Monday’s Playoff Essentials

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Eastern Conference Semifinals – Game 2 -- Raptors lead 1-0
No. 3 Philadelphia at No. 2 Toronto (-6.5/220.5), TNT, 8:05 p.m. ET
April 27 - Raptors (-6.5) 108 vs. 76ers 95 (Under 227)

Feb. 5 - Raptors (+2.5) 119 at 76ers 107 (Under 231)
Dec. 22 – 76ers (-7.5) 126 vs. Raptors 101 (Over 222.5)
Dec. 5 - Raptors (-6.5) 113 vs. 76ers 102 (Under 229)
Oct. 30 - Raptors (-6) 129 vs. 76ers 112 (Over 227.5)

Kawhi Leonard has taken his game to another level, which should have a lot of the NBA excited.

He might be leaving Toronto this summer anyway, but prevailing sentiment is that he’d likely have an easier time doing it after winning a championship. The Raptors have 11 victories to get in order to hang a banner and would win the East for the first time if they pick up seven more. It’s no secret to Raptors fans that those wins get increasingly difficult to secure but they’re all starting to see how valuable employing guys who have done it before can be. Dealing DeMar DeRozan for a Leonard rental also secured the services of Danny Green, who has an NBA and NCAA title under his belt and has quickly endeared himself to Toronto with his defense and winning mentality.

Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the 76ers saw both Leonard and Green impose their will masterfully. Leonard was dominant, posting 45 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 16-for-23 from the field. Green had just seven points and three rebounds but irked J.J. Redick and bloodied his mouth, continuing to set the tone that this is going to be a long series for Philadelphia.

Unlike Boston and Milwaukee, which have a core that has been together multiple years, both of the semifinalists in this Eastern Conference matchup are relatively new to one another. Saturday’s Game 1 marked the first time the divisional foes had even crossed paths with Tobias Harris and Marc Gasol in the mix. The first meeting didn’t include Jimmy Butler, while Leonard missed a game as well.

Despite this, Saturday’s series opener was no feeling out process. At least not on the Raptors’ end. Leonard was too much for both Butler and Harris, while likely Most Improved Player winner Pascal Siakam missed only three of his 15 shots, finishing with 29 points and seven boards.

No Philadelphia player scored more than Redick’s 17 points and only Simmons (7-for-8) shot above 50 percent among the team’s star-studded starting lineup. The problem with that was that Simmons didn’t bother to take any shots from the perimeter, allowing the Raps to sag and clog the paint in addition to shading coverages on to others. Gasol, who has a history of success defending Joel Embiid, impressively thrived in their individual matchup, holding the league’s top big man to 5-for-18 shooting while finishing a team-best plus-29.

Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry shot just 4-for-10 but played a masterful floor game in finishing with a team-high eight assists and keeping the ball moving. Lowry is leading this postseason in raw plus-minus and finished a plus-25 on Saturday despite dealing with a finger issue after a dislocation in Game 5 against Orlando.

Simmons shot 63 percent from the field during the regular season, averaging 16.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists, so he’s the player most likely to have a big performance in Game 2 to lift the 76ers’ level. In case you didn’t watch the series opener, the final score didn’t properly indicate how thoroughly Philadelphia was dominated since they trailed by as many as 20 points and didn’t lead after the 8:41 mark of the opening quarter. The game featured a 70-point first quarter and a 60-point third but slowed down significantly in the second and fourth.

Even though the Game 1 outcome went comfortably ‘under’ the closing total of 223, bettors leaning to the low side weren’t that confident after the first 12 minutes and they were getting ready to sweat again heading into the final quarter.

“Anybody who had the ‘over’ in Game 1 were all smiles early,” said NBA expert Chris David. “While the 43-point effort by the pair wasn’t great in the second, the teams rebounded for a 60-spot in the third and you only needed 51 points in the fourth quarter to go ‘over’ the number. Sure enough, bettors riding the high side didn’t even get treated with a possible win as Toronto outscored Philadelphia 16-14 in the final 12 minutes.

“Fast Forward to Monday and the books lowered the total to 219 ½ for Game 2 and that was quickly pushed up to 220 ½. This is the lowest number posted in their meetings this season and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the numbers drop as the series continues. Even though Game 1 had two great quarters of offense, the Raptors defense (92.5 PPG) has been lights out in this year’s playoffs and that effort has helped the ‘under’ go 5-1. The length of Toronto is a tough matchup for anybody and the addition of Leonard and Gasol has given the club an extra edge. The 76ers did score 145 points after losing Game 1 to the Nets but I don’t see that happening on Monday. Rather, I’m expecting more of the same and would lean to the Philadelphia Team Total Under (107) again in Game 2.”

