TORONTO — The Sixers were in desperation mode.
Kawhi Leonard roasted them in Game 1 and going home down 2-0 would’ve put them in a dubious spot.
Instead, they looked like a totally different team in stealing Game 2 in thrilling fashion, 94-89, over the Raptors to even the series Monday night at Scotiabank Arena.
The win was the Sixers’ first victory in Toronto since Nov. 10, 2012, snapping a 14-game losing streak in this building. Their defense was on another level as they held the Raptors to just 36.3 percent shooting from the field and survived furious third and fourth quarter flurries by Toronto.
The series continues at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday night for Game 3.
Here are observations from the win.
• There were obvious and fair questions about Ben Simmons’ offense against Kawhi Leonard coming into this series.
But the story through two games has been Simmons’ defense on Leonard. In Game 1, Leonard was ridiculous, but was only 4 of 9 when guarded by Simmons. Simmons’ length continued to be a problem for Leonard in Game 2 and it was clear Brett Brown had adjusted his game plan.
The Sixers doubled Leonard on his post touches, forcing him to make quicker decisions and not just pound the basketball. Leonard was still good, but he didn’t go nuts. He had 17 points in the first quarter of Game 1 and had 15 points in the entire first half of Game 2.
Leonard is really freaking good and still got his, going for 35 points, but at least the Sixers didn’t let him go crazy.
• In general, the Sixers’ help defense was markedly improved from Game 1. They talked a lot about showing Leonard and Pascal Siakam a crowd. They did that from the opening tip in this one. It was also an interesting wrinkle to see Joel Embiid guard fellow Cameroonian Siakam. Siakam was just 3 of 11 for seven points before the break. He was 7 of 9 for 17 points in the first quarter Saturday night. He finished 9 of 25 for 21 points.
It also appeared like any time the Sixers got an unfavorable matchup on Leonard or Siakam, both players saw another defender come their way. Again, credit goes to Brown. All the talk of adjustments after a dismal Game 1 wasn’t hollow.
The Raptors scored 39 points in the first quarter of Game 1. They had 38 at halftime Monday night.
• There was also a lot of talk about moving the basketball better and the first few possessions weren’t promising in that regard. Then good ball movement opened up Jimmy Butler for a couple threes and suddenly things seemed to open up. They had 14 assists on 16 made field goals in the first half and finished with 22 on 30 makes.
• It was good to see Butler looking for his own shot. He had a team-high 13 points at the half on 4 of 9 shooting. When the Raptors were making their run in the third quarter, a couple timely buckets from Butler helped stem the tide just a little. And with Toronto going on a run late in the fourth to cut the lead to four, Butler nailed a huge three after Embiid found him out of a double team.
Butler was just 9 of 22 from the floor, but he was the team’s best player Monday. He recorded 12 of his 30 points in the fourth. He also had 11 rebounds and five assists.
• Whether it was the achy knee, his fitness level, Marc Gasol’s defense or the gastroenteritis, Embiid continued to struggle offensively. He didn’t even have a field-goal attempt in the first quarter. He was 0 for 1 in the first half with four turnovers.
One thing it looked like the Sixers can do against Gasol is get him in the pick-and-roll and get him on the move. He has the length and mass to hang with Embiid, but he doesn’t have the feet to keep pace with him.
Embiid’s numbers weren’t pretty, but he was strong defensively throughout and came up with a huge basket off a nice spin move with 24.3 seconds left. He has just 12 points on 2 of 7 shooting.
• Rebounds and turnovers continue to be two big storylines. The Sixers had a massive rebounding advantage but continue to turn the ball over at an alarming rate. They held a 33-13 edge on the glass, but they turned the ball over 13 times in the first half. They turned the ball over seven times after halftime and killed the Raptors on the glass overall, 53-36.
• Another adjustment Brown made was essentially going to a seven-man rotation — with a little Jonah Bolden sprinkled in — and using Greg Monroe as the first big off the bench.
It was an interesting thing for Brown to do, but man, Monroe actually gave them some really strong minutes. He made at least three strong defensive plays in the first half and hit the offensive glass like a man possessed. He’s also a strong roller. When Monroe sprained his ankle in the third quarter and Brown had to turn to Boban Marjanovic, things got ugly. It’s unfortunate that Monroe had to stay out because he gave them a spark.
James Ennis was strong off the bench for the second game in a row. He was active and scored 12 first-half points. He looks like a guy that’s been here before. You can’t overstate how good he was in making a bunch of winning plays.
As for the rookie Bolden, it was a much better run than his first playoff action against Brooklyn.
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