Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 107-95 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
One — Perseverance: Even with Joel Embiid out and Josh Richardson pulling a hamstring early on, this was by no means an easy win. The Raptors were completely out of sorts in the first half, committing breakdown after breakdown on defense and were lucky to enter halftime with the game tied. They didn’t get going until late in the third but finished strong with sturdy defense and clutch shot making in the fourth. It’s not necessarily a fair fight with Philadelphia missing two starters, but those same circumstances didn’t deter the Raptors in their first meeting with the Sixers at Scotiabank Arena.
Two — Clutch: Fred VanVleet is the definition of a player with ice in his veins. He had a response each time the Raptors got stuck in the mud. In the first half, he hit an acrobatic layup and pulled up for three after the Sixers got up double digits. He hit back-to-back threes and worked a pint-sized pick-and-roll with Kyle Lowry for a layup to end the third. In the fourth, when the Sixers were fading, VanVleet peaked with three dagger triples that closed out the game. The third make — a pull-up three to put the Raptors up 13 — brought the home crowd into a delirium.
Three — Surprise: The Sixers are an entirely different team without Embiid, for better and for worse. With Embiid they are a throwback team from the 1990’s predicated on shutting down the rim and punishing mismatches for paint baskets. Without him, it’s a slash-and-kick attack built for Ben Simmons to play the role of Giannis Antetokounmpo (except he’s really no Giannis). The Sixers caught the Raptors by surprise tonight, as they attempted 46 threes (nearly double their season average) and it took time for the defense to adjust. Once they caught on by shifting their resources to contesting threes instead of stacking the lane the Raptors were much better. Philly only mustered 60 points the rest of the way after exploding for 35 in the first quarter.
Four — Alert: It was strange to see the second-ranked defense commit so many errors early. Most of them were a product of miscommunication and the Sixers burned them with a handful of threes. The Raptors only locked in after Nick Nurse called for a zone late in the second quarter as a way to almost force his players into communicating and being responsible for one another. The Raptors immediately took a charge, and forced Simmons into a bad pass turnover.
Five — Frustrated: This was a roller coaster ride for Pascal Siakam, who is clearly not at 100 percent since missing nearly a month with a groin injury. Even without his fellow countryman in Embiid around to protect the rim, Siakam struggled to score on the Sixers. He shot a miserable 8-of-23 from the field, and despite stubbornly attacking the rim he only got two free throws. Having said that, Siakam found a way to contribute by dialing up his intensity on defense in the second half and that effort is best characterized by his 15 rebounds. Siakam needs to be better about playing against contact (Lowry could teach him a few tricks on tricking the officials) but it was good to see him maintain his focus. He’s too important to pull away from the game, even when he’s having an off-night scoring.
Six — Tight: Three-point shooting has been an issue for Siakam of late. He’s 5-of-25 since his return, as compared to 39 percent prior to his injury. Siakam saw two threes rim out in the fourth, but worst of all he turned down a wide-open looks in the third quarter in favor of driving into multiple defenders and having his shot blocked. His jumper hasn’t even been consistent in warm-ups, and it’s worth monitoring moving forward. His scoring becomes infinitely more difficult when he can’t get the outside shot to fall.
Seven — Jumbo: Nurse played extended minutes with his dual-center lineup of Marc Gasol alongside Serge Ibaka. The biggest advantage is just having size on the floor, where there isn’t as much need to double team in the post to protect against mismatches, and having that second dimension of rim protection. This lineup works especially well against the Sixers, as they’re an average team outside of having a size advantage over most opponents.
Eight — Sharp: Gasol was the main reason the Raptors stayed within striking distance. He was their best player in the first half and remains at his best as a port in a storm. Gasol made two turnaround jumpers out of the post, and he continues to show improved balance on that shot after missing it each time before the layoff. Gasol also hit open threes and created the only easy offense for Siakam on the night by orchestrating for a pair of surgical cuts in the third quarter.
Nine — Decision: Even with Gasol balling out, Nurse still chose to close with Ibaka, which was absolutely the right decision. Ibaka has always played well against Al Horford, as his size and mobility negates much of what makes Horford so effective. Ibaka provided timely help defense at the rim, nailed a clutch three, and swung the momentum of the game by poking the ball free on the perimeter leading to an and-one dunk in transition. Having both Ibaka and Gasol at center is an incredible luxury, as the two combined for 33 points on 13-of-16 shooting.
Ten — Issue: It’s hardly surprising that the Sixers wilted in crunch time given that they really have no closer. Simmons is great in an open and free-flowing game, but can he deliver in crunch time? He certainly doesn’t have a go-to move at his disposal besides jumping for a bail-out pass. Tobias Harris is a fine player, but he doesn’t have the handle to create enough of his own offense. Horford is a nice facilitator, but he’s probably the fourth option once Embiid comes back. Last year’s Sixers had Jimmy Butler to create at the end of games and he single-handedly won games in last year’s playoffs, and there was always the chaos that accompanied J.J. Redick. Those threats are gone this year and it’s going to limit the Sixers, who will have to win games with their defense.
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