10 things: Pascal Siakam comes up clutch, while Ben Simmons chokes

William Lou
NBA reporter

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 101-96 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

One — Mentality: One would think the Sixers would have took this opportunity to make a statement. A serious team would seize the opportunity, going up against a shorthanded Raptors side that were without Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Pat McCaw, Matt Thomas, and exact some measure of revenge. But this Sixers team are not, and they have never been serious. They remain fundamentally flawed in the exact same ways. And while they were still a handful to deal with, the Raptors played with the focus and determination of champions, and they came away with the upset.

Two — Execution: Toronto came up with crucial plays when it needed it most. After a timeout, Nick Nurse called for a hammer play with Fred VanVleet driving baseline to collapse the defense before whipping it across the baseline for a corner three by Norman Powell. Then, when the Sixers doubled Pascal Siakam, the Raptors quickly released the pressure by finding Marc Gasol, who telepathically connected with VanVleet for another trey. And when Siakam did get a chance to attack in isolation, he took Al Horford off the bounce for an and-one.

Three — Contrast: Meanwhile, Ben Simmons literally threw the game away. Down one, Simmons charged up the floor even though the Raptors had numbers in transition, and decided to leave his feet for a lob pass to Tobias Harris that was easily picked off by Siakam. (Sixers coach Brett Brown, who had a timeout left, just watched disaster unfold without making a move.) After VanVleet drilled two free throws for a three-point lead, Brown drew up a heavily-contested three for Harris, and Simmons (who has made exactly one three in 175 career games) ended any hope of a comeback by heaving a 30-footer with over five seconds left that travelled just 25 feet.

Four — Truth: The Raptors may lack for healthy bodies, but the Sixers just lack sense. Jimmy Butler, and J.J. Redick to a lesser extent, used to close for the Sixers, but they were both let go in the offseason. Now, the offense runs through a supersized Rajon Rondo in Simmons and two nice-but-not-quite-elite wings in Harris and Josh Richardson. They have enough size and talent to compete with anyone, but they are not to be trusted in tight games, and that will once again be their undoing in the playoffs.

Five — Smothered: Marc Gasol once again put the clamps to Joel Embiid, who finished scoreless on the night in 32 minutes. Gasol walled him off in the paint, and the Raptors were diligent in sending help defenders to catch Embiid off-guard for fouls. Embiid was limited to a strict diet of outside shots, all of which he clanked, and his teammates decided to look elsewhere. At one point in the fourth quarter, the Sixers let Embiid shoot a technical free throw just to get him going, and even that rimmed out. By the end, Embiid started forcing his offense, which led to two turnovers. On the whole, Embiid has just never had success against Gasol, and this is yet another reminder of how vital Gasol in to the Raptors’ championship run.

Six — Crafty: Siakam was never quite able to find his offense against Simmons, who matched him for size and strength, but he still found ways to score. This speaks to Siakam’s growth, as he was still able to punish the Sixers despite a bad matchup. Siakam hit two threes, including a pull-up jumper against Simmons who was playing him to drive. He worked the pick-and-roll both as a ball handler and as a roll man. Siakam also profited off transition baskets and feasted on mismatches. The end result is that Siakam finished with an efficient 25 points on 19 shots, which was enough to give the Raptors the win.

Seven — Aggressive: VanVleet averaged two points per game against the Sixers in last year’s playoffs. That is not a typo. But this time around, VanVleet showed no fear, as he put up 24 points and eight assists on just 15 shots. There were still the odd drives that went nowhere — VanVleet would be so much more efficient if he picked his spots better — but it’s that same aggression that made him such a pain for the defense. VanVleet made smart reads to take the pull-up midrange jumper when the Sixers ran him off the line, he was clinical as always on his catch-and-shoot threes, he repeatedly collapsed the defense before finding an open man, and he pulled off a couple of Kyrie Irving-esque spinning finishes at the basket. All in all, VanVleet continues to show in Lowry’s absence that he can be the leading point guard for an elite team.

Eight — Hustle: The Sixers have four players making the maximum, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson outplayed them all for just $2.5 million. Hollis-Jefferson repeatedly found gaps in the Sixers’ help-heavy defensive schemes to sneak backdoor for layups. He grew so confident that he started running the offense at times, and was surprisingly effective, as his passing is a legitimate asset. Hollis-Jefferson finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists, and had a strong case to close it out, but Nurse went elsewhere. Nevertheless, it was an excellent effort.

Nine — Gamble: Instead of extending Hollis-Jefferson, Nurse showed faith in Powell on a night where he was utterly miserable, but he delivered. Powell was abysmal for most of the game, but he came up with a clutch corner three and two massive rebounds late in the fourth. Coming into tonight, Powell had scored 14 or more in seven of eight games, and he deserved a second chance.

Ten — Ball don’t lie: Josh Richardson flopped for a three-point foul to start the fourth quarter, but he couldn’t handle the pressure. Scotiabank Arena booed Richardson as if he were Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals, and he wilted. Richardson, a career 82 percent foul shooter, saw all three shots rim out, and the arena erupted on the third as if it was Game 7 all over again.

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