Game five.

I’m hoping for quality playoff basketball without a Joel Embiid gastoenteritis and/or virus sidebar. Let’s hope there was no 6 a.m. text message sent to Brett Brown in Toronto, because if Embiid is sick again, the Sixers might be in for some tough sledding in Canada.

The Sixers missed a huge opportunity to go up 3-1 in this series and put themselves just one win away from the franchise’s first Eastern Conference finals appearance since 2001. Now they need to take two of three against the Raptors and steal another victory at the Scotiabank Arena to achieve that goal.

Look for this tonight:

1. Tobias Harris vs. Toronto’s “big” lineup

Tobias needs to shoot better than 2-13 from three. That’s what Captain Obvious would say.

More specifically, if Nick Nurse is going to show that Serge Ibaka/Marc Gasol “big” look, Harris is going to have Ibaka guarding him while Gasol takes Embiid and Pascal Siakam slides up to small forward.

That means you’re going to have to have opportunities for Harris to pull Ibaka out to the perimeter, plays like this one:

Remember that play?

It’s the dual elbow action set that the Sixers used three times in a row in the game four Brooklyn win. Dump it to Joel Embiid at the elbow, run JJ Redick from low to high, and then Embiid has the choice to playing either teammate based on what the defense gives him.

Harris needs to have a big game tonight, and he’s going to have plenty of matchups against Ibaka when the Raptors go big. Tobias is getting his shot blocked at the rim with somewhat alarming frequency, but he has such a diverse game that he should be able to find other spots to score from.

2. Aggressive Ben Simmons

I wrote a Monday sidebar about Jimmy Butler wanting Ben Simmons to attack the basket a bit more, and Brett Brown provided a few more good quotes about the point-forward’s performance during a pre-flight conference call.

The head coach was asked specifically if he felt like Simmons should have tried to play through contact in the deep paint a little more in game four:

When you look at Ben’s bottom line, or most obvious strength offensively, it’s not even close, he is a track star in open court, he’s 6-foot-10, his length and ability to get to the rim we encourage all day, every day. It’s where he can most significantly offensively stamp his thumb print on a game. I think in general, especially in playoffs, those types of opportunities, even as good as he is, aren’t as frequent as you wished. I’ve just finished watching the game, there are a few times maybe he could have gone a step further or tried to draw contact, either with a strong finish or a dunk. I don’t think it’s anything that’s bothersome. I do feel like the green light in this environment that you’re speaking of is something that he always knows that he has, and his decision of what’s he going to do with it I hope continues to be as aggressive as we’ve seen for the very large majority of the year. This is where we want to try to get him going as much as we can in those first three to five seconds of a shot clock.

This I think is a good example of that:

You don’t typically see Ben try to go around that kind single body in the paint, but he skirts Gasol a bit there instead of trying to absorb the contact and finish through it.

This isn’t where he’ll usually leave his feet:

But it’s still the right choice. You’ll take Ben Simmons 1v1 with anybody in that kind of situation, and that’s why I’d agree with Brett Brown that it’s not “bothersome.” Ben didn’t turn the ball over a single time in game four, and he generally made good decisions, it was just the aggression and downhill mentality that didn’t pop up as frequently as we’ve seen in prior games.

Brett was also asked straight up if Ben was avoiding contact because he’s hesitant to go the foul line:

I do not connect those dots with him maybe passing up a drive or a shot because of a lack of confidence or a trepidation to go back to the free throw line. I don’t see it. In fact, the thing that might be as impressive as anything, when he walks to the line – because I’ve been around the game so long you watch somebody’s body language when they accept a ball from a referee or even I would over analyze it and watch his approach to the free throw line – there’s no hesitance. The thing that disappoints me is me knowing what I know in regards to the volume of time, and everybody should hear that, the volume of time that he has put in trying to improve his free throw. Pre-practice, post-practice, days off, at times hasn’t translated in that 70 percent, and moving up the food chain to 72, 73, 75, whatever, percent that has been his goal.

Yeah, I don’t know. Brett might be right or he might be wrong, but the fact of the matter is that Ben Simmons has shot three free throws in this series. Three! That’s crazy. He shot 24 in the Brooklyn series, including 11 in the game where Kenny Atkinson briefly showed the hack-a-Ben strategy. He hit 9 of those shots.

And even if Ben only shoots 65% from the foul line, putting stress on Gasol, Siakam, and Ibaka and maybe getting one of those guys in early foul trouble helps a ton when you consider the fact that Nick Nurse ran out a glorified six-man rotation in game four.

3. “Defending” Kawhi

I put defending in quotes because you don’t really defend him, you just hope to contain him. RIP Stuart Scott.

But it’s interesting to me to read varying opinions on social media of how to approach the Kawhi matchup. Some people say double him more, some people say try putting Jimmy Butler on him. Some people are willing to live with Kawhi beating you if he’s shooting a high number of mid-range jump shots.

I think I’m in the latter category. I’d play the analytics game, and if Kawhi is gonna shoot the lights out on inefficient mid-range looks, so be it.

In the games that Toronto won, games one and four, Leonard shot 3-7 and 5-7 from three. In the games the Sixers won, Kawhi was 3-10 and 2-4 from three. That’s been a Sixer philosophy all year long, to limit three-point shooting and let opponents settle for anything from 10-22 feet instead. They got lucky in game two, but game three was excellent.

Case in point, here’s Kawhi’s playoff shooting chart, with added math showing how many points he’s scoring per shot attempt in four different areas:

Let’s break it out further then:

  • 81 points on 54 three point attempts = 1.5 points per shot
  • 48 points on 40 long two attempts = 1.2 points per shot
  • 36 points on 33 short two attempts = 1.09 points per shot
  • 72 points on 52 rim attempts = 1.38 points per shot

That’s basic analytic stuff, but sometimes writing it out as a simple exercise helps illustrate why teams defend the way they do. Kawhi can shoot contested mid-range stuff all night long, and if he needs 24 shots to score 35 points, as he did in game two, that’s fewer chances for Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Danny Green, and Pascal Siakam to get hot. Part of the reason the Raptors won game four is because they finally got something from their other starters (14 for Lowry and 16 for Gasol), and if Kawhi is in high-usage mode and taking 15-footers all game long, that’s more than fine. You are keeping him off the three-point line and away from the rim, where he has been more efficient on a points-per-shot basis in the 2019 postseason.

Brett Brown was asked about possibly trapping Kawhi more, to which he answered with this:

We’ve been sprinkling in a fair amount of traps. I think that a steady diet of anything with such a great players is completely dangerous because of the reasons that you just said. They have the best, not the second best, or third, they have the best three-point shooting team in the league since Marc Gasol came into the team, so there’s punishment. At times I do not like Joel sort of running around 30 feet from the basket trying to trap Kawhi. Often times Joel’s man is the primary screen setter which makes it dangerous with what goes on behind and getting Joel sort of back to the rim in as quick a fashion as we can. I think that to keep Kawhi off balance, to use our length at times we’ve done that well. I think he had seven turnovers in the last game, yet he still had a game that we’re all going to remember. He truly did put the team on his back. I hope to do what we do better. Might’t be more frequent? It could be. But, I think the mixing in what we have been doing, I’m okay with it. It’s always on my mind but it’s not as clear cut, for the reasons that I have just said, as it might seem.

Bottom line, the Sixers beat the Raptors twice using this defensive philosophy on Kawhi. They should have won a third game. Leonard had seven turnovers and five assists on Sunday evening and if Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris could do anything on the offensive end, this series would be 3-1 in Philly’s favor. I personally don’t see a need to change the way they approach defending Kawhi, but that’s just like, my opinion man.