Maybe Kawhi Leonard can be better, even after laying waste to a city for a day. (Best player in the world suddenly seems closer than it used to, right?) And maybe Pascal Siakam can be better, even as he creates seemingly new shots out of the air. (They are not all new shots.) It’s possible, though tricky to count on.
But after the Toronto Raptors crushed the Philadelphia 76ers 108-95 in Game 1 of their much-anticipated second-round series, you got the sense that the Raptors can still improve. They haven’t all spent the season working together, so they are improvising as they go, under escalating pressure, with championship hopes. But it’s probably easier to try that tightrope act with basketball geniuses around.
“I think we’re really smart,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry Sunday. “Our starting five, our group overall IQ, is really high. I think our starting five might be honestly up there with any other starting five, IQ-wise. Honestly.
“It gives us an advantage to be able to figure it out, and be able to communicate it. We’re able to communicate what we want to do, verbally and physically, a lot easier.”
As the Sixers spent their Sunday figuring out how to stop the two Raptors who combined for 74 points on 38 field-goal attempts in Game 1 — what a strange sentence for a Toronto basketball fan to read — the intelligence of this particular Raptors unit might be their greatest collective strength as they hope to go deeper than any Toronto team before.
“It helps a lot,” said head coach Nick Nurse, who has been experimenting with combinations and coverages and sets all season, with his mix-and-match crew. “It’s a very intelligent, very experienced group. You see it not only in the game but you see it on days like today. The film session’s very … it’s meant to be improvement time.
“It’s not us just telling them, it’s us working together, and there’s a lot of good ideas. Our coaching staff’s ears are open, there’s an exchange of ideas, because these guys have been through hundreds of games and lots of playoff runs and all those kinds of things.”
He was asked if this team’s IQ and defensive ability is rare, in combination. He said, “I hope we can get to rare.”
It’s not that the Raptors don’t make mistakes. Point guard Fred VanVleet said the film session revealed several, especially defensively, on a night they gave up just 95 points to a team that was eighth in offensive efficiency this season. He said, “I don’t want to say we went through the motions, but there were some lapses you can’t really have and we were just bailed out by two guys having great offensive nights.”
The key with this team is that they don’t usually repeat the same mistakes. There was no one effective strategy or action that Philadelphia found and kept using beyond J.J. Redick getting loose for some threes, because the Raptors kept solving problems with length and brains. Watch how they switch and recover on Joel Embiid, or Jimmy Butler; watch the help when Sixers enter the lane, only to find a thicket of swarming Raptors in the right place, swiping at the ball or walling off the basket, waiting to take a charge.
It’s a competitive advantage. Lowry has always been a next-level basketball brain, doing analytics in real time; as one NBA executive said the other day, “He just recognizes situations faster than most people do.” Danny Green is all veteran savvy, and Siakam is a savant. VanVleet is Lowry-esque, in that he didn’t get this far because he will jump over you, or slice by. But he’s got a future-head-coach brain.
“I think every guy out there kind of understands what we are trying to do, what the other team is trying to do, and it’s just a matter of executing what the coaches put together for us, and going out there and doing it well and doing it right,” said VanVleet. “You know, you gotta make plays this time of year, and as long as you’re in the right spot, and where you are supposed to be, most times that will take care of most of it for you.”
And of course, the two biggest additions to this year’s Raptors. Marc Gasol is a relative lumberer in a league full of runners — as Charles Barkley once said at an NBA draft, “They run like deer, they jump like deer and they think like deer” — but he’s still a half-star at 34 because he’s a next-level thinker, with his hands and his feet. Often when Embiid pump-faked, spun and used his elite giant agility to create space, Gasol read him like a good book, and met him with force. Gasol’s analysis of how the Raptors could be better after Game 1 was, “Just being more mindful.”
And Leonard was simply a human decoder ring, assessing angles and floor balance with deadly efficiency. They’re all usually in the right spot. It’s a hell of a thing to have.
“You’ve got two defensive player of the year guys on your team,” said Lowry. “Them knowing opponents, studying opponents, studying habits, knowing the rotations, being there, it makes it a lot easier to help and talk and not have to do this and that, make sure we have a coverage. We switch it, we can do this, we can do that, on the fly really easy.”
Lowry said being able to lock into one team has helped, because the tasks are simpler. Still, the 76ers will present different problems, game to game; so will every team after them, should Toronto advance. If they can hack their way to Golden State, assuming the Warriors get there again, that would be the problem nobody has really solved.
Still, the Raptors have basketball geniuses in the lab. Let’s watch them work.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur