After a stomping of the Cavs and an epic comeback attempt against the best team in basketball on Saturday night, the Raptors could be forgiven for having a bit of a hangover on a Monday afternoon in Philadelphia. The Raptors came out like a drunk staggering out of the bedroom on Saturday looking for a hair-of-the-dog. After all, what’s a Raptors game without spotting an opponent a huge first half lead before mounting an epic comeback that comes up just short? Philadelphia was rested coming off blowing a huge lead to Boston in London, and they would soon prove that that result (on both sides) was no fluke. This time though, the Sixers would hang on to win 117-111.
The Sixers took charge early, never conceding the lead. If anything, the first quarter of this game resembled the game against the Warriors — a pitiful, low-effort effort that left the Raptors looking up at their opponents. On Saturday, it was the Warriors’ excellent shot-making and offensive vision that carved the Raptors to bits, but against Philly the script seemed to be flipped, as the Raps offense stalled out against the 76ers’ stifling defense.
Despite an early flurry of offense from Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto simply had no answer for Joel Embiid inside. Once the Sixers clogged the paint and Jonas picked up a few ticky-tack fouls, the 76ers used ball movement and inside-outside shooting to pull ahead of a Raptors team that seemed incapable of scoring outside of the ten feet directly around the basket. The Raps failed to connect on a single three before halftime and Kyle Lowry, making his return from injury, looked to be a bit tentative on his drives and his shot was unsurprisingly rusty.
Most of all, the Raps struggled with a barrage of turnovers and bad possessions that ended in blocks or bricky misses (39.5% overall shooting at halftime). The sloppy basketball culminated in a DeMar DeRozan turnover with 5:55 left in the second quarter which was immediately followed by a hard foul and a double-technical (that was admittedly a little generous to the Raptors). While a short late flurry cut the lead to 10 by halftime, the Raptors went into the break having been solidly outplayed. Almost everyone had posted a negative plus-minus through the first half, with Fred VanVleet the only exception (at a robust +2).
Things didn’t immediately get any better in the third. Philadelphia continued to build on the lead, and it was only a mid-quarter burst of energy from Pascal Siakam that seemed to offer Toronto any hope of life at all. By the end of the quarter, the lead was 18, and the Raptors looked dead in the water. Lowry was but a meagre 1-of-11 from the floor, and the total lack of a three-point shot was really crushing any hope of a comeback. If Thursday’s game vs Cleveland showed what Toronto can do when they splash their threes, this game demonstrated what happens when they don’t. Though Philly wasn’t all that much better, the Raps offense really got caught in the mud when they fell behind. The Raptors’ frustration continued to build, as Dwane Casey and VanVleet picked up technical fouls to go with DeRozan’s.
Less than a minute into the fourth, VanVleet went down hard under Embiid and stayed down. He was diagnosed with a right knee contusion, and his departure from the game brought an invigorated Lowry back in. A unit featuring Lowry, Delon Wright, Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl then slowly worked their way back into the game. Delon caught fire, hitting 7-of-11 from the floor including five threes, with almost all of that damage coming in the fourth. A DeRozan pull-up jumper with 3:03 left in the fourth brought the Raptors within one, but it was as close as they would get. Several misses combined with some bad turnovers gave the 76ers a chance to pull away once again, and it wasn’t particularly close in the final seconds due to some unfortunate fouls.
Ultimately, Embiid showed once again why he’s the piece that Philadelphia has been missing against Toronto. Going into Monday’s game, he had faced Toronto just three times in his NBA career, and his absence greatly contributed to a streak that had seen the Raptors go 18-2 vs. Philly dating back to the 2013-14 season. While Ben Simmons was held mostly in check (12 points), Embiid roasted the Raptors all day, finishing with 34 points and 11 boards. T.J. McConnell and J.J. Redick provided the secondary scoring for Philadelphia, going a combined 13-of-23 from the field.
For all the superficial similarities to the Warriors game, this felt like a game where the Raptors struggled in the role as the hunted rather than the hunters. After playing free and loose against Cleveland and Golden State, the three-point shot simply wasn’t there as they struggled to meet the Sixers’ energy until the late fourth quarter run. Some of that can be chalked up to fatigue, both physical (an early 1pm start time) and mental (coming off back-to-back high-profile games against the Cavs and Warriors).
Whether today’s result was a sign of a team struggling with that pressure or simply a Warriors hangover, now that the Raptors have placed a target on their own backs, they’re going to have to prepare as other teams take their best shots.