This article is a facsimile of an original publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
If coaching is a chess match, then Brett Brown just took the Toronto Raptors' queen.
From Game 1 to Game 2, the Philadelphia 76ers made some of the most meaningful and important tactical adjustments I've ever seen this quickly in a postseason series.
The results were dazzling.
Philadelphia shut down the Raptors offense, allowing a mere 89 points, nine fewer than Toronto's previous postseason low. In fact, they hadn't scored fewer than 90 since December 28th.
More miraculous than the turnaround was how insanely dominating Philadelphia's first half was from a defensive standpoint. As ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz detailed in his Game 2 recap, the Sixers achieved something during that second-half that hasn't been seen in the NBA Playoffs for over twenty years: The Raptors were held to an effective field goal percentage below 36, achieved a free throw rate below 12 percent and corralled fewer than seven percent of their missed shots as offensive rebounds.
In essence, the Sixers defense hit a record level, did so without fouling and finished each possession without surrendering a second-chance opportunity.
Their defensive success is attributed in large part to the matchup changes made by Brown and his staff, shifting Joel Embiid off pick-and-pop monster Marc Gasol and onto Pascal Siakam. The change worked, and now the pressure is on the Raptors to answer with their own adjustments after losing home-court advantage.
At first glance, the Embiid-on-Siakam duel is a strange one for Philadelphia.
Siakam frequently plays with the ball in his hands and rushes around the court like a frantic fireball. The notion of protecting Embiid by putting him on somebody more active seems counterintuitive. But the Raptors picked apart Joel in ball screens during Game 1 with Gasol. Something had to be done.
That pick-and-pop was an overt point of attack for Toronto. The Sixers have two plodding centers–Embiid and Boban Marjanovic–that struggle away from the rim. To protect them, Brown has instructed these centers to play a conservative drop scheme on defense, rarely stepping to the three-point line to help on screens. In essence, what they give up is a mid-range jumper to the guards or a pick-and-pop three to the bigs.
Gasol and Serge Ibaka licked their chops at these opportunities in Game 1. Whether the bigs getting open or the molten-hot Kawhi Leonard seeing daylight for a mid-range pull-up, Toronto got whatever they wanted:
Perhaps worse for the Sixers was their Game 1 struggle to contain Gasol when he rolled.
The Raptors tore apart side ball screens that the Sixers tried to pin to the sidelines—another strategy designed to keep Embiid close to the rim. Gasol was sneaky, finding holes in the defense and penetrating their second-line. Philly's rotations are always pressured by the shooting prowess of virtually every Raptors wing.
Here, Danny Green sitting in the corner applies pressure onto Jimmy Butler, his defender, not to leave the sharpshooter. The lack of communication between him and Embiid allows Gasol to sneak to the rim:
Gasol is such a skilled passer that the Raptors frequently play through him. He'll catch a reversal at the top of the key as cutters circle, waiting for flowing action to develop.
Sitting back and allowing an elite passer to pick you apart is rarely a winning strategy. However, when the Sixers press on Gasol, the rim is wide open and their second-level defenders are too busy hugging shooters and scorers to protect blow-bys to the rim.
Kyle Lowry torched the bigger wing defenders the Sixers placed on him without needing a screen. Gasol sucked the rim protection away from the hoop, and all Lowry saw was daylight. This stuff is exactly why Toronto acquired Gasol at the trade deadline from the floundering Memphis Grizzlies:
Ben Simmons started on Lowry in Game 1 as well, which handicapped the Sixers' weak-side size against ball screens.
Once they tried to adjust and bring Embiid farther from the rim, Raptors coach Nick Nurse was prepared. He put Simmons and Embiid into ball screens, anticipated an aggressive scheme and instructed his guys to hit a slipping Ibaka.
The back-side help was too short to impact Ibaka on the finish, giving him a clear lane to the rim:
That's been the trouble in ball screens for the Sixers all season. With Embiid away from the rim, the back-side struggles to protect the rim and deter shots.
By placing Embiid on Siakam, however, the Sixers alleviate all these issues.
They keep their rim protector close to the rim and worry less about the pick-and-pop targeting him. Siakam is a ball handler more than a screener. (He's only been utilized as a screener nine times this postseason, according to Synergy Sports Tech.)
Beyond that, his shooting splits are incredibly dependent on where on the arc he's standing. In the corners, Siakam hit 42 percent during the regular season but was a mere 26 percent above the break.
Now Embiid gets to sag off Siakam from the wings and above, staying where he is most comfortable. The Game 2 results were strong for the Sixers, although Siakam did miss a lot of open looks. I mean wide open:
That type of room can be dangerous for a facilitator, but Siakam reacted like a deer in headlights.
Remember Game 1 of the Sixers-Nets series when Brooklyn dared Embiid to shoot threes? Now they're employing the same strategy and reaping its benefits. We'll see if the same holds true as the series shifts back to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4.
By effectively ignoring a perimeter-bound Siakam, Embiid was more ready and available to be a helper at the rim, where the Raps shot only 60 percent on Monday night, according to Cleaning the Glass. Embiid's help manifested itself in different ways, mainly in assisting Tobias Harris with the tall task in front of him.
Making an adjustment means the risk that plugging one hole could spring another. Luckily for the Sixers, Tobias Harris was up to the task of blanketing Gasol. Harris battled with Gasol down low and was a large part of Philly's success in preventing second-chance points. He snagged ten boards on that end while Gasol only got one offensive rebound.
When the Raptors did try to play through Gasol down low and take advantage of that mismatch, Embiid was available for double-teams, saving Tobias by pushing the Raptors' center to attempt baseline-spinning fadeaways:
Perhaps most importantly is how Harris neutralized the pick-and-pop skills from Gasol and unlocked Philly's ability to throw many types of coverages at him.
When the Sixers needed to mix things up, they flung a hard hedge at the Raptors—something they rarely do—with Harris jumping out at Kawhi. In crunch time, that threw Leonard for a loop and turned an entire possession into a lot of stationary dribbling:
Simmons moved from defending Lowry onto Leonard, and while Kawhi had another big game, the Sixers' defensive effort was clearly more concentrated. I'd expect to see him continue guarding Leonard, as his length clearly bothers and disrupts some rhythm.
Jimmy Butler then took the assignment of Lowry, shifting J.J. Redick onto spot-up shooter Danny Green.
Brown made several other adjustments to help his team's defense: He ditched Boban in favor of Greg Monroe, who is more mobile and recovers onto popping bigs with more gusto. Monroe was plus-eight in just under twelve minutes. Brown also played Monroe against Gasol's minutes, allowing Embiid to always guard one of Siakam or Ibaka. Philly trapped the Raptors' Weave Ballscreen action, where spacing is cramped and it's difficult to punish an aggressive defense.
All these changes paid off in major ways during Game 2.
Now it's Nurse's turn to adjust. Expect to see Siakam screening more frequently, as well as designed post-ups for Gasol and Green to utilize their size advantages. More Kawhi-Siakam two-man actions are also a strong possibility, once again putting the tiny weak-side defenders in trouble if Kawhi is able to penetrate the second-level. Toronto tried using Green as a screener for Kawhi, but Simmons' length allowed him to recover and protect Redick simultaneously.
Questions around Brett Brown's job status have been asked a lot this season, as doubts around his tactical acumen mounted. Game 2 is evidence that, despite this roster's lack of cohesion and tough-fitting puzzle pieces, Brown is doing all he can to put their players in a position to succeed.
With a talented squad, that's all that can be asked of a coach.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).