Unveiled moments before the game like a long-held state secret, Joel Embiid did play in Toronto on Saturday for the first time. And after the first few minutes of action, it looked like we were all in for a long game. Embiid scored in the post, from beyond the arc, while driving down the lane — he had eight points in the opening frame, took all of the team’s shots in the first few minutes, and truly was doing it all.
But the Raptors refused to be bullied by the force of Embiid’s game or personality. With some strong performances from more than one player, they eventually ran away with the game 102-86 for their 12th win in 13 games, and tenth in a row at home. Merry Christmas, indeed.
To kick things off, it was Serge Ibaka attacking the rim, hitting threes, and making the pair of Ben Simmons and Dario Saric work. As the Embiid-before-Embiid, Ibaka finished the game with 17 points, six rebounds, and a block. The signs of life he’s showing now — including some loud ribbing of DeMar DeRozan afterwards — are fantastic to see. For an exclamation point on the evening, Ibaka gave it his all:
Naturally, DeRozan took the baton from Ibaka and kept things rolling into the choppy second and third quarters. DeRozan finished with 29 points on 9-of-20 shooting, with his usual mix of drives, jumpers, and free throws. He also had five rebounds, and two assists. And DeRozan also continued his wonderful shooting from deep, going 4-of-7 from 3-point range in this one to pace the Raptors in key moments. DeRozan insists it’s a shot he’s always worked on, but his comfort and confidence with the three right now are really something.
Speaking of that which is something, Delon Wright is giving the Raptors some special work right now. The third-year guard, fresh off of a scary shoulder injury, has now helped turn the tide in two straight games against Philly. In this one, Wright had 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting (including 1-of-2) from deep, but it was his play off the ball that really mattered. On defense, Wright is a holy terror, pressuring guys like the bigger Simmons and Saric (Delon managed to block one of his 3-point attempts), while getting his hands on any pass in his vicinity. When paired with Pascal Siakam, who was active if not always effective, the Raptors cause havoc on defense. (And this is to say nothing of adding OG Anunoby to the mix; a quiet game from the rookie today, but the potential continues to be there.)
For the Sixers, it just felt like they were talented enough to be dangerous, but just undisciplined enough to give the game away. Fourteen first half turnovers hurt (they finished with 22 in total), and they managed to shoot a mere 41 percent from the field, and 26 percent from deep. Still, for much of the first half they were right there, down by six points or so. While both Saric and Simmons had their moments, with 17 and 10 points respectively, the Raptors threw enough looks at them to keep them out of their comfort zones, and the game out of reach.
Meanwhile, despite a strong start from Embiid, the big centre faded down the stretch and didn’t see much action in the second half. (It’s clear some sort of minutes restriction was in effect by then.) He was also having trouble responding to the Raptors’ quick double teams in the post — particularly when Fred VanVleet went in their digging for the ball. The 14-point, 8-rebound night from Embiid was sound, but not enough — which is something of a theme for this crumbling Sixers squad. Dwane Casey may believe they are a dangerous team, and they may play like it at times, but it’s clear the Sixers have a way to go.
And that continues to be the difference for the Raptors, as they continue to boost their record and play fun and good basketball. When one guy is slumping, say a slow start from Kyle Lowry (who finished with a quiet 12 points and five assists), or an 0-for night from Anunoby and FVV, there are others to pick up the slack. Every recap I write mentions the chip ins from Jonas Valanciunas (12 and 6), or Norman Powell (a punchy 13-minute performance), and it feels like every night is a little bit different. The Raptors rolled 11 deep tonight — with even Malcolm Miller getting a few minutes at the end — and are trying, and finding, all kinds of different ways to play their game.
But really, that’s the best part: every night is not so different because the outcome is often the same — it ends with a win.