Don’t look now, but the Raptors are figuring out the style of play that could win them this series. Meanwhile, the Sixers — once up 3-0 and in a euphoria of their own — have good reason to start sweating.
Facing elimination at the Wells Fargo Center on Monday, the Raptors did what can best be classified as “smacked the Sixers in the mouth”. They out-scored Philly 56-36 in the paint, exhausted Joel Embiid and James Harden by involving them in almost every offensive possession, and held a once-blistering Sixers offense to 88 points on 38 percent shooting with rabid, intense defensive pressure.
Winning 103-88, the Raptors are sending this series back to Toronto. More than that, they’re doing so with a tool belt full of legitimate, sustainable ways to topple this Sixers team and their superstar centre.
That’s where the Game 5 plan really came together, with how the Raptors dealt with Joel Embiid. Always destined to be the centrifugal force in this series, Embiid has been at the literal centre — both on the court and off. His team thrives when he’s on the court and ambles around when he sits. There’s a reason he’s one of the frontrunners for the league MVP award and we’ve seen it through four games, culminating in that heartbreaking triple at the end of Game 3 to put his team on the edge of the second round.
They’ve remained on that edge, though, because the Toronto Raptors have started to unlock how to make Embiid look human.
Some will blame a thumb ligament injury that is obviously dogging him, but the issues for Embiid have gone beyond that in Games 4 and 5. The Raptors have simply made it a point to go at him, relentlessly, both in pick and rolls and one-on-one. Mainly, Nick Nurse is trusting that Precious Achiuwa and Pascal Siakam can straight up beat Embiid off the dribble. The two combined for 40 points tonight. He appears to be right.
All game, the Raptors seemed determined to force Embiid to defend in space — preferably with James Harden as the other piece in a pick and roll.
There were some rough moments, sure, but on the whole it was a dynamite strategy. When Embiid returned from just two minutes on the bench to start the fourth quarter, his body language was the tale of the tape. The Raptors had done enough to take his legs out in 40 minutes of play, and even shooting as poorly as they were — 8-for-31 from three — they were able to continue scoring by exploiting Embiid, who was standing straight up on defense through the entire second half.
This isn’t to say that the story can’t change going forward. Embiid is way too good and way too motivated to let this performance define him, especially given his past struggles against the Raptors. The strategy worked tonight, though, and Nurse will likely use this blueprint to try to keep extending this series — beginning Thursday at Scotiabank Arena.
Of course, there is no strategy without players smart and talented enough to execute.
Pascal Siakam’s 23 points, ten rebounds and seven assists might not pop off the page like his Game 4 numbers, but this was a similar masterclass — especially given it’s his first game of the series without Fred VanVleet alleviating some of the on-court leadership. Siakam was guarded physically in the first quarter, but shook off the lack of flow from the second quarter on. He was patient, able to find his teammates, and refused to settle when presented an opportunity to go downhill. Going 8-for-13 inside the arc, Siakam was the lead attack dog in a smash-mouth Raptors attack.
Also shaking off a slow start was Precious Achiuwa. Looking as out of sorts as you can get in the first half — getting scored on by Embiid repeatedly, even adding two to the Sixers’ point total on a gaffed rebound between he and Scottie Barnes — Achiuwa kept at it. Scoring 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting, Achiuwa also made sure Embiid was honest on the defensive end — beating him off the dribble or with the jumper in the second half after the Sixers star shaded off in help coverage.
OG Anunoby, too, should not be looked over. In a road elimination game, quick starts are critical for keeping the crowd out of the game. Anunoby was the man who provided that for the Raptors on Monday, as he set out a path by scoring or setting up the first ten Toronto points.
The Raptors built their lead into double digits in the second quarter. Embiid and James Harden both hit the pine for Doc Rivers, which allowed the Raptors to rattle off a 12-0 run. Thad Young was critical to this stretch, scrambling a pass to Chris Boucher for a dunk while playing roving defense on the other end. When Harden and Embiid returned, there was a lot of dribbling by the former, and a short run by the Sixers wasn’t extended — the home side shot 35/26/67 in the first half and trailed 54-41 at the break.
The Sixers’ baffling strategy of playing Embiid but not looking for him on offense continued in the third quarter. Philly went on a 7-2 run out of halftime, but were once again unable to sustain thanks to Siakam just doing some superstar scoring. A quick seven points put an end to the Sixers run, as they began to stagger Harden in and out, while keeping an increasingly tired Embiid in the game. While they were able to get some scoring back thanks to Tyrese Maxey, who definitely had the legs despite a poor 5-for-14 shooting game, ultimately the Raptors kept driving downhill to the hoop.
With the crowd rising to its feet early in the fourth quarter, Gary Trent Jr. and Siakam scored back-to-back baskets to extend Toronto’s lead back to 13. The Raptors continued to have silencer plays down the stretch. Scottie Barnes, who led Toronto in scoring for a good chunk of this game, set up two no-look alley-oops in succession — the first literally as the Wells Fargo crowd was rising to its feet.
Finally, after the Sixers had dropped Toronto’s lead to nine again, it was OG — finishing the way he started — hitting the dagger three to clean up a Game 5 victory.
All of a sudden, the Raptors look like the team with all the momentum. Probably because they are. Missing Fred VanVleet the rest of the series hurts, but the last two games have shown that playing big can frustrate the Sixers on both ends. By turning up that size with intensity, continuing to attack a Philadelphia team that the Internet is waiting (some expecting) to crack, they’ve shown they can win.
Now, they have to do it again on Thursday. Toronto will be ready.