TORONTO — Playoff basketball is an exercise in problem-solving. The Philadelphia 76ers came into Game 2 of their series with the Toronto Raptors with several problems, but none more imposing and urgent than Kawhi Leonard.
Following Toronto’s 108-95 win in the series opener, Raptors players and coaches were shocked that the Sixers opted to send precious few help defenders at Leonard as he revved into high gear, navigating the court at will one-on-one. Had the tactic achieved the intended effect of neutralizing Toronto’s other threats, perhaps the Sixers could’ve lived with Leonard’s 45 points. Raptors weapons made themselves useful all over the floor, however, from Pascal Siakam’s exploits in the half court to Kyle Lowry’s surgical management.
On Monday, Philadelphia unfurled a new blueprint and went about the work of diligently repairing their broken defense in their 94-89 win to even the Eastern Conference semifinal series. The Sixers scrambled the matchups, with four of their five starters receiving new assignments. Most notably, Ben Simmons drew Leonard.
“They did a good job, honestly. Got to give them credit,” Leonard said. “[Simmons] is long.”
In addition to contending with Simmons’ size, Leonard saw multiple bodies on Monday night — sometimes immediately on the catch, at times when coming off a screen, and almost always when he made his approach to the rim. The Sixers’ coaching staff empowered defenders to help unpredictably, encouraging them to make judicious defensive reads.
For example: If Siakam was parked in the corner, where he was a 42 percent shooter in the regular season, be careful. But if he’s above the break, where he converted only 26 percent? By all means, let him take it.
“I think Ben did a really good job on him, and we tried to have different looks at times where we doubled him, and we did,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “By and large, it was Ben’s assignment. Although other people inherited him if he got switched out or Ben was out of the game.”
For all of the damage exacted by Leonard in Game 1, the Sixers were bludgeoned by Siakam as well. On Tuesday, Brown handed Siakam off to center Joel Embiid, who was administered an IV drip pregame for a stomach ailment he shared with scatological glee in his postgame media conference.
Brown was inspired to make the swap by Embiid’s comparative success defending Giannis Antetokounmpo in recent matchups with the Milwaukee Bucks. Like Antetokounmpo, Siakam is an agile, lanky and explosive forward whose long strides propel his dribble attacks. Forced to contend with Embiid’s size in Game 2, Siakam was tempered, missing 16 of his 25 attempts from the field. Whether he was rerouting Siakam left or providing traditional big man services in the basket area, Embiid anchored Philadelphia’s defense.
“That was my job to slow him down,” Embiid said. “We feel like we followed whatever we had planned.”
Throughout the first half, the Sixers defended the half court with precision and urgency. When Lowry sliced through stagger screens, Jimmy Butler (30 points, 11 rebounds, five assists) slalomed his way through the bodies to meet him on the other side. When Leonard swung around a hand-off with a hard dribble, he’d meet a third defender at the doorstep of the paint. When Embiid or Greg Monroe sank low to pick up a baseline driver, communication was decisive and rotations were prompt.
Philadelphia’s stifling defense lulled the Raptors into one of the most ineffectual halves of offensive basketball in recent NBA playoff history. In the 20 years that more advanced stats have been tracked, no team had ever done the following until the Raptors in the first half of their Game 2 loss:
Compiled in a single half an effective field goal percentage less than 36
Collected fewer than 7 percent of their offensive rebounds
Logged a free throw rate (which measures how effectively a team gets to the line) of less than 12 percent
Since points are scored either from the field or at the line, and offensive rebounds are the primary means by which a team can get a mulligan off a missed shot, the results were disastrous for Toronto.
“We’ll watch the film and see where we can get better and see how differently we can play,” Lowry said. “You just can’t have that type of first half.”
The 76ers have existed in a constant state of flux for the better part of the season — the starting unit, the bench units, the front office, the coaching staff, the heightened expectations — that it’s easy to forget what brought Philadelphia to the NBA’s postseason last year: A defense predicated on the idea that a team with multiple giants can wreak havoc on their positional matchups.
In evening the series with Toronto, the Sixers played to their strengths. Embiid and Simmons were put in positions to succeed; Butler, an expert on-ball defender, was given the opportunity to match wits with Lowry; Brett Brown, an experimentalist at heart, assumed healthy risks in unconventional fashion. As is so often the case in the NBA postseason, the team that stayed more faithful to its identity achieved its desired result.
“I’m telling you, whenever we let our defense dictate our offense, we’re such a great team,” Butler said. “We can’t let it be the other way around.”