The story heading into the game was the continued dominance of Sixers big man Joel Embiid. The centre is leading the NBA in scoring for the third consecutive season, averaging more than 35 points a game, and is coming off of his first NBA MVP.
It’s not even 30 games into the season yet, but Embiid has established himself as the frontrunner to repeat as league MVP. Embiid was looking to continue his streak of consecutive games scoring 30 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, entering tonight’s matchup at 12 straight.
The story in the visiting locker room was not quite so jolly. Heading into tonight’s matchup, Raptors coach Darko Rajakovic announced he would be continuing with the same starting lineup that we’ve seen for much of this season and the entire month of December. Despite being a net negative on the floor together, Rajakovic has trotted out the group of Schroder, Barnes, Anunoby, Siakam and Poeltl for the opening tip for a 16th consecutive game.
The group had not won the first quarter in any of their matchups so far this month and, given Philadelphia’s roster and place in the standings, the Raptors were expected to be trailing in the opening frame once again.
In a shocking change of events, Toronto came out on fire and was able to hold Philly’s top players from dominating early in the game. Both teams missed on midrange jumpers before Pascal Siakam drew a clear path foul, making both shots from the line and keeping possession of the ball. Jakob Poeltl laid one up on the ensuing possession as the front court duo dominated the Sixers early.
Siakam and Poeltl combined for all of Toronto’s first 16 points before Scottie Barnes drained a three to make the lead 19-9. Philly also had a duo leading the way early in the game, although it likely isn’t the one you’re thinking of. Tyrese Maxey was one half, as expected, with Tobias Harris unexpectedly being the other. The pair scored all of Philly’s first 12 points, as Harris made a three to bring the score to 19-12.
The deep ball also marked the start of a 10-3 run for the Raptors. Immediately following the run Harris made another three before a pull up two, scoring five consecutive points and forcing a Raptors timeout.
Typically, a timeout helps reset a team and can slow the momentum of a run. While that technically did happen, Philly continued their comeback as Harris was fouled on his midrange jumper and made his lone free throw after the timeout. Including the point from the charity stripe, the first quarter ended on a tied 8-8 run while the Raptors held a nine point lead at 37-28.
The name you may have noticed has not even been mentioned in the game yet is that of reigning MVP and current NBA leading scorer Joel Embiid. The Raptors defence, anchored by Jakob Poeltl with Scottie Barnes, did a tremendous job dropping on rolls and helping on the inside. Embiid was limited to just two points in the quarter, as the size and physicality meeting him at the rim was enough to deter the centre to kicking it out to his shooters. The man who wasn’t shy to attack the rim was Pascal Siakam, who posted 14 points in the opening frame and moved into the top five all time for Raptors assists.
Pascal Siakam with 14 early points -- making Raptors history in very Pascal fashion: pic.twitter.com/k0qasDyc5Z— Esfandiar Baraheni (@JustEsBaraheni) December 23, 2023
In recent games, the Raptors have gone down early and tended to come back to either make it a close game or to win. Entering the second quarter with the lead, fellow Raptors HQ writer Casey Dobson joked with me that this time they would instead blow the lead. Unfortunately, she was right.
Philadelphia started the frame on a 7-0 run to cut the Raptors lead to a measly two points. Continuing his first quarter prominence, Tobias Harris was the one to score all seven points. Otto Porter Jr. ended the run with a three pointer, and both teams would go on to exchange twos and free throws before a Tyrese Maxey three brought the Sixers back within four.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, Joel Embiid would make a close shot as the reigning MVP started to heat up. Embiid would score five straight Sixers points, as the team’s next basket came from a Tobias Harris three to tie the game 54-54. Pascal Siakam drew a foul and made both free throws to retake the close lead before another timely basket from Tobias Harris came on an and-one layup, giving the Sixers a 57-56 lead from which they never looked back the rest of the night. Embiid would add four more points with a Dennis Schroder step back jumper falling to put the score at a 61-58 Philly lead at halftime.
Whatever speech Darko Rajakovic gave the team pregame was clearly not the message at halftime and had worn off, as the second half was all Philadelphia.
Toronto kept it relatively close in the first few minutes of the third quarter, before Joel Embiid asserted his dominance and completely took the game over. About halfway through the quarter, Philly just fed Embiid the ball as he scored their final 17 points of the quarter. Trailing by as much as 13 points, Toronto looked down and out for most of the frame before a 12-3 run in the last three minutes led by Siakam, Achiuwa and GTJ brought the team within four to end the quarter. Philadelphia led 93-89 heading into the final frame.
Seemingly all for nothing, the run was quickly flipped back on Toronto as Philly opened the final frame on a 6-0 run to re-establish their double digit lead. Otto Porter Jr. then ended the run with a pair of free throws.
After Maxey and Harris made back-to-back layups, Achiuwa added a dunk and GTJ drained a three to bring the lead back within seven. This was the closest it would get though, as the Raptors continued to chase the game and miss their jump shots at key moments.
The speed of Tyrese Maxey was on full display as the Sixers point guard extended the lead to 15 on a pair of transition jump shots that was ultimately the nail in the coffin for the Raptors with less than six minutes to play. Neither team scored for a short run, which was broken by a Joel Embiid three to give him 31 points on the night. Along with his 10 rebounds, tonight’s game made it 13 straight that Embiid has hit the 30 point, 10 rebound mark.
Siakam and Barnes fought valiantly to try and keep their team alive, although it was too little too late and coach Rajakovic put in the bench with just over two minutes remaining. Both bench units would play the final 120 seconds and the final score ended with Philadelphia winning 121-111.
The Sixers' trio of Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris combined for 97 PTS in their win over the Raptors— NBA (@NBA) December 23, 2023
Joel Embiid: 31 PTS, 10 REB, 9 AST
Tyrese Maxey: 33 PTS, 10 AST, 4 3PM
Tobias Harris: 33 PTS, 8 REB, 7 AST pic.twitter.com/YeZleuMGRa
Despite facing one of the top teams, and players, in the league, tonight’s loss was a disheartening one for this Toronto Raptors group. This starting unit has had nothing but downs recently, and Darko Rajakovic has continued to put his trust in them. Finally putting up a good performance in the first quarter, this could have been a turning point for a team that is fighting to stay in the play-in hunt.
It will be interesting to see whether the starting unit stays together for Toronto’s next matchup, as they host the depleted Utah Jazz on Christmas Eve eve.