Game 4 between the Raptors and Sixers could have been a morose Viking funeral to send this very fun but very green Raptors team into the off-season without a single win to show for their first playoff appearance post-Kyle Lowry.
Instead, it turned into a euphoric celebration of a team that overshot its preseason expectations, and continues to impress even with the deck stacked against it. More than anything, it was confirmation that the road ahead for these Raptors is going to be loaded with good times.
The day was assured of having a positive tinge to it, regardless of the on-court result, when it was announced about an hour before tip that Scottie Barnes had narrowly edged out Evan Mobley to win Rookie of the Year, mere moments before his return from the sprained ankle that kept him out of Games 2 and 3 was announced as well. There’s a real chance this was the final game of the season at Scotiabank Arena. That the home crowd got a chance to celebrate with Barnes at center court before was a pretty special capper to the home schedule if that’s indeed the case.
The dream of more playoff hoops in Toronto lives on for at least a couple more days, though, as the Raptors overcame a first half injury to Fred VanVleet, put the full vision for this team’s future on the display, and took down the Sixers 110-102 to nudge the series to 3-1 — Doc Rivers’ favourite kind of lead.
You can’t dig into why the Raptors won this game without first looking to Pascal Siakam, who had the bounceback you badly wanted to see and knew was probably coming after he was held scoreless in Game 3. Over a taxing 44 minutes, Siakam poured in 34 points to go along with eight rebounds, five assists a steal and two blocks on 10/19 from the floor, and a positively Embiid-like 13/15 from the free-throw line.
It was about as satisfying a star performance as has been turned in by a Raptors front man in recent history, especially when you factor in the overdone and silly questioning of Siakam’s station within the team by the more psychotic corners of the fan base and media after one rough outing. This was an affirmation of the growth Siakam’s displayed for the better part of five months His work as the offense’s engine, the back-line clean up jobs he took part in on the other end, the mid-range mastery — all are things he’s been doing all-season on the road to a potential All-NBA selection, none of which stopped being his strengths because his touch was off in the second half on Wednesday night. Have all the semantic arguments about whether he can be a 1A, 2B or some other number-letter combo you like, Siakam is a kick ass basketball player. Playing like that in an elimination game should be enough to forever toss the ghosts of the Bubble in the darkest depths of the trash can.
“I just think he was so much more assertive and decisive, less looking around and just going,” said Nick Nurse in praise of his star, pointing to Gary Trent Jr.’s work in ball-handling support as another crucial driver behind the victory as well.
Trent’s shown over the last two games just how valuable his mix of shooting and gall is to completing the on-court puzzle for the Raptors. He’s been one of the main drivers of the team’s offensive performance all season long, and having his play-finishing, shooting touch and penchant for late-clock heroics available at full throttle gave the Raptors just enough juice to give their smothering defense the support it needed.
One of the main goals of this season and these playoffs has been to learn just how feasible their unorthodox playing style can be when the games matter most. The jury may still be out on the offensive side of things, but there is no doubt that Toronto’s brand of defense is a nightmarish obstacle to clear, even for an offense led by Joel Embiid and James Harden.
Confronting a much larger collection of Raps defenders than usual with VanVleet sidelined, Philly’s offense was pressured and rushed at every turn. The trio of Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey combined to shoot just 16-of-45 from the floor with 10 combined turnovers.
With Harden, it didn’t really seem to matter who the Raptors stuck on him, whether it was VanVleet early on, OG Anunoby, Thad Young or Pascal Siakam — there was nothing to be gained for Harden, aside from the bits of driving space the Raptors seemed happy to grant him in exchange for him taking weak floaters instead of spraying passes to shooters.
Embiid was hounded all night by extra defenders in his face almost immediately upon the catch, and some truly brilliant back-line help from the likes of Siakam, Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher. He remains an incredible player, and flashed some of the same ludicrous shot making that pushed his team to the win just three nights ago. He also dished just three assists to five turnovers, and only sealed off deep position for easy looks a couple times all game. All the high-difficulty makes for him over the last couple games belie the fact that this long and limber Raptors defense has him feeling uncomfortable.
Siakam, Trent and the defense were the stars of the night, but the work of Thad Young deserves its own section. Since the trade, Young’s been better when playing alongside the Raptors better players. His skills on offense are connective and amplifying. On defense he’s just about the most Toronto Raptors-ass player there is. Tasked routinely with being the first line of defense against Embiid and Harden, his resistance allowed the Raptors’ to be more deliberate in their help — to send it when it was most opportune, and not out of necessity.
“He’s a big body, big strong guy,” said Young of his time spent guarding Embiid. “This is not my first time, not my first rodeo playing against him,” pointing to the importance of keeping Embiid as far from the basket as possible to prevent him from walking into easy looks.
Young’s steals helped kickstart the Raptors’ transition attack (they outscored the Sixers on the break 21-10), and his deft passing in the half court helped grease the wheels just enough for a team that needed any edges it could find without its point guard available.
Young finished with a 13-5-5-3-1 line in 30 minutes on 6-of-9 shooting. If VanVleet can’t go on Monday due to his left hip strain, his playmaking will be one of the keys to the Raptors bringing the series back to Toronto for Game 6.
History and top-end talent are still against the Raptors as they look to do the impossible and come back from being down 3-0. It’s more likely than not that Monday night will in fact conclude the season. If that’s the case, there’s really nothing to be sour about. Toronto’s now gotten two tight post-season games worth of reps for this still-learning core, and shown all the fight you’d hope to see for a team that started this series off on two wrong feet. Not having VanVleet hurts, of course, though in this matchup the full-on adoption of Vision 6’9 might not be the worst way to muck up the Sixers’ plans.
If this was the last game of the season in Toronto, it was a fitting conclusion to a bizarre and disjointed but ultimately growth-filled year of games back at Scotiabank Arena, from the Barnes celebration to open, to the demolition exacted by Siakam, the game provided everything the level-headed Raptors fan should need to feel happy about this season’s results.
Now it’s time to go scoop some more gravy onto the plate in Philly on Monday night.