The widespread belief in the Raptors’ chances to upset the Sixers in the first round boiled down to Philly’s suspect supporting cast. Joel Embiid, as a rule, wins his minutes. When he’s paired with James Harden, even the diminished version, the 76ers have been more or less unstoppable since the All-Star break. Beyond their two stars is where the questions ahead of the first round seeped in. Does Danny Green have anything left? Is Tyrese Maxey ready for primetime just two years into his career? Who’s Embiid’s backup? And can Tobias Harris overcome his persistent urge to shoot 2-of-13 in games that really matter?
After Game 1, the returns on some of those questions should leave Sixers fans feeling a bit better about their team’s chances of evading a disaster outcome in round one.
In fact, it was the Raptors who found themselves on the wrong end of the catastrophe. The on-court product from Toronto’s end was no great shakes, particularly on the defensive end. But where this one really went off the rails was in the opening moments of the fourth quarter when Joel Embiid, driving to the bucket from the right wing, stepped on Scottie Barnes’ left foot, sending him to the sidelines for the rest of the game. The diagnosis from the team was a left ankle sprain, with more info sure to come after more testing in the coming days.
It’s not that the injury sucked life out of a potential Raptors win; they were down big for most of the last three quarter of Game 1 and their way to a loss when the injury struck anyway. It does however introduce some legitimate doubt as to whether the Raptors will have the horses to pull four wins out of the next six games. Barnes was probably the best Raptor on the floor in his first taste of playoff ball, posting a near-triple double in 32 minutes with 15 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and a block on 4-of-6 shooting, 7-of-9 from the line. Against a Sixers team with no obvious defensive foil for him, Barnes figures, if healthy, to be one of the Raptors’ surest avenues to half court initiation against Philly, not to mention the devastating he wreaks in the open court. Hold your breath for good news, ‘cause without their superstar rookie, the Raptors might not be too long for this series.
The same will be true if Harris and Maxey can even come close to replicating the work they put in in Game 1. Harris has normally been more puddle than basketball player in recent years against Toronto — a constant target for the Raptors on defense, and a total non-factor as an off-ball guy in Embiid’s orbit. In the series opener, Harris was everything the Sixers have always needed him to be, finishing with 26-6-6 on 9-of-14 shooting, while offering at least halfway decent resistance whenever the Raptors tried to size him up in the half court.
Even Harris’ great outing was dwarfed by what Maxey did, though. You could have argued coming into the series that after the hulking Embiid, Maxey and his unparalleled burst off the bounce offered the second biggest matchup problem for the Raptors of anyone on the Sixers — even more so than Harden. Toronto’s undoing this season has often been slick and slippery guards. Beyond Fred VanVleet, Toronto’s defensive strengths lie in the art of rotation, recovery, and messing shit up with length. On-ball containment is not their forte or even their express intention most of the time. But when VanVleet has trouble with a particularly quick ball-handler, they can run into some trouble. And so they did in the third quarter.
Doing much of his damage over a pivotal two-and-a-half minute stretch without Embiid on the floor to close the third, Maxey poured in 21 third quarter points on 7-of-8 shooting, part of a 38-point explosion that seemed intent on answering the question: what the hell do the Sixers do when Embiid sits?
Maxey is the quickest dude both in the half court and on the run in this series, on top of being arguably the best shooter on his team as well. Figuring out a gameplan for him going forward should be Nick Nurse’s chief priority, even if it’s tough to scheme out a guy who can beat you in so many ways. But it’s not as though the Raptors are out of options. All season, their ace-in-the-hole against guys of Maxey’s ilk — Trae Young in particular comes to mind — has been OG Anunoby. Anunoby was notably off the floor for the bulk of Maxey’s third quarter display, and was counted on heavily to help dull the sting of Harden-Embiid screening actions in Game 1. Thing is, most of the guys the Raptors roll out can hang with Harden one-on-one, and they’ll rarely if ever leave one guy on an island with Embiid. Gluing OG to Maxey feels like an adjustment worth trying out in Game 2. Surpressing him and Harris is step one for the Raptors if they want to get this thing back on track.
