Maybe the Raptors just aren’t scared anymore. Not of a Game 1. Not of the Philadelphia 76ers. Not even of the mounting pressure attendant to the NBA Playoffs.
And certainly not when Kawhi Leonard goes off for a playoff career-high 45 points on 15-of-23 shooting. Or when Pascal Siakam can race out with him to 29 points of his own on 12-of-15 shooting. Or when Marc Gasol helps hold MVP candidate Joel Embiid to 16 points on 5-of-18 shooting. No, definitely not then.
Now, all these numbers may not always hold for Toronto; they could very well vanish entirely in Game 2 tonight when an angry and motivated Philadelphia 76ers team takes the floor. But that feeling, the Raptors unafraid of the moment, that could stick around. And if you’re a fan of the Sixers — or indeed any other team in the NBA — it should put the fear of Toronto straight into you.
“I think it kind of got the jitters out and stuff, to be honest with you,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse after his two stars, Kawhi and Pascal, did their thing to open Game 1 of their second round series against Philly. “I didn’t think we were moving great at the start. Again, it’s the start of another big series and we weren’t pushing as hard as I would have liked, we weren’t cutting as hard as I would have liked and those guys bailed us out and actually played enough offense to get us a nice lead there at the start. It was big to have those two guys step up and kind of jump started us.”
That first quarter was indeed instructive for the Raptors, proving as it did that they could jump out to a lead early, and actually take control of a game throughout. The Sixers made some runs of course. In second they shrunk Toronto’s lead to just one point; and then again in the third quarter behind a barrage of JJ Redick threes that brought the Sixers within four. But it was not enough. Toronto responded to that first run with 10-0 barrage. And then again with another team-wide barrage — a Gasol three, some free throws (one of which was a technical earned by a frustrated Redick), a Kyle Lowry lay-up, and then another Kawhi three. If the Sixers’ runs were inevitable, so too was Toronto’s response.
Still, not all of the Raptors are up to speed quite yet. As Nurse mentioned, the rest of the Raptors’ starters were a little slow on their offensive uptake, and none broke the double-digit points barrier despite all the extra attention rightfully earned by Kawhi and Siakam. Meanwhile Toronto’s bench, well, it is still a work in progress. “I was tempted to start the fourth to bring Kawhi back to be honest with you,” said Nurse on their uneven play for a stretch. “I thought the way that third ended, [the Sixers] had a little momentum.”
“Yeah, we made a lot of defensive mistakes. I thought we played pretty hard but we made a lot of defensive mistakes,” confirmed Fred VanVleet on Sunday afternoon in the aftermath. “We fouled a couple of three-point shooters. I think they had 13 offensive rebounds. Our end of quarter execution wasn’t great. We fumbled a two-for-one in the third quarter. Loose in coverages, so there is a lot of things we can clean up which is encouraging obviously to win. We know that they will be better and we will have to be better to get Game 2 but there’s definitely a lot of things we can clean up.”
That momentum to which Nurse refers, and the specific strengths of Philly that VanVleet mentions are always going to be a worry. In Philly for Game 3 with a raucous home crowd, it could be a problem — especially if Embiid finds a way to get going; and even in Toronto, with Raptors fans used to the usual suspense from the home squad, we keep expecting the other shoe to drop. This, despite the Raptors having led virtually all of their minutes since Game 1 against Orlando. (The 16-point deficit they faced in the second quarter of that game remains the largest they’ve been under so far in these playoffs.)
But Nurse stuck with the bench anyway in Game 1 against Philly, and everyone collectively decided to remain relaxed. Despite our consternation, there were Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, and Fred VanVleet, out to start the fourth, and making enough plays to keep the Sixers at bay — a solid jumper from FVV, and then a surprising alley-oop finish from Ibaka. As Nurse said afterwards: “We stuck with them and they went out and got a quick, I think it was only a 4-0 run but it was a big 4-0 run and they took a timeout.”
And then, as it has happened through the playoffs so far for Toronto, Kawhi and company returned and closed it out and that was it. It was a Game 1 featuring the Raptors that was somehow almost drama free, the only combustible moments coming from the other team. Maybe it doesn’t always have to be the other way for Toronto.
So where does this sudden strength come from, this discovery of the combined powers the Raptors now possess? Part of it has to be running their game plan and actually seeing it succeed, that’s no doubt a boost for the Raptors and their bench players. And part of it has to just be the machine-like certainty Leonard provides. He who will not get sped up and at times looks like the most unstoppable force in basketball.
“I don’t know if he has a mental effect,” said VanVleet in reflection when asked about Leonard’s presence and effect on the team’s mentality. “He’s one of the best players in the league and guys feed off of that and he bails us out a lot but we’re locked in pretty much, together and he’s a team guy and that’s the best part about it. This time of year all you worry about is wins and having guy like that gives you a better chance to win and we understand that and just having him as a bailout sometimes — throw him the ball and that will be a bucket. It will calm things down sometimes.”
And again, it could all change, that surefire Game 1 calmness turning into god knows what. Adjustments from the Sixers are undoubtedly coming. They could blitz Kawhi, double-team him faster, dare him to make the pass. They could scheme sets to get Ben Simmons going downhill more often. Maybe Embiid’s knee will even feel better, or he’ll find a way to more effectively steer the dramatic energy of his team. Who knows what the Raptors’ bench will be like tonight. Some of this is to be expected; and all of it is within the realm of possibility.
But that doesn’t change the thesis here, and it all might not matter with the Raptors as “locked in” as they are. For perhaps the first time in franchise history, Toronto is not scared — and playing like it.