It can be hard enough to guard the Sixers’ Joel Embiid once he starts throwing himself around with force. Harder still when the whistle suddenly starts to go against you. In the opening frame of the Raptors’ contest against the stout 76ers, Jonas Valanciunas picked up three quick fouls in about three minutes, and the score started to tip away from them. This was not the main frustration for the Raptors — going 1-for-6 from three felt much worse — but it was symbolic. It felt like everything was going the wrong way for the Raps.
Which is what made the next three quarters so instructive. Despite that frustrating first quarter, the Raptors would go on to beat the 76ers, 113-102, to push their league-leading record to 21-5. It was yet another statement win for Toronto, and how they did it taught us something about what and who the Raptors are — even in the frustrating times. Perhaps especially in the frustrating times.
The story for the majority of the game was the duel between Kawhi Leonard and the Sixers’ Jimmy Butler. In their first meeting this season (with Butler was in Minnesota), Kawhi definitely owned the matchup. This time out, with Butler mostly seeing other Raptors defenders, we can call it something closer to a draw. Butler had 38 points on 15-of-27 shooting, to go with ten rebounds; Leonard meanwhile had 36 points on 13-of-24 shooting and nine rebounds, to go with five steals (and no fouls). Unfortunately for Butler, Kawhi once again totally annihilated Ben Simmons — the Sixers star had a quiet near-triple-double with eight points, ten rebounds, and 11 assists, but took a mere four shots and contributed seven of the Sixers’ 21 turnovers.
Couple all the above stats with not one, but two absolute thunder dunks from Kawhi, and it’s easy to call him the player of the game. Here’s Kawhi in the second quarter, keeping the Raptors feisty, and reminding his squad that Joel Embiid is just a man:
And then here’s Kawhi putting the game officially away (kudos to Butler for even trying to stand in the way of this one):
“It’s a good place to watch it from,” coach Nick Nurse said of the Kawhi show, vocalizing what we were all thinking. “Right there in front there, it’s pretty good.”
The Raptors bench was indeed watching, and it felt like they gradually took Kawhi’s lead. To start with, Greg Monroe popped in for five minutes (due to JV’s foul trouble) to float Toronto for a short stretch. Moose’s four quick points and four rebounds didn’t make that much of a difference in the big picture of the game, but they proved someone on the Raptors (besides Kawhi) had punch in their play. Monroe’s little jolt, along with those Kawhi dunks, felt vindicating. The second half suggested as much.
“Our bench did an unbelievable job,” said Kyle Lowry, who needed the pick-me-up after a tame 7 point-4 rebound-4 assist game (with two drawn charges on Embiid). “They have just been kind of trying to find their way and tonight was one of those games where they just had it clicking. JV played well, and Freddy, Delon, OG, C.J., they all kind of got it going. Greg Monroe stepped up tonight. It was a good effort by the bench tonight. They really gave us that energy that we needed that sparked our team tonight.”
After playing Leonard the entire third quarter, the Raptors needed a few strong minutes from their bench. They got mostly meagre points from Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, and OG Anunoby, but they also got a continuation of Toronto’s strong run of defense. Out there in a lineup with Pascal Siakam (who squeaked in six points, eight rebounds, and six assists), Toronto’s bench had a collective clutch performance to be proud of — which brings us full circle to the man of the hour: Jonas Valanciunas.
Valanciunas eventually got minutes later in the game, even with his three fouls. He’d go on to finish with 26 points (on 9-of-13 shooting) and eight rebounds in just 18 minutes, while also thoroughly outplaying his much more hyped counterpart, Embiid (10 points, 12 rebounds, five assists). As entertaining as he is, it’s never not satisfying to watch Embiid receive his comeuppance — on this night, JV won the matchup and got Embiid so ticked off he earned a technical for his trouble. Taken together with the strong Siakam-plus-bench unit, that fourth quarter run was soothing to the soul. That group needed it, the team needed it, we all needed it.
“You know, it was kinda of frustrating, but I never give up, I never stop playing,” said Valanciunas of the early foul trouble frustration. “I waited for my chance, got my chance, and kept playing.” If that’s not an inspirational quote, I’m not sure what else counts.
It wasn’t all inspiring for the Raptors, though. Their collective three-point shooting is still very much off a cliff; the team went 8-for-29 on the night, and that’s with Kawhi going for 5-of-6. The biggest culprits tonight just happened to be the team’s most dead-eye shooters: Kyle Lowry and Danny Green. The Raps’ starting backcourt went a combined 2-of-13 from three, which was discouraging to say the least.
Still, when the Raptors really, really iced the game it came when Lowry finally hit a three with a minute and a half to go. With the bucket, Toronto’s lead went back up to 13, and whatever gritty heroics Butler seemed to be contemplating just melted away. The Raps’ collective confidence seemed to have spread all the way around.
That’s salami and cheese — and a bit of mustard.