“Not so much our guys, I just think think they were really great,” said Nick Nurse when asked what went wrong for the Raptors, rightfully tipping his cap to a game extremely well played by Philly. Problem was, Toronto’s didn’t do nearly enough on their end to impede all the very good things the Sixers were able to do, nor did they do many of the things that usually make the bizarro stew the Raps cook up most nights taste so good.
Toronto, normally incredible at goading its opponent into pissing possessions away, had a miserable time forcing turnovers on Saturday, failing to produce even one before the half, and managing just eight takeaways by the end of the night.
“I told the team at the half I don’t remember a half in nine years that I remember where we didn’t have a turnover at all,” Nurse quippped in the post-game.
Also missing from the list of usual Raptors bellweathers was their offensive rebounding edge. This series pits the second-best offensive rebounding team in the league this year against a Sixers team that in spite of having Embiid in the middle, is not very good at collecting opponents’ misses — just 19th overall in defensive rebounding rate on the year. Philly also grabbed offensive boards with less frequency than any team this year. And yet, in Game 1, the Sixers grabbed 10 of their own misses to Toronto’s seven. As good as some of their guys can be in the half court, Toronto does not have the juice to hang with a team as talented as the Sixers without massaging the possession math comfortably in their favour. Losing the shot attempt battle 84-82 was both uncharacteristic, and deeply damaging.
There are fixes here, and absolutely pathways for the Raptors to get back into this series, Barnes’ health provided. If you’re looking for signs of encouragement, it seems pretty clear the Raptors can score on this Sixers defense in the half court. There are mismatches to attack everywhere, and there will be even more once the series shifts to Toronto and Matisse Thybulle is left behind in the States. Siakam scored a pretty comfortable 24 points on 9-of-18, while Anunoby bludgeoned his way to a tidy 20 points. Even VanVleet, who left a lot to be desired defensively and fouled out of the game on the same play Barnes got injured, navigated the length of the Sixers well and finished with a clean 18, shooting better than 50 percent on both twos and threes. Those guys, along with Barnes, are the dudes who matter most both now and in the future for the Raptors, and they all looked anywhere from good to fantastic. If you’re looking for big picture comfort after a 20-point blowout, there you have it.
Near-term, though, they need their supporting pieces to channel whatever the hell got into Philly’s complementary guys in Game 2 and beyond.
“Well we gotta learn some lessons from today, not only tactically but also just mentally and physically,” said Nurse after the game. “We gotta play a lot better, a lot tougher. We know that we need all our guys to contribute... You don’t have to play a great game but we need you close to average,” he finished, noting this Raptors team ain’t the kind of team that can lean on one guy’s brilliance to carry them.
That means Gary Trent Jr.’s gotta improve upon the ugly 2-of-11 night he turned in; Chris Boucher needs to regain the discipline and maniacal focus that saw him transform into one of the league’s most important reserves instead of fouling out in 15 minutes — a Raptors playoff record; and Precious Achiuwa will need to build upon a promising second half after playing like October Achiuwa in the opening 24. Those three guys will especially need to pop if the Raptors’ next-most counted on bench hand, Thad Young, misses any time. He dinged his thumb in the first half and did not return. Per Nurse, x-rays were negative, but like Barnes he’ll go for more imaging tomorrow.
It certainly wasn’t the start you want, and those Raptors upset picks won’t look so sexy if Barnes misses anything more than even one game. But Toronto just took about as good a punch from the Sixers as they’ve hit any team with all season long. If they can do it again, you tip your cap. But the Raptors are masters of adjustment, and productive chicanery. You’d imagine they’ll workshop how they can get back to their ever-annoying ways in time for Monday’s Game 2.