NBA Playoffs: Even with Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic, Raptors' and Nuggets' Game 7 fates will rest on shooters
Denver and Toronto have been erratic from long range, but they must let it fly with their respective seasons on the line
The cliche is that Game 7 is about the little things: box-outs, loose balls, executing the game plan and limiting mistakes. By definition, the teams must be evenly matched. There is no mystery when it comes to game plans and tendencies. The winner is often the team that is slightly sharper.
That often holds true, but in the two win-or-go-home games coming up on Sunday, an even more fundamental variable looms large: shooting. The fates of the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors are tied to their ability to support their superstars by knocking down 3-pointers.
Nikola Jokic has averaged 26.8 points, 14.0 rebounds and 8.7 assists against the Portland Trail Blazers, with a 64.3 percent true shooting percentage. Kawhi Leonard has averaged 33.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists against the Philadelphia 76ers, with a 67.7 percent true shooting percentage. They have been two of the best and most consistent players in the playoffs, and it would be shocking if either of them underperformed with the season on the line. It would not be surprising, however, if their opponents decided to do everything in their power to get the ball out of their hands, essentially betting that their teammates won't come through.
This is risky business. I have already written columns expressing skepticism about the Blazers' willingness to double-team Jokic and the Sixers' comfort level watching Toronto launch wide-open 3-pointers. Mason Plumlee is the only player in the Nuggets' rotation who can't shoot 3s, and the Raptors became the league's most accurate 3-point-shooting team after they acquired Marc Gasol. Portland and Philadelphia, however, have been successful enough playing this way to have a chance to get to the conference finals, as both No. 2 seeds have been erratic from long range. At the risk of oversimplification, consider this:
- In Denver's second-round wins, the foursome of Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Torrey Craig and Malik Beasley shot a combined 20-for-49 (40.8 percent) on 3s. In its losses, they shot a combined 20-for-62 (32.3 percent).
- In Toronto's second-round wins, the foursome of Danny Green, Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry shot a combined 23-for-60 (38.3) percent on 3s. In its losses, they shot a combined 16-for-61 (26.2 percent).
The Nuggets and Raptors are surely hoping the aphorism that role players shoot better at home holds true. They would also appreciate it if the stars aligned for Gary Harris (who is 6-for-26 from deep in the series) and Serge Ibaka (0-for-9, oof). When a single game means everything, the law of averages means nothing. Golden State Warriors wing Andre Iguodala made only a third of his 3-point attempts in the regular season, but went 5-for-8 on Friday. The Houston Rockets might say that they were correct to help off of him and close out to him late, but that will be cold comfort this offseason without another chance to prove it.
Based on how these series have played out and the conventional wisdom that the pressure of a Game 7 lends itself to ugly, physical, low-scoring affairs, it makes sense that the Blazers and Sixers would at least make Jokic and Leonard see multiple bodies at the outset. If they are punished with 3s, they can adjust accordingly. If they are not, there is a good chance they will advance, leaving Denver and Toronto to curse the basketball gods.
"They double-teamed him almost every time tonight," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after a 97-90 loss in Game 2, lamenting that his team had missed 23 of their 29 3-point attempts. "And when you put two on the ball and you can't make them pay by making shots, it's going to be really effective defense."
Malone's implication -- that Portland's defense wouldn't have looked so good if his team had just converted open shots -- is valid, but all those misses can have a psychological effect. Players feel it when an opposing team's coverage communicates that it does not respect their shooting. This is even more acute in the playoffs, and if you start to hesitate or doubt yourself, the defense has already won.
Much has been made of Joel Embiid's defense against the Raptors. Philadelphia's star center is one of the best rim protectors in the NBA, and he has an advanced understanding of how to contain pick-and-rolls. Those attributes, however, do not by themselves account for the outrageous on/off numbers he has posted while playing through an injury and multiple illnesses. In his 192 minutes, the Sixers have outscored Toronto by 80 points with a 94.2 defensive rating; in the 96 minutes Philadelphia has played without him, it has been outscored by 97 points with a 119.1 defensive rating.
Some of this enormous variance is because Embiid is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and the Sixers have a glaring backup-center problem. It is this extreme, however, because the Raptors have shot 26.9 percent on 3s with him on the court and 38.2 percent with him on the bench -- no other Philadelphia player has had this kind of correlation with their shooting. This prompts a question: Is Embiid, a notoriously paint-bound player, really affecting Toronto's 3s, or are they just not going in?
The regular season suggests that it is the latter, as the Sixers' opponents shot 34.4 percent from deep with Embiid on the court and 34.0 percent from deep with him off the court. Reviewing the film backs that up: Embiid was an extraordinary plus-40 in Game 6, but his reluctance to venture to the perimeter directly led to many of the Raptors' clean looks. Philadelphia dominated not only because Toronto wasted good possessions by shooting 9-for-36 from deep, but because of the ripple effects of all those misses.
"We just missed so many shots early, and they were just playing off the rebound so often," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after Game 6. "They were getting them off the rebound and pushing it out on us. We were not doing a great job in transition and, when we did, we end up cross-matched a little bit and they made us pay for those. And then when we did make them miss, they were getting their share of put-backs as well. So, kind of three things going there that [were] somewhat attributed to our poor shooting."
On Sunday's TV broadcasts, you will hear coaches, players and analysts talk about the importance of toughness in do-or-die situations. Indeed, Game 7s are typically intense, hard-fought and physically demanding, but they are also challenging mentally. Shooting is where that is most palpable. If you haven't been having a great series or you missed your last shot, will you pass up shots when you catch the ball in rhythm? Are you able to block out the crowd noise, the score and the stakes? For Denver and Toronto, making it to the next round is not about figuring out how to counter their opponents' defensive schemes. They know exactly what they are supposed to do, but they must stay in the moment, play with freedom and shoot with conviction.
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