Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Sixers’ defensive adjustments rock Raptors, even series

Associated Press
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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Brett Brown made his adjustments, Toronto’s offense sputtered, and Philadelphia evens series with a win. It was just a handful of moves, but it changed everything — at least for a game.

Joel Embiid was now guarding Pascal Siakam, a guy who took 71 percent of his shots this season within 10 feet of the rim. That threw off Siakam, who shot 9-of-25 on the night, but more importantly, it let Joel Embiid stay closer to the basket and be a disruptive force.

Part of that disruption was a bigger focus by Embiid and all the Sixers in shading their defense toward Kawhi Leonard, who still scored 35 points on 13-of-24 shooting, but it wasn’t the same impact as he didn’t get to his spots on the floor as easily. Ben Simmons continues to do a respectable job on Leonard, who is going to get his anyway.

Embiid had been on Marc Gasol, who now had the smaller Tobias Harris guarding him, but Gasol shot just 1-of-6 on the night and struggled for a while to figure out how to be a better playmaker despite the size advantage.

Combine all that with a 30-point game from Jimmy Butler and it was enough for Philly to win another defensive slugfest, 94-89. The series is now tied 1-1 heading back to Philadelphia for Game 3 on Thursday.

It still felt near the end like Toronto has advantages in this series, it just couldn’t hit the shots to exploit them, for example knocking down just 19-of-37 from three (27 percent). Toronto seemed to figure out what it needed to do to beat the Sixers’ adjustments, it just couldn’t finish the play — the Raptors were 19-of-54 (35.2 percent) on uncontested looks in this game (stat via NBA.com… not the best judge of what is uncontested, but the point is valid).

But now the series heads back to Philadelphia where the Sixers role players may be more comfortable and step up. They also should get more out of Embiid, who was battling a stomach… oh, let’s just let him describe it.

Game 3 is going to tell us a lot in this series. Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse didn’t change is rotations at all heading into this series, and after a Game 1 win didn’t feel the need. He should now, doing things like matching Gasol with Embiid (for defensive reasons). He stuck with Fred VanVleet despite an off night, expect the hook to come quicker from now on. This is a tight series, and if the Raptors are going to break out of their historic mold this is where they need to adjust and step up. As a team. We’ll see if they have that in them.

2) Nikola Jokic leads Denver offense to Game 1 win, but who will play defense in this series? The Spurs and Trail Blazers have this in common: Neither team has any idea how to slow down the Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray pick-and-roll.

Usually Jokic set the pick for Murray, but they reversed that a few times, and anything they did seemed to work. Jokic carved up the Portland defense when he was on the floor on his way to 37 points, nine rebounds, six assists.

Both teams scored at will in Game 1, but Jokic — and the Nuggets defense forcing 18 turnovers that became 23 points — was enough to get the 121-113 win. Game 2 is Wednesday night.

Portland did get 39 points from Damian Lillard in this game.

However, the story of this series is on the other end. Portland defended the predictable offense of Oklahoma City well in the first round, but Denver does not have Russell Westbrook dominating the ball and missing jumpers. Denver moves the ball, moves players off the ball, and has shooters everywhere. And you better guard that Nuggets’ center out at the arc, too.

That becomes the real question in this series — which team is going to defend the best? Which team is going to get enough stops that their offense can win it?

Portland tried Enes Kanter on Jokic (credit Kanter for a good game despite playing with basically one arm, he separated his left shoulder in Game 5 against OKC a week ago and is still not right, but he was out there). Thing is, that may still be their best option. There are not good ones, Zach Collins? With Jusuf Nurkic out Terry Stotts will have to get creative.

This is a “bet the over” kind of series, but if one team can figure out how to defend a little better, it will have a significant advantage. In Game 1, that was the Nuggets forcing turnovers.

3) Houston released an audit, Steve Kerr flopped in a press conference, now can we focus on the game, not the referees? This happens in every playoff series. Some more than others, but it’s a tradition that goes back decades — Phil Jackson was a master of it with the Bulls and Lakers.

The losing team in a playoff game has the coach/players complain about a specific kind of call, trying to influence the next set of officials to call that thing more their way.

Ultimately, that’s all that is going on here. Houston relies on James Harden getting to the free throw line a lot in their offense, and he wasn’t getting calls when the Warriors defenders crowded him in Game 1. There were times fouls should have been called — in the first half Klay Thompson absolutely fouled Harden and took away his landing spots. However, Harden sells every call — he goes to the ground on jumpers, he throws his head back and flails on drives — and so he doesn’t always get the benefit of the doubt. There’s a boy who cried wolf thing here. On Harden’s final three of the game he leaped forward and jackknifed his body to draw contact, then laid on the ground to sell the call. The referee rightly didn’t give it.

The Warriors responded with Draymond Green sounding rational (“Refereeing is an inexact science. So it is what it is.”) and Steve Kerr was flopping in press conferences. Tom Ziller of SB Nation had the best line, saying he can’t wait to go to the Rockets “2018 champions by audit” banner raising.

The question is did Daryl Morey and Harden complaining get them what they wanted. Will they get more calls and will that change how Game 2 is officiated, and with that the outcome? Or, have the Rockets become so lost in their own mythology that they will not be ready for Game 2, where it’s a safe bet the Warriors will be better rested, will have adjustments, and will just flat-out be better.