Ben Simmons and Sixers helpless against Kawhi Leonard masterpiece

TORONTO – A common theme was present from members of the Philadelphia 76ers as they took the stage to explain what happened during their Game 1 defeat to the Toronto Raptors. To a man, the Sixers struggled to articulate the performance of Kawhi Leonard. Their confusion was warranted given what Leonard did Saturday.

Game 1 will always be remembered as the night where Leonard delivered a dominant thump to the Sixers. Leonard scored 45 points with clinical ease during Toronto’s 108-95 victory and in the process joined Vince Carter as the only Raptors to score at least 40 points in a playoff game. Leonard wasn’t just the best player on the court during Game 1. Going off tonight’s performance, he is arguably the best basketball player alive and in the aftermath, Sixers players were just like all those in attendance. They were reduced to superlative laden responses when speaking on Leonard.

“He’s a spectacular player, said J.J. Redick. “He had a spectacular night and he hit some spectacular shots.”

Ben Simmons started the game defending Kyle Lowry, while Jimmy Butler drew the first shift on Leonard. It was evident early that Butler wasn’t up for the task. Leonard converted on three field goals in the opening moments of Game 1 and helped fuel an early Toronto offensive explosion. The Raptors scored on 12 consecutive possessions in the opening quarter and Leonard finished the first frame with 17 points.

Kawhi was pretty damn good tonight,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “That was a big time performance and I just like the force that he is playing with at both ends. Especially when he gets the ball, as he is pushing the all and getting it up the floor with force.”

Simmons was thrust onto Leonard in the second quarter and delivered the best opposition by any Sixer during Game 1. The Australian used his length to take away the easy looks that got Leonard going, although he too was helpless at times. This felt like one of those nights where an NBA superstar becomes an unstoppable force and that was a feeling Simmons gave voice after the fact.

“Personally I felt I did a pretty good job,” Simmons said. He’s a tough player. He’s a physical guy with a lot of length who can shoot the ball.”

Simmons was a plus performer on both ends of the court and clearly Philadelphia’s best player in Game 1, although that isn’t exactly the highest of praise. In addition to being schooled by Leonard, Butler was an afterthought on offence. He took 12 shots but his impact was hardly felt. Tobias Harris hit a flurry of shots in the first half but his five turnovers contributed to the Sixers demise. Joel Embiid was restricted to his worst game of the postseason by Marc Gasol and was critical of his own performance.

“Their two best players showed up tonight and I didn’t tonight, so I have to do a better job,” Embiid told reporters after the game.

Pascal Siakam is the other player that Embiid speaks of and if not for a fluorescent Leonard performance, the 25-year-old Cameroonian would be a worthy beacon for discussion of Game 1. Siakam scored 17 first quarter points and just like Leonard, he contributed a number of highlight defensive sequences. With the Raptors dynamic duo dominating on both ends, Brett Brown and the Sixers coaching staff were left aimlessly looking for answers.

“You can certainly shake their hand, Pascal and Kawhi, because they were excellent but are you just going to live with that through a series? I doubt that. What that looks like and what is it? We will figure that out tomorrow.”

What those answers look like represents the crux of this series and how quickly Brown can devise them, if they even exist, will determine whether this series becomes competitive. Philadelphia’s offence was below par tonight and Embiid’s lacklustre showing was a key reason why. The team generates their best offence when Embiid is the focus and that didn’t happen.

Brown flagged counters that Philadelphia can implement to get Embiid going during his post mortem and these do exist. It’s also realistic to expect better showings from Butler and Harris but there is no avoiding the two unavoidable truths that linger over this series, the first of which is outside of Brown’s control.

Philadelphia’s depth was a concern entering Game 1 and it was just as advertised. James Ennis gave the Sixers a scoring punch off the bench and was effective as a sixth man but he was the only useful reserve. Boban Marjanovic was played off the court as a mobile Raptors frontline forced him into becoming a perimeter defender. Furkan Korkmaz was surprisingly given minutes in Mike Scott’s absence and could only deliver a 1/6 shooting performance. Jonah Bolden was the only other Sixers reserve to receive minutes in the competitive portion of Game 1 and he delivered a repeat of his Game 4 showing in Brooklyn.

Bolden doesn’t look ready for the high stakes playoff battles Philadelphia finds themselves in. His rookie tendencies show up every time they are tested. The Sixers’ starting five is insanely talented, but tonight their underbelly was examined and found wanting. With Scott sidelined with plantar fasciitis, an already limited bench becomes something that could doom the team.

Philadelphia also appears to have a Leonard problem. This is something that must be fixed quickly. While it is true that no defensive player or scheme could restrict some of the looks Leonard made in Game 1, the Sixers weren’t blameless in his dominance.  Too frequently they would leave the Leonard assignment to one person. It was Butler first, Simmons for most of the night and Harris intermittently. They all got beat, and did so without the assistance needed to deter an MVP calibre performance. 

“I don’t think we showed enough help,” Simmons said of the Sixers defence on Leonard. “As a team we need to treat him similar to Giannis. Come up to him a bit more and try get the ball out of his hands. He’s a physical guy and we need to do a better job.”

The Sixers entered Toronto with aspirations of showing the NBA universe that they belonged on the brightest stage. In the second round of the NBA playoffs for the second consecutive season, Brown hoped that his team was ready to learn from last season’s defeat to the Boston Celtics. He spoke at morning shoot around on how the Sixers, and their two young stars Simmons and Embiid, were wiser than 12 months ago. More polished, too, and ready to lead Philadelphia into the conference finals for the first time in 18 years. They must now prove it.

“We just got to get better, “Simmons said postgame. “Watch film, we’ll go over the game tomorrow and try to get better and fix a few things.

Leonard dominated Game 1 and he has placed the pressure on Philadelphia to counter. While the Sixers responded from an equally frustrating opening showing against Brooklyn, the Raptors represent a different standard of opponent. Philadelphia must come with their very best if they dream of beating Toronto. Even if they do, it might not be enough to combat Leonard at the peak of his powers.

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