the veteran centre was pivotal in shutting down all-star Nik Vucevic. His all-around defence was phenomenal, backed up by a defensive rating during those five games of 89 – the best mark of any Raptor in the playoffs, ever.
Like advancing past levels of a video game, things only get tougher for Gasol from here.
To put it lightly, Embiid poses several problems thanks to his size (listed at seven-feet, 250-pound and somehow seems even bigger up close), sheer power down low, and an evolutionary offensive game that makes him anywhere from a nightmare to unstoppable on any given night.
But Nurse likes the guy in his corner.
“Um, at this point I have confidence,” Nurse said with a grin of Gasol’s defensive ability versus Embiid. “He’s a very physical, smart defender. I would imagine that they’ll test him.”
Stopping – or, more accurately, limiting – Embiid remains as big a key to the series as anything. In the first round, Embiid led the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes and, despite battling injury and missing Game 3 due to knee soreness, the imposing all-star centre averaged an absurd 24.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in just 24.3 minutes per game.
“He’s a great player,” Gasol said on Thursday. “Just like any great player, you try to make everything as uncomfortable as possible, be as physical as they’ll allow you. It’s a similar mindset we have [facing Embiid].”
When the seven-footer goes to the bench, Philadelphia can bring out either bruiser (and brief Raptor) Greg Monroe or seven-foot-three giant Boban Marjanovic, making size in the middle a distinct advantage for the Sixers.
“The size of their centres, divide by two. That might be an NBA record,” Nurse quipped, adding that his team doesn’t intend to approach by matching up one player versus another. “I think it’s at least a two-man job, [Gasol] and Serge.”
The Raptors entered their matchup with Orlando facing another big, physical frontcourt, and stellar defensive performances from the Gasol-Ibaka platoon were critical to Toronto’s success, and stand to be major factors once more.