TORONTO - Ball movement. Transition defence. Physical disposition. All in all, just doing a better job.
During a loud two days for the Philadelphia 76ers following their Game 1 loss in Toronto, a handful of basketball catchcries defined the discourse coming out of the organisation. Ben Simmons called for a more physical approach to defending Kawhi Leonard, after the three time All-Star shredded Philadelphia with one of the most clinical scoring displays the NBA has seen this decade. Brett Brown flagged changes to the team’s defensive scheme. “It’s all on the table,” Brown said of his team’s defensive game plan in the lead up to Game 2. James Ennis theorised the Sixers must show Leonard and Pascal Siakam, who was equally transcendent in Game 1, more bodies in an attempt to curtail their impact. Jimmy Butler said he must stop gambling. Joel Embiid admitted he needed to be better.
The Sixers sounded the part after dropping Game 1, a loss that marked their 14th straight defeat in Toronto. They correctly diagnosed the facets that doomed them in Saturday’s defeat and sounded like a team accurately aware of what must be improved to break their malaise north of the American border. Philadelphia knew what was required of them in Game 2 and on Monday night, they delivered on their talk.
With adjustments aplenty, Philadelphia levelled their series against the Raptors with a 94-89 in a titanic rock fight. Game 2 won’t ever be confused with what usually passes as aesthetical basketball. It was far from that, but for the Sixers it has the potential to represent a seismic shift in their franchise. Tonight was their first win in Toronto in seven years, and also their first victory over Leonard, although history takes a back seat to the immediate.
Philadelphia has captured home court advantage from the Raptors and now can make the Eastern Conference Finals with three home victories. All week, the Sixers have spoken of the need to get a singular win in Toronto. That was their aim when leaving Philadelphia on Friday and it was achieved tonight, thanks in no small part to Butler’s performance.
Game 2 was the actualisation of everything the Sixers wanted from Butler when they acquired him back in November. Every time Philadelphia needed a basket, Butler was present. His shot making helped the Sixers build a double-digit lead in the first half and as that lead evaporated, it was Butler who delivered timely buckets to keep them afloat. It was a performance that had Brown bloviating on the maturity of Butler after the fact.
“This was JAMES Butler and that was the adult in the gym,” Brown said postgame of Butler in Game 2. “I get as excited with the volume of threes that he sought as much as anything. He was just a tremendous rock. He willed us to a lot of different situations. He was a great teammate on the bench.”
Butler attempted a season high 10 three point field goals during Game 2 and his 30 points are the most he’s scored in almost four months. The passivity that crept into his Game 1 performance was gone.
“He was locked in,” said Simmons. “He was talkative on both ends. I think he was able to push us and give us that boost. He was really that guy that gave us the energy on both ends.”
With Butler anchoring the offence, Simmons was given the task of slowing Leonard, and what an almighty challenge that turned out to be. Based on what we have seen from Leonard in the postseason to date, it appears almost unfathomable that anyone in the NBA could stop him. That was the case during Game 2, as the former San Antonio Spur produced another glowing performance with 35 points and six assists, despite a plucky defensive showing from the Australian guard.
“[Kawhi] is really really good, we all get that,” said Brown postgame. “When you are having to scout and game plan and then it’s happening 20 feet in front of you, it’s exacerbating. It’s magnified. I think Ben did a really good job on him.”
Simmons fought his backside off. He fought over screens, cramped Leonard’s airspace and took away the simple looks that fuelled Leonard’s Game 1 eruption. He forced Leonard into difficult situations and while the box score will show that Simmons failed to stop his opponent, no statistics can shield the fact Simmons did everything capable. There is only so much can be done against greatness and Simmons’ efforts prove just that.
“I’m just trying to make it hard,” Simmons explained after Game 2. “Obviously Kawhi is a very talented guy. He is an All-Star. He is great, so just trying to make it hard for him offensively. It was really my job so I am glad we got that win.”
Simmons and Butler brought the requisite star power, but the Sixers bench was right there throughout Game 2. Greg Monroe making a surprise appearance during the first half was shocking. Even more amazing was how effective Monroe looked during his 11 minutes and 41 seconds of action. Jonah Bolden played nine minutes and helped keep the Sixers afloat while Embiid rested in the second half. Bolden’s three to open the fourth quarter drew specific praise from Brown, Simmons and Butler postgame.
James Ennis continued his impressive postseason and looks every bit like the sixth man Philadelphia needs. His offence continues to be a boost but Ennis’ defence is providing the Sixers with a perfect anecdote to Toronto’s deadly outside shooters.
“Guys stepped up,” Simmons said of the Sixers bench in Game 2. “Greg and Amir getting in there. Guys did a good job. That’s what it’s all about. Jonah hitting that three in the corner. Everyone doing a little bit of everything and trying to contribute.”
Philadelphia will need similar contributions from their supporting cast if they are to continue their winning ways back at the Wells Fargo Center. It is a necessary requirement, as is their defensive intensity. Toronto could only muster 89 points on 36.3% (33 of 91) from the field during Game 2. It was the their second worst shooting clip of the season and the 89 points is their third lowest total of the season. Toronto is one of the best shooting teams in the NBA and they will rebound but the Sixers have now found methods of slowing them down. Shifting Joel Embiid to Siakam was the biggest adjustment in Game 2 and it worked.
With Simmons established as Leonard’s matchup, both teams can now focus in on the next adjustments needed to gain the upper hand. That will be a task for the next 72 hours but tonight is a moment for the Sixers. They came to Toronto to steal a game and did just that.
We have a series.