Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
After a day of reflection and with their season on the brink, that was the understandable theme as the Toronto Raptors digested their heartbreaking, last-second loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday and in advance of their win-or-stay-home Game 4 on Saturday afternoon.
There were lessons everywhere.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse had to explain how his team defended the decisive out-of-bounds play that preceded Sixers’ star Joel Embiid’s game-winning three.
Pascal Siakam had to explain the challenge of striking the ‘not too hot, not too cold, just right’ balance required to lift your team in crucial moments without forcing the issue and missing opportunities to help your teammates to do work with you.
And they both had to look at Game 4 and the possibility of a sweep not as an unfairly humiliating end to a surprisingly good season but as a chance to turn the tide, right the ship and maybe even make some history – teams trailing 0-3 are 0-143 in the annals of time.
“Well, I think it’s a heckuva challenge, and somebody’s got to do it,” said Nurse on Friday. “That’s the way I look at it. Somebody’s got to do it. And if it gets to 3-1, it’s not 3-0 anymore. And 3-1’s been done.”
But how, is the question. And if they don’t what can still be gained from the experience?
It’s hard to imagine turnaround where Siakam doesn’t play an out-sized role. It’s the nature of the beast. He’s the Raptors’ best player and there’s no scenario where Toronto does the unthinkable without Siakam playing a lot closer to his abilities than he has in the series so far, and certainly than he did in the second half of Game 3, when he only took five shots, missing them all, and failed to get to the free-throw line.
It’s easier said than done, of course. A quick scan of the NBA’s other first-round series shows more than one example of how hard things get for star players when quality teams build a gameplan around taking away an opponent’s first or second option.
Trae Young led the NBA in points and assists this season, proving himself as one of the most electric offensive talents in the league, but the Miami Heat are committed to making life miserable for the Atlanta Hawks guard and doing a good job of it: Young shot 1-of-12 in Game 1 and then coughed up 10 turnovers in Game 2. Nikola Jokic is likely to win the NBA’s MVP award but was held well below is regular-season production in Games 1 and 2 of the Denver Nuggets’ first-round series against the Golden State Warriors and is now facing being swept even after a 37-point, 18-rebound performance in Game 3.
Figuring out how to live up to star player expectations without simply putting your head down and shooting your team out of games, yet also not allowing the Sixers to game-plan him out of the series by coaxing him to be too passive is Siakam’s short-term goal, but one that could have lasting dividends in the future.
“[The player] I was two years ago, it’s not the same thing I am now as a player,” Siakam said Friday. “And I think that you command a lot more [attention] and obviously, for me, I feel like as long as I go out there and I take the shots that I feel like I should be taking and I keep being aggressive, I’m okay with that. Because I think that everything’s always gonna balance out and I think that the experience from just being in the playoffs, we all learn from it.
“I don’t want to name drop, but players that’s been in the league for a long time, that’s been in many playoff games, I’m sure that there’s some serious way to learn something about themselves or about their game or how they can evolve [from the playoffs],” said Siakam. “And I think that, like, we all continue to grow as players and the playoffs are kind of like the perfect time for that to kind of like understand different things about your game.”
It starts with being aggressive. The Sixers would like nothing better than for Siakam to float around the perimeter as a ball mover rather than put pressure on their defence as a slasher and a scorer. When he took just five shots in the second half and overtime in Game 3 he was playing into their hands.
Siakam had good reason to play the way he did. With his extraordinary combination of size and mobility, Embiid is an imposing primary defender and if he keeps a good gap on Siakam, there’s a lot of ground to cover to simply veer around him. And when the Sixers use sox-foot-eight Tobias Harris as the primary defender, he’s got the size and strength to slow Siakam down when he gets to the paint and can apply all the pressure he wants to, confident that Embiid is behind him, lurking.
But that’s no reason to avoid driving the offence, says Nurse. It starts with a first forward step.
“If he’s going to take it into the paint with some force on the drive he’s probably going to draw people. And it’s up to him to know whether he’s going get clearance to shoot it, or it’s going to get kicked out,” said Nurse. “When he’s got it faced up out there, he’s probably got a lot more shot opportunities to take. And again, I just think that, I mean, he’s turned down some in this series. We’ve just got to make sure that he’s not turning any down. … [I think they’re going to give ‘em to him until he proves otherwise. And we need to prove otherwise, because then it’ll open up some spacing.”
But Siakam isn’t the only person who needs to be better for the series to be extended.
Coming into the first-round match-up there was a sense that in a close game or a close series, Nurse could be a difference maker, given the reputation he’s justifiably developed over the past four years for his tactical creativity.
Instead, the Sixers have had the advantage more often than not, though the Raptors being without rookie Scottie Barnes has been a big factor too (Nurse left some faint hope Barnes would be able to return for Game 4 for the first time since spraining his ankle in Game 1 but allowed that rookie-of-the-year candidate was ‘doubtful.’)
But there have been some gaps in the Raptors’ gameplan. Toronto’s focus on containing James Harden and Joel Embiid and challenging the likes of Harris and Tyrese Maxey to carry a bigger scoring load for Philadelphia backfired in Games 1 and 2 as the Sixers role players ran free. The Raptors have had a hard a hard time containing the two-man action Harden and Maxey have used when Embiid has been off the floor, and it was Sixers who came out ahead in the late-game flurry of decisions that preceded Embiid’s game winner in Game 3.
It was Sixers head coach Doc Rivers who alertly got his team the timeout with the shot-clock running down in the final seconds and the play he drew up worked to perfection, popping Embiid wide open.
Meanwhile, Nurse’s team wasn’t completely aligned defensively coming out of the time out. The Raptors initially had their smallest player, Fred VanVleet, defending the inbounds pass – a role usually reserved for a bigger player who can make the pass itself more difficult. And then Nurse waved VanVleet away from the inbounds pass and under the rim to protect against a lob – again, a role probably more suited to a bigger body. Finally, once the play unfolded, Gary Trent Jr. was confused about Toronto’s coverage and failed to switch on to Embiid when he was screened. It’s worth noting that Nurse had a timeout he could have used to make sure he had precisely the coverage and the personal he wanted on the floor but opted not to use it.
When asked about it Nurse pointed out – correctly – that there were plenty of chances to salt the game away before the final, decisive play: “We had about seven other chances to put that game way … “ he said. “Missed three out of four free throws. Our best 3-point shooter was wide open and missed. Our next-best scorer was wide open at the elbow. We have to make one of those plays and the game is probably put away.”
But mistakes happen, and among the bushel of them that cost Toronto a critical win at home, were some by their head coach.
“If I could go back and do it again, I’d like to change about three things that we did,” he acknowledged. “But we didn’t execute. And [Embiid] he hit a really tough shot.”
The Raptors get another chance to get it right in Game 4. At the very least there will be more lessons to learn and maybe a chance to make some history.