The Toronto Raptors soundly defeated the Sixers 108-95 at the Scotiabank Arena, drawing first blood in a series that appeared highly competitive on paper. Game 1 was a classic case of a clean superstar matchup win: Toronto succeeded in stymieing Philadelphia’s best player, Joel Embiid, while Leonard was able to score at will and dictate the terms of the contest.
The all-star small forward finished with a playoff career-high 45 points on 23 shots, excelling in isolation and muscling through various Sixers defenders. Philadelphia tried Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons on Leonard, to little effect.
“Pretty dang good,” Raptors Coach Nick Nurse said of Leonard. “I just like the force he’s playing with at both ends but especially when he’s getting the ball. He’s pushing it up the floor, he’s punching the gaps with force, he’s determined to get to spaces. That was cool to watch.”
On the odd possession that Leonard wasn’t scoring, Siakam picked up the slack with 29 points on just 15 shots. The nature of their shared success felt like a fundamental challenge for the Sixers: The same imposing star-studded front line that had pounded Brooklyn now looked overwhelmed by Toronto’s length and athleticism.
“They were unbelievable,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “Offensively and defensively. Kawhi was just in the zone and he probably could've had more. Pascal could've probably had more. We're just a good team and we don't care who has the success.”
It’s unclear whether the Sixers have a good individual answer to Leonard, and they may soon resort to more aggressively double-teaming him. Philadelphia Coach Brett Brown, however, sounded hesitant to fully commit to sending extra help, out of fear that Toronto would make his defense pay by finding open shooters around the arc.
“If we’re going to win the series, we have to do better in relation to both of those guys,” Brown said. “Kawhi and Pascal were excellent, but are you just going to live with that throughout the series? I doubt it. But the ripple effect is that [Toronto] is the best three-point shooting team in the NBA after the [Marc Gasol] trade. There’s a balance [between] going after somebody [with help] and getting picked apart by Kyle [Lowry] or Danny [Green].”
These are precisely the type of dilemmas that elite talents — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Leonard — pose in the playoffs. While Brown explores his options for handling Leonard, he must also find ways to get better quality looks for Embiid on the other end.
Gasol, acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies in February, largely held Embiid in check, much like he did during the regular season. Philadelphia’s all-star center finished with just 16 points on 18 shots, as Toronto did well to challenge his paint attempts.
Game 1 amounted to a rude awakening for Embiid following the Brooklyn series, in which he generally looked too strong for the likes of Jarrett Allen and Jared Dudley. Few NBA centers have the requisite combination of size, strength, intelligence and experience to hang with Embiid, but Gasol is one of them.
“He was the defensive player of the year for a reason,” Brown said of Gasol. “I've got to help [Embiid] more. I think getting him into the post in different ways and bringing him out a little bit more than we did is something that I have to look at.”
The challenge for the Sixers against the Nets after their dismal Game 1 was to shake themselves awake and to take their opponent seriously. They responded on both counts, ripping off stretches of electric offensive play and burying the overmatched Nets in five games.
Toronto’s fearsome performance in Game 1 suggests that far more than focus and bursts of effort are needed here. The Sixers’ winning formula requires Embiid to take full command of the paint, their wings to rise to the occasion defensively, and Butler to assert himself as a scoring threat. They must also hope for some regression from Leonard or Siakam, a friendlier whistle for Embiid, and some hot three-point shooting to offset Toronto’s half-court execution.
Simply put, Philadelphia’s fate may no longer be in its own hands.