Raptors coach Nick Nurse said before Toronto’s Sunday evening game against the Sixers that there was no way to go small against Joel Embiid. It’s a sentiment everyone takes for granted now given the overall dominance of Philly’s big man. But then the Raptors started the game and — look at that — they were playing small, with the same starting lineup they’ve gone with over the past couple of games: Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, DeAndre’ Bembry, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam. In the micro, it didn’t work, yet the Raptors still beat Philadelphia, 110-103, to get themselves over .500 for the first time this season.
Toronto won, despite their size deficit, because the team played with big confidence and heart throughout. They were led by Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, who put in 23 points apiece, with the former adding eight assists and seven rebounds, the latter nine assists and five rebounds. They also saw an almost comical explosion from Chris Boucher, who’s quiet first half gave way to 17 points all in the final 24 minutes. And, as has been the case in some of Toronto’s best wins, there were timely contributions from most everyone else — even Aron Baynes, who’s been something of a scapegoat for much that’s gone “wrong” so far this season.
Nevertheless, the Raptors bled points from the start, turning the ball over a few too many times while falling behind by 14. That Baynes was quickly subbed in to grapple with Embiid is not really a surprise; that Toronto then ripped off a 20-2 run, including five straight 3s, was something of a stunner though. It began with VanVleet hitting one to keep his consective game streak alive, then Siakam hitting his first of the contest too. With the shotclock winding down, VanVleet followed this up with a prayer he banked in, and that’s when we knew something was happening. Fred calmly drilled two more after that, and hit Toronto’s lone free throw of the quarter to give them the lead after one.
While the Raptors weren’t going to keep shooting from three like that, they did manage to keep up with the Sixers for the second quarter. This despite four more turnovers and a drop from three-point efficiency to a mere 28.6 percent. Toronto benefited from a more balanced attack in the second though, seeing production from Powell (after an uncharacteristically slow start), Anunoby (after something of a sloppy start), a pair of threes from Terence Davis, and even a bucket from little-used Matt Thomas. In all, the Raptors also slowed Embiid somewhat — even as Ben Simmons carved up their D to the tune 13 points in the frame. Half time saw the Raptors behind by three, but it now felt like a winnable game.
With Toronto’s experiment over, Baynes started the second half for the Raptors and did his thing: he slammed home dunks in the pick-and-roll. It was an inspiring start to the second half, but things quickly got out of control from there for Toronto. Turnovers again accounted for some of that trouble, but it was also Philly finding shooters like Seth Curry and Danny Green (deadly from the corner, as we know) to put some distance on the Raptors. An 11-0 run from the Sixers had the Raptors on their heels after six minutes, down 13. But VanVleet caught them getting complacent and went at the rim twice to get the lead back into single digits. While Philly now had them at arm’s length, Fred’s effort suggested the Raptors weren’t just going to fade away without a fight.
And so it went down the stretch, with VanVleet pitching in another three, Chris Boucher finally hitting one — then another — and the Raptors going on an 12-2 run to close the third. Thanks to that inspired stretch of play, the Raptors were down just one as we headed into the fourth — with their spirit definitely still in it. To open the fourth, Boucher bombed a couple more threes, punking Dwight Howard’s sad pick-and-pop coverage, and Toronto’s defense got the team driving down the lane to take yet another lead. Yes, the Sixers still had Simmons and Embiid for help, always threatening to turn the game on its head, but the team effort Toronto was putting forth was exciting to see.
With eight minutes left, wouldn’t you know it, the Sixers tried going small to match the Raptors. As with Toronto’s earlier experiment, Philly’s attempt didn’t work either and the Raptors grew their fourth quarter lead. After the stalwart Green fouled out and Embiid returned, things were still cooking. In this moment, it was something to watch Boucher continue to hit 3s, clean up rebounds on the offensive glass, and block Joel Embiid to keep the Sixers, that most oversized team, in their place. It was in the last few minutes when the Raptors took their largest lead of the game (ten points) before waiting out the Sixers’ steady chipping away from the free throw line. We can admit that that last minute of game action felt quite long. But for Philly, it would not be enough.
While it’s clear the Raptors didn’t get off to the start they wanted this season, the squad makes much more sense now. That’s not to say they’re a perfect team or anything, but they have indeed battled back from that 2-8 opening to become one of the hotter teams in the league. They’re now 7-3 over their last ten, and can point to wins against the Bucks (twice), the Nets, and now the Sixers, as proof that they’re no joke in the Eastern Conference. If nothing else, it feels good to see the Raptors playing with that swagger again on a nightly basis. Now, let’s see what happens next.