On this episode of spotlight, Samson Folk looks at a few of the adjustments Nick Nurse and company have made as the Toronto Raptors aim to become to the first team in NBA history to comeback from a 3-0 series deficit.
SAMSON POLK: Every playoff series is defined by its adjustments. And especially a series like Raptors versus 76ers where the Raptors fell behind 3-0, are now threatening 3-3, and have gotten back into the series on the strength of their defense and seem to be on a collision course with history.
So let's walk through some of those adjustments. The first one to cover is obviously the defense on James Harden. And you might be thinking, well, this should start with Joel Embiid, shouldn't it? And yes, Joel Embiid is the most important match-up for the Raptors, but it hasn't changed that much. The changes on Embiid have been quite small relative to the Harden stuff. Sure, they've changed where they send doubles from. Sure, they've changed the timing on doubles. Sometimes on the catch, sometimes on the dribble, sometimes once he gets a foot in the paint.
But those are smaller adjustments. The stuff with Harden is actually quite radical. Long gone are the days of the early series where they would shade hard towards the beard, fearing his isolation prowess and weaponizing his playmaking talent. Now they rely on the likes of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa to step out on him for stops. A snapshot of this can be seen through the OG on Harden possessions which are all the way up to 104 over the course of the series. The 76ers as a whole have only managed 70 points when they garnered that match-up. You can send help late after the dribble is picked up. This is a help-oriented team. But they flipped the script by making Harden earn his advantages.
The consequences of this for the 76ers is a significantly harder shot diet for the likes of Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris, both of whom have been terrific punching the wide-open gaps of the Raptors defense, but struggle significantly trying to do so against a Raptors defense that is more focused on closing gaps than opening them. The transition defense has improved immensely. But that's moreso an effort and execution thing. They still sink to the rim to stop the ball, then fire it out to run shooters off the line. This way you create the defensive back line for shooters to run into once you make them put it on the floor.
Also this creates a few natural points of resistance for Embiid, who wants to bash his way into low post position. The Raptors have done a great job of keeping him above the free throw line.
This is the same principle that the Raptors have had all year, only they're doing it much better now.
- Siakam loads up, sprints in, finger rolls it up and in. Beautiful move by Siakam.
SAMSON POLK: Offensively, there's some things going on. They're not really beating the zone to the shooting, but screening one side of it, cutting against the other, and throwing bodies at the rim, all while relying on Siakam to create as many opportunities as possible. The bet is that Siakam will receive so much attention that something opens up. Basically, they're finding some funky answers to hard questions. You wouldn't expect a Thad Young post up and a Precious Achiuwa 45 cut to be what undoes the 76ers, but it has. The Raptors have routinely flashed that to the 45 against the 76ers' zones and let the playmaking of Thad [INAUDIBLE] be their undoing.
With VanVleet out, the Raptors have had to indulge in heliocentrism with Siakam. And that features Siakam, Siakam and Siakam-- 17, 17, 19, 22, 40. Those are the amount of pick and rolls Pascal Siakam ran by game, almost doubling the average. He's taking on way more pick and roll on ball possessions.
Every once in a while, ball handling duties will shift over to the likes of Anunoby or Trent Jr. But the Raptors like to keep Siakam in the vicinity. His response to the 76ers going under screens is to rescreen until it's a snug pick and roll, and he's working in the mid-range or short mid-range area where his money is made. And after a handful of games where Embiid sealed off the rim, the Raptors finally managed to tug him away from it, leave him in the dust, and finish there uncontested.
These decisions, these adjustments, these changes are the backbone for how the Raptors have turned the tide of this series. Other things have changed, but sometimes those are just a product of a player playing better. For example, a Trent Jr. and Khem Birch pick and roll that funnels into a Pascal triple isn't an adjustment. They try and make that happen many times over the course of a game.
That's just the guy hitting a shot. But we love that too. More adjustments might be coming, but the 76ers have to prove they can beat this game plan first. Two elimination opportunities have already gone to the wayside, and they moved the Raptors closer and closer to achieving history. Let's see if they do it.
Thanks for tuning in. This is "Spotlights" and I'll see you.