Make a note that Philadelphia has now dropped 14 straight games at Scotiabank Arena and it only busted the century mark five times, with 112 and 114 being the most points scored.

The Raptors have seen the biggest drop in pace from their regular-season numbers to what they’ve done so far in the playoffs. After playing the Nets in the highest-paced first-round series, Philly came into this conference semifinal round tops in pace after finishing eighth during the regular season.

Toronto continued its trend of being at its best in the first and third quarters, imposing its will in both. Forward Mike Scott remains out for Philadelphia with a heel injury, taking a matchup problem out of the equation since he’d been so effective down the stretch and in the first round. Furkan Korkmaz is back in the fold. It appears Brett Brown is exploring he and Jonah Bolden splitting Scott’s minutes.

The ‘under’ is on a 6-1 run in Raptors games and has prevailed in each of the last three contests involving the 76ers. The series shifts to Philly for Game 3 on Thursday.

Western Conference Semifinals – Game 1
No. 3 Portland at No. 2 Denver (-4/216), TNT, 10:35 p.m. ET
April 7 – Blazers (-8.5) 115 vs. Nuggets 108 (Under 219.5)
April 5 – Nuggets (-6) 119 vs. Blazers 110 (Over 216)
Jan. 13 – Nuggets (-4.5) 116 vs. Blazers 113 (Over 217)
Nov. 30 – Nuggets (+1.5) 113 at Blazers 112 (Over 214)

These teams know each other awfully well, having just played twice in the regular-season’s final week while following one another all year since they ended up finishing 1-2 in the loaded Northwest Division. Damian Lillard shot 3-for-14 the last time he stepped out on to the Pepsi Center, contributing greatly to the Blazers ultimately finishing a game off the pace as Denver clinched the Northwest for the first time since 2010 with a 119-110 win. That was his last rough outing, as he comes into this Game 1 on the heels of a 50-point night and epic series-clinching 3-pointer over Paul George’s outstretched arms to pull Oklahoma City’s heart out of its chest and send it packing.

He made that shot late last Tuesday, barely an hour after the Nuggets went up 3-2 on San Antonio that same evening. Denver has since lost at the Spurs and pulled off a Game 7 home win on Saturday night, so there’s no doubt who the fresher team in this series opener should be. We’ll see if the Trail Blazers can find their rhythm on the road early on after an extended break, but they should have the edge down the stretch.

Portland center Enes Kanter has been dealing with a shoulder issue suffered against the Thunder but was shooting around in practice on Sunday and is expected to play despite being listed as questionable. The midseason acquisition who was signed after being waived by the Knicks played a huge role against Oklahoma City and will be the x-factor here since he’ll be expected to do his best against Nuggets star Nikola Jokic. Kanter has been wearing padding over his left shoulder, so we’ll see whether he’s limited in any way. As a righty, the injury shouldn’t affect his shooting motion but could factor in what he can do comfortably in the post and whether he’ll be at a disadvantage blocking out or defending in the post.

Jokic sat out the most recent meeting against Kanter and the Trail Blazers but finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists in the division-clincher, scoring 10 points in the fourth as Denver pulled away for a comeback win by finishing the final 12 minutes with a 35-23 edge. The Nuggets won the regular-series 3-1, pulling off the lone road victory. NBA expert Kevin Rogers looks for homecourt advantage to play a large role in deciding a winner.

“This series has been owned by the home team as it seems like whoever wins even one road game will advance to the Western Conference Finals. There isn’t a lot of confidence in either team to win on the highway as the Blazers own a dreadful 2-16 mark away from the Moda Center in the playoffs dating back to 2014,” Rogers said. “Yes, one of those victories came at Oklahoma City in Game 4 of the first round, but the Blazers have dropped five consecutive visits to Denver. The Nuggets have lost 14 of their past 16 road playoff games since 2010, including a 1-2 mark against San Antonio in the opening round.”

Lillard played in all four meetings against Denver, averaging 21.3 points but shooting just 37 percent from the field and 28.6 from 3-point range. We shouldn’t see the same level of contempt he had for Russell Westbrook since there hasn’t been much bad blood against Denver’s backcourt despite the familiarity. Jamal Murray averaged 19 points in the three games he played but shot just 30.8 percent from 3-point range himself.

It will be interesting to see which set of forwards, Denver’s Paul Millsap and Torrey Craig or Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless, will impose their will. The bench should also play a large role since the Nuggets have former Blazer Will Barton making a difference since joining the second unit in the first round against OKC, teaming with point guard Monte Morris and shooter Malik Beasley to alter the course of games. The Blazers will be led by Evan Turner, Rodney Hood and Seth Curry. Game 2 will be Wednesday night in Denver.

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