The most satisfying part of the 2020-21 Raptors’ climb out of the basement to start the season has been the quality of their wins. It would be one thing if Toronto were merely cleaning up against the league’s weakest teams — something we surely appreciate — but it’s another thing entirely to watch them go toe-to-toe with some of the NBA’s best... and win.
That’s where we find ourselves this morning as the Raptors prepare for their second game in a mini-series against the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers. As you know, they won the first contest. Down Kyle Lowry on Sunday night, and with the Sixers at full strength, the Raptors in fact started slow and looked for all the world like a team about to be overwhelmed. And really, who could blame them? To Philly’s credit, they are a team built to overwhelm — their point guard is centre-sized, their centre is kaiju-sized. The Raptors are usually playing small in the best of times, so to see them (literally) rise to the occasion on Sunday was something special.
The conditions this evening look to be about the same. The Raptors right now are still without Kyle Lowry, both they and the Sixers are still in Tampa with their very same rosters, and, it bears repeating, the Sixers are still the Sixers. Can Toronto hope to do that all again? Let’s unpack where things stand at the moment.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet at 7:30pm EST
Toronto — Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes
Philadelphia — Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid
Toronto — Kyle Lowry (questionable - thumb)
Philadelphia — Seth Curry (probably - ankle soreness)
Playing Big or Small?
The game is afoot now with coach Nick Nurse. Before Sunday’s game the Raptors head coach said that a team simply can’t play small against the Sixers — not with Embiid looming so large in the collective imagination. Hah, funny stuff that: the Raptors went ahead and opened with OG Anunoby guarding Embiid at tip-off. Now, it didn’t work and the Raptors did indeed have to go back to Aron Baynes to semi-match minutes with Embiid — but that doesn’t mean the experiment was entirely a failure, right? I mean, the Raptors did win the game after all.
There’s some thinking here that suggests the Raptors should indeed just go ahead and play small more often than not. Their five best players are Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam, and it helps for a team to play its best players as much as possible together. What’s more, the Raptors’ reserve rotation has come together much more effectively since Nurse started dabbling in the small-ball starting lineup. Baynes and VanVleet have an effective two-man game working; Chris Boucher plays in the power forward spot, and DeAndre’ Bembry is able to do what he does best and fill gaps between the front and backcourts. Slot in, say, Yuta Watanabe or even Stanley Johnson, and the Raptors have an effective rotation to deal even with the super-sized Sixers.
Managing Those Turnovers
The Raptors are currently ranked ninth best in the league in turnovers per game, at 13.8, while the Sixers are almost dead last, coughing up the ball 15.6 times per game on average. (Only the Bulls and the Heat are worse in this category.) The delta change in those two numbers may appear relatively small, but turnovers allow the Sixers to get out and run, which they love to do; and the Raptors’ generating easy offense off turnovers is what they love to do — especially against a team that is that much bigger than them.
In Sunday’s game, the Sixers had a mere ten turnovers to the Raptors’ 14, and many of those came at inopportune times for Toronto. Of that total, Powell was responsible for six, many of a variety that could be deemed reprehensible. Fortunately, turnovers didn’t break the game for Toronto, but it’s clear they’ll need to tighten up against the length of Philly. As for Norm in particular, if he’s going to be the Raptors second or third option on offense (which is not a bad idea), he’ll have to be a tad more careful with the ball. Just something to consider as we head into another contest with the Sixers.
Can the Raptors Really Do That Again?
This may sound like a rhetorical question, but I mean it quite literally. Can the Raptors really do what they did to the Sixers on Sunday night again? It’s important to remember that Toronto was in trouble in both the first and third quarters of their previous game until some insanely hot shooting — some replicable, some perhaps not — got them back into the game. In the first, it was VanVleet going lights out for a few minutes; in the third, the Raptors got a huge boost from Boucher. The former tends to have some trouble against Philly, but did play well; the latter will likely get his chances again, what with Dwight Howard’s inability or disinterest in guarding the pick-and-pop.
There’s the matter of gameplanning once again to slow Embiid, who still had 25 points and 17 rebounds, but on 6-of-20 shooting, while letting Simmons do his thing (28 points, 9-of-11 shooting) and locking in on every other Sixer. (Harris didn’t do too much, Curry and Green were only semi-factors, etc.) Toronto will likely want to cut down on their fouls overall — though that’s easier said than done — but they have to like the strategy they’ve employed so far. Wall the paint, swarm the three-point line, and show multiple bodies every time Embiid makes a move. Hey, it could work again.
More than that, however, is the question on all of our minds now: are the Raptors really and truly turning a corner? Two wins against the Bucks and a haymaker victory against the Sixers certainly suggest as such. Another win tonight would put us firmly in the “yes” category. Let’s get after it.