PHILADELPHIA -- Both the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers arrived in the 2019 postseason with a deep belief that their respective five-man starting units featured the collective talent to deliver them to the NBA Finals.
Each lineup features a combination of young, homegrown supernovas, recent big-ticket acquisitions and savvy veteran role players. Both units excelled in their limited time together: The Sixers outscored opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions with Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid on the floor in the regular season, and the Raptors were 12.2 points per 100 possessions better in the regular season with Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol.
Yet each starting unit is also a relatively unknown entity. Both the Sixers and Raptors starters played only 161 minutes together -- there are movies in wide release with a longer running time. In a league that worships continuity, where championship teams often appear to be telepathic, 161 minutes is hardly enough time to master basic coverages, let alone solidify the kind of rhythm required to win NBA titles.
After sputtering offensively during the first two games of the teams' Eastern Conference semifinals series, the Philly Phive arrived in Game 3 with an emphatic performance, propelling the Sixers' 116-95 win over the Raptors. In their 18 minutes together, they outscored the Raptors 44-32, good for a net rating of 32.5 points per 100 possessions while dominating both ends of the court. Over the course of the action Thursday night, each member of that unit exhibited the best elements of his game.
"When we come down to the offensive end, the evolution of Jimmy [Butler] with the ball, or posting Jo [Embiid], or utilizing Ben [Simmons], bringing JJ [Redick] off screens, making sure Tobias [Harris] -- you know, who can score a bunch of different ways -- is used," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "I think it's evolving."
The 76ers now leads the series 2-1, with Game 4 scheduled for Sunday in Philadelphia at 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC).
Philadelphia's starting lineup has undergone a rapid and dramatic change in personnel and approach. When they started to make noise last season with Embiid, Simmons, Redick, along with defensive stopper Robert Covington and versatile big man Dario Saric, the Sixers were the most unorthodox unit in the NBA. Most NBA teams rely on the high pick-and-roll as the staple of their diet, but the Sixers featured a trifurcated playbook: post calls for Embiid, choreographed sets predicated on movement designed to get shots for the likes of Redick, and a down-your-throat transition attack as often as possible.
All that changed when the Sixers swapped Covington and Saric for Butler early in the season, then added Harris at the trade deadline. Butler and Harris were more prolific scorers with conventional games, and each needs possession of the ball to maximize his effectiveness, Butler in particular. At times during the regular season, the fit was fussy, with players, coaches and management acknowledging as much. Butler and Embiid are often most comfortable as solo practitioners; Simmons can be problematic off the ball in the half court; Redick relies on movement; Harris was another newbie who often likes mismatch basketball.
Game 3 was evidence that there's no reason any unit with the Sixers' talent, no matter how odd the fit might seem on the surface, can succeed over 48 minutes. In many respects, the Sixers still feature that trifurcated offense -- the Sixers delineate those buckets now as "Pace, Post and Rub." And all three buckets overflowed with goodness Thursday night.
Pace: The Sixers didn't generate a ton of transition opportunities in Game 3 but were quite effective on the nine chances they enjoyed. Redick, who is getting the ball a bit less in the half court since the arrivals of Butler and Harris, fanned out to the wing and drilled a couple of 3-pointers. Simmons, forever the catalyst in Philadelphia's transition attack, pushed the ball selectively, a few times after Raptors made buckets. Harris runs like a deer in the open floor, and pressures defenses.
Post: This will never be Philadelphia's most efficient offense, but Embiid appeared more comfortable in Game 3 working against Gasol, against whom he struggled in Toronto. In Embiid's nine direct post-ups, the Sixers scored eight points.
"We talked about getting big fella [Joel Embiid] the ball and making him make a lot of plays," Butler said. "Obviously, he is a force to be reckoned with, especially when he is making trey balls like he does, but then attacking the rim at the same time. I think that's how we've got to play, you know: You get the ball to him, he's going to score, make the right play."
Harris is a more modern power forward but loves nothing more than posting up guards, which he did on four occasions in the first half for four points.
Rub: Phonetically, "Pace, Post and Rub" has a nice ring to it, but for connotation, rub refers to the majority of the actions the Sixers run in the half court. Rubs include the dribble-handoff action between Embiid and Redick the Sixers have run so effectively over the past two seasons, though they have dropped in frequency.
More prominently, the Sixers have started to run the most common of all NBA playcalls: The good ol' middle pick-and-roll. This is how Butler likes to work, and Embiid is a reasonably effective dance partner (both Butler and Embiid -- and teammates on the court -- are more efficient players when Embiid actually rolls hard). Harris is an underrated ball handler in the pick-and-roll, and flashed glimpses of that in Game 3.
Embiid is unlikely to convert 75 percent of his 3-pointers as he did Thursday night en route to 33 points in 28 minutes. But little else about Philadelphia's offensive package looks like an outlier. By protecting the ball (13 turnovers is a number with which the error-prone Sixers can live), controlling the glass, and getting Embiid to the line, there should be plenty of possessions for the Sixers to spread the love.
Prior to the arrivals of Butler and Harris, the Sixers were an exceptional defensive team even before they were a good offensive one. Losing Covington, one of the NBA's most effective defenders, came at a cost. But Philadelphia's current personnel still gives the versatility to confound opponents -- Toronto's confusion has been on full display the past two games. Fittingly, Philadelphia's starting five overtook Toronto's starters as the most productive unit in the NBA this postseason. The Sixers have now outscored the competition by a gaudy 34.5 points per 100 possessions.
After the game, both Butler and Embiid insisted that chemistry is an overrated virtue. They took objection to the notion a team just getting to know one another can't fully master the tasks of common-sense basketball and win big.
"The way we've been adjusting and the way we've been playing together, I still feel like we have so much potential, especially with Tobias [Harris], Ben [Simmons], JJ [Redick]," Embiid said. "Chemistry is overrated. When you have great basketball players on the floor, it's easy. It's not that complicated. We all -- we're passers, we play slow, we're so unselfish. We understand that it's all about moving the ball."