Raptors Notebook: Plenty at stake for Toronto with Game 5 a toss-up

NBA insider BJ Armstrong joins the Starting Lineup to discuss why he doesn’t really like to compare Kawhi Leonard to other NBA greats like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

It may not feel like a “must-win” in the same vein as Sunday’s nail-biter, but tonight’s Game 5 could be just as important for the Toronto Raptors, who enter Tuesday’s contest against the Philadelphia 76ers with the series tied 2-2 with a trip to Philadelphia on the horizon for Game 6 on Thursday.

The series has swung dramatically, from the Raptors looking unstoppable and en route to a potential sweep after an impressive Game 1 performance, to the season feeling on the brink trailing 2-1 heading into Sunday’s 101-96 victory.

Now there is a little more breathing room, but the fact remains that plenty about the Raptors’ performance in the second round — save, of course, the historic play of Kawhi Leonard — has Game 5 feeling like a toss-up, despite Vegas oddsmakers favouring the Raptors.

Here are some news and notes ahead of tonight’s game:

Embiid’s absence

Joel Embiid can singlehandedly swing a series. He’s one of just a handful of players you can say that about, and the only Sixer who can make that claim.

Hell, you just need to watch his Game 3 performance — 33 points, 10 rebounds, 3-4 from deep, five blocks — to understand the way he can dominate and demoralize on both ends of the floor.

But Philadelphia’s franchise cornerstone hasn’t been healthy throughout the series, battling through injuries and illness, and nothing has changed heading into tonight’s Game 5 — except the type of illness.

Embiid was not at the 76ers’ shootaround at Scotiabank Arena Tuesday morning and is currently listed as ‘probable’ for tonight’s game due to a bout of upper respiratory illness.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse elected for his team to skip shootaround altogether, as they have been regularly at home throughout these playoffs.

As much as Embiid dominated Game 3, leading the Sixers to a win that seemed to shake the Raptors team and its fan base to the core, the same can’t be said for the other games. After his 33-point effort last week, on Sunday he scored just 11 points on 2-7 shooting despite playing a series-high 35 minutes.

He’s clearly been hampered by lingering injuries stemming from Round 1, and, earlier prior to Game 2, a gastrointestinal illness. The ailments seem to be piling on for Embiid.

What becomes of the bench?

It will be interesting to see how Nick Nurse utilizes his rotations on Tuesday.

On Sunday, the first-year head coach had some success pairing centres Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol together. To a hefty degree, his hands were forced — the Pascal Siakam injury filled a need for somebody to carry some of the load with the third-year breakout star clearly hampered by a right calf strain (he’ll play tonight, but we’ll see if the injury effects linger), while the 76ers’ sheer size has proved to cause a mismatch in Philly’s favour whenever Nurse turns to backcourt reserves on his bench.

Perhaps that helps explain the struggles of Fred VanVleet, who, until recently, figured to play a prominent role for the Raptors off the bench as a facilitator, defender, and scorer. Through four games he’s fallen short when it comes to all three, averaging just one point and one assist in 17 minutes of action.

On Sunday VanVleet played just seven minutes and could see his role reduced even further as Nurse looks to the likes of Patrick McCaw to take the floor as a capable defender who can better matchup with the Sixers’ size.

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Of course, the Raps’ struggles go well beyond their bench, and extends to the three-point line where, despite being the No. 1-ranked three-point shooting team in the NBA after the all-star break, Toronto is tied with Philly for dead last among remaining playoff teams at 33 per cent from deep in the playoffs.

Nurse maintains that he just wants his players to keep shooting, and without hesitation, something Danny Green says is easier said than done given the way Philadelphia defends.

“It’s different looks that we’re getting defensively,” Green said on Monday. “They are very athletic, explosive with long arms, so they can cover ground really quickly. As much as you think they’re uncontested [shots], they’re not as uncontested as they feel.”

The Kawhi Question

It goes without saying that basketball fans have been in awe of what Kawhi Leonard is accomplishing this post-season. He remains a premier defender, but has taken his offensive game to levels that have rarely, if ever, been seen.

He’s getting high praise as a result, being compared by teammates, opponents, and media members alike with some of the all-time great scorers, including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

All of this underscores how crucial Leonard is to the Raptors’ success — the team around him has been flat-out disappointing thus far and have had no choice but to rely on him to carry them through this round, a formula that won’t change should Toronto advance past this series.

It also underscores how devastating it will be to the franchise if he walks in free agency this summer as many expect him too. It was a risk Masai Ujiri and Co. accepted when they dealt for Leonard in the first place, and one that makes this playoff run seem all that more important. There may not be one like it for many, many years in Toronto should Leonard take his services elsewhere.

But, for now, the Raptors are winning, and that, coupled with a season-long up-close-and-personal free-agency pitch on the part of the organization, could keep Leonard in Toronto for the long-term. That alone was considered an extreme long-shot as recently as February, says ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but as they continue to progress through the post-season the Raptors’ chances of retaining Leonard (and therefore contender status) are increasing.

While it’s difficult to look past Tuesday and an opportunity to take a 3-2 series lead before heading back to Philly, it’s worth reminding that for a Raptors organization looking to establish a perennial title contender, there is clearly plenty at stake once the ball tips off.

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