Playoff margins, they are oh, so thin.
The minutia of each possession: carving out a mismatch, defensively rotating seamlessly, time and score recognition — they all add up in ways that are eventually reflected on the box score.
As the urgency of the situation elevates, so does the scrutiny. Take the Toronto Raptors’ series against the Orlando Magic for example. There was plenty to be made of head coach Nick Nurse’s decisions in Game 1, a contest that arguably carries more weight than it should this side of the border.
Kawhi Leonard didn’t play as much as he should have, and then was given plenty of freedom to go off in Game 2 despite early foul trouble. The result spoke for itself. As the Raptors eased to a series victory from there, the impact and consequence of each decision waned. The talent disparity mattered, too.
Coming into Game 2 against the Philadelphia 76ers, all the pressure was on Brett Brown. Toronto crushed its opponent on its home floor in the opening game of a series in uncharacteristically comfortable fashion, leaving the Sixers head coach with plenty to think about. Nurse, while having reason to not fix what wasn’t broken, had alarms that he could have woken up to instead of setting to snooze because of a franchise record five-game playoff win streak.
Brown coached desperate, and caught Nurse asleep at the wheel.
After jumping all over the Raptors early on courtesy of defensive adjustments that saw their centre on Pascal Siakam, Ben Simmons on Leonard, and perfectly timed double-teams mixed in that threw the Raptors’ offensive flow and rhythm for a loop, the challenge was laid out.
“You have a hunch, you hope it works well. We had a taste of some success with Jo (Embiid) on Giannis (Antetokounmpo) in our Milwaukee series,” Brown said after the game. “We felt like there was some similarities there. They started doing different things I thought. They did a really good job — Coach Nurse did a really good job of moving Siakam around to make that a little bit more of a challenge. I think that Greg coming in as I said a minute ago was sort of a gut feel for mobility reasons.”
Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet entered the game with just under three minutes remaining in the first quarter — their usual mark — with the Raps trailing 19-11. Alongside Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, it was cut by one with a minute remaining, before Leonard checked out for Danny Green and the Sixers went up by 14 two minutes into the second quarter. It was pushed up to 19 despite Gasol’s return with just over four minutes remaining, before VanVleet and Powell exited.
Again, give Philly credit for their plans and taking away from what the Raptors do best, but creating such an uphill battle was always going to minimize the margin for error and leave you exposed to the whims of variance.
You knew the Sixers would come out ready to throw the kitchen sink, they have one of the best starting fives in the league. You take the blow, and you make a measured response over the next 36 minutes. Instead, as the Sixers announced their arrival in the series with their first real tug of the rope, the Raptors failed to hit back until it was all but too late.
In the third quarter, Toronto’s starters did a tremendous job of cutting down the Philly advantage to as little as one, with Nurse’s adjustment of playing through Gasol in the post at the centre of it (no pun intended). But with all that sweat equity the Raptors put into getting back into the game, the other shoe had yet to drop. The case can certainly be made that the extra run for the starters was worth the price of having to sit them for a stretch, the 8-2 run by the Sixers to end the third quarter and push the lead back up to six had to signal that Nurse had little time to play with.
Yet, when Brown turned back to his starters with 9:52 remaining, Ibaka, Powell and VanVleet were all on the court for the Raptors for another 1:16 — a whole 76 seconds in which Philly outscored Toronto 4-0. In a game that came down to the Raptors needing one three-pointer from Green to tie from a spot he shot 45.2 percent on the season (10 percent above league average), those four points loomed large.
The shooting was bad, no question about that. 27 percent from three-point range for a team that was the best in the league after the acquisition of Gasol won’t cut it. Danny Green would surely love to have a couple of his attempts back. Yet, in an increasingly make or miss league courtesy the variance of the three, the swish isn’t something that qualifies as a controllable outside of ensuring your best options are on the court to take them.
“We’re always thinking about any possible adjustments to it or changes or whatever,” Nurse said after the game. “And this’ll certainly give us cause to reflect and review that for sure. What we come up with by Game 3, I don’t know yet.
“There’s always little things you wished you would have changed, left this guy in longer or put this guy in sooner; there’s always little things here and there. But, again, I think we played pretty well with this rotation, we wanted to stay with it as much as we can.”
This Raptors squad can play “pretty well” on auto-pilot, but against teams where the granular becomes the crux, it’s imperative that they be great.
Both the Magic and Sixers present size and quickness that make it hard for VanVleet to get to the basket or get a shot off from the perimeter. Powell comes and goes with his jumper, while Serge Ibaka has struggled to find a flow early in games without someone who can consistently create for him in the pick-and-roll, and, of course, there are very few people who can actually live with Joel Embiid.
“First and foremost, those guys, we need them to be solid defensively and execute the game plan,” Nurse said. “We don’t want any breakdowns in coverages or poor transition defence, et cetera. That’s where it starts, really but then they’re all opportunity scorers.
“If driving lanes are there for Norman he’s got to take them, if shots are there for Norm he’s got to take them. If shots are there for Freddy and Serge, they’ve got to take them.”
They must play better, but expecting that to happen against Sixers players whose talent is far superior is asking for trouble. Ibaka has proven time and time again that his flow isn’t just about playing through mistakes early and finding a rhythm in the second half, he thrives when Lowry is able to get him going in the pick-and-roll.
There are minutes to be had at the right time to get more from him, at a position that will be pivotal to the Raptors’ success in this series. And if Nurse is looking to prioritize defence with the offence stagnant, perhaps there’s room for the length and quickness of Patrick McCaw if VanVleet continues to struggle.
In the opening series against the Magic, the overwhelming talent advantage gave Nurse plenty of margin for error. In Game 1 against the Sixers, his best talent gave him a longer leash with a double-digit lead. But when single possessions can be looked back on, when the variance of the three isn’t in your favour, the elbow grease and calculus between the lines is what will determine the winner.
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