Raptors roll into Philly and dominate the Sixers to force Game 6

·Raptors Writer
·11 min read

When boos came raining down at Wells Fargo Center during the second quarter of Game 5 of the opening round series between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, you would have thought that the Sixers were the team that was down 3-1 and facing elimination. Instead, the opposite was true, with the Sixers winning the first three games of the series, two of them in blowout fashion.

And despite trailing the Raptors from the start of Game 5 onwards, the Sixers and their fans still had plenty of reasons to be confident, including the fact that no team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs and that the Raptors will likely be without All-Star point guard Fred VanVleet for the remainder of the series.

On one hand, Philadelphia sports fans are known to be extremely passionate and hard on their teams, so the boos weren’t all that surprising. But for a team with championship aspirations who still had more than half a game to play and, had they lost, would have two more chances to beat the undermanned Raptors and advance to the second round, they didn’t seem like a confident bunch.

That's because the Raptors didn’t look like a team that was down 3-1 in the series. They didn‘t look like the young and inexperienced team that they are. And they didn’t look like they were missing their starting point guard. Instead, the Raptors looked like they believed in themselves despite all the adversity, dominating the Sixers from the tip-off to the final buzzer, beating them 103-88 to cut the series deficit to 3-2 with a chance to tie it and force a Game 7 in Toronto on Thursday night.

“Obviously, the first three games didn't go the way we wanted them to but I think one thing I can say is that everyone, we went to the drawing board, we got in a lot of film sessions, we tried to make adjustments and stick to the game plan and I think that our effort kind of got better,” Pascal Siakam said after the win.

The Raptors have been the better team for the last eight quarters of this series as they head back to Toronto with hopes of sending it to seven. (USA TODAY Sports)
The Raptors have been the better team for the last eight quarters of this series as they head back to Toronto with hopes of sending it to seven. (USA TODAY Sports)

“That's pretty much what it is: just having more effort and being decisive in what we are doing, following the game plan and just knowing if we do all that, we will live with the results.”

The Raptors have been the better team for the last eight quarters of this series, and that’s because their defense has finally figured out how to guard MVP-finalist Joel Embiid and Co. The Raptors held the Sixers to just 88 points on a series-low 38.3 percent shooting on Monday after holding them to just 42.5 percent shooting in Game 4. They forced 16 turnovers for the second straight game — including four on Embiid and five on James Harden — and took advantage with 24 fast-break points.

Most importantly, the Raptors have figured out how to guard the trio of Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey without fouling them after the Sixers got to the free-throw line at a league-high rate during the regular season and first two games of the playoffs. After going to the line 34 and 30 times in Games 1 and 2, the Sixers have been limited to 20, 25, and 20 free throws over the previous three games, with the Raptors even winning the battle in Game 4, when Pascal Siakam got to the line 15 times himself.

“I think if we can keep those guys, Harden and Embiid, to around five or six or seven free throws apiece, rather than double digits, we stand a much better chance,” Nick Nurse said after the game.

They’ve limited the Sixers’ trio of stars by executing on their frantic and aggressive style of defence to perfection, finding that balance of playing with aggression but being smart enough to not foul. They’ve successfully taken the ball out of Embiid’s hands (or at least not given him good post position) by beating him down the court and denying the ball. And they’ve kept Harden and Maxey in check by running them off the three-point line and forcing them to make tough floaters over the second line of the defence.

Their rotations have been crisp and the closeouts controlled, with the Raptors limiting the Sixers' big-three to a series-low 47 points on Monday, with Embiid dropping just 20 on 7-15 shooting and six free throws.

“I talked about it after the first two games and you guys asked me what the hell's wrong with your defense? And I said: ‘everything.’ And I meant kind of all those foundational principles: First transition was a huge problem. We weren't good at that at all. Our ball pressure wasn't good enough. Our shot contesting wasn't good enough and our rebounding wasn't good enough,” Nurse said about the defensive improvement. “Those are our four foundational principles, and we've just gotten so much better at all four of those and then it allows us to get our defense set and then we can get to some of the schemes and things we're doing.”

Maybe equally impressive as the defence is the composure that the Raptors played with on the offensive end despite having the lead all game. Usually, young teams — especially ones playing away from home without their only real point guard — tend to struggle to keep leads in that environment, allowing other teams to go on runs and make the game interesting. But the Raptors kept the lead to at least 9 for the entire fourth quarter, answering the Sixers every time they threw a punch.

Once again, it was Siakam who led the way with 23-10-7. He did a masterful job of balancing point guard duties with VanVleet out and looking for his own offence when the team desperately needed a bucket, especially down the stretch, scoring at all three levels and looking like a superstar for the second straight elimination game.

“I thought he was composed, he was taking his time when he needed to, he was finding people, especially late,” Nurse said of Siakam. “He made some big tough buckets when there wasn't much going and those are huge. Your scorer needs to produce some baskets on his own sometimes and he was able to do that.”

Or as OG Anunoby put it:

“Just give him the ball, get out of the way. He's a really talented player. He can score from anywhere. And he makes his teammates better, so he led us to a victory today.”

If the Raptors have any hope of pulling off the impossible and becoming the first team to win a series after being down 3-0, it will be because of their elite defense, Siakam’s superstardom, and the composure that enables them to stay together when facing adversity and play as a group rather than a collection of individuals.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Thad Young said about the young Raptors’ calmness down the stretch. “These guys, from Day 1 when I got here, seemed like a great group of guys who are very poised… We go out there and we play as hard as we can, everybody listens to each other, no one man is bigger than the team and that’s why we’re able to go out there and win basketball games, why we’re able to get ourselves back into this series and continue to fight each and every night.”

Breaking it down

Offensively, the Raptors had 24 assists on 42 made baskets, and that was because of a smart offensive game plan that put the Sixers on their heels from the get-go.

With VanVleet out and a starting lineup with Gary Trent Jr. as their smallest player, the Raptors aggressively hunted mismatches by posting up their bigger players onto the Sixers guards — namely Maxey and Harden. The Raptors jumped out to a 16-9 lead less than four minutes into the game by throwing the ball into the post, waiting for doubles, and playing out of them.

Or, if the Sixers didn’t double-team to help on the mismatch quickly enough, the Raptors just went at their smaller players, like Scottie Barnes does here:

The Sixers adjusted as the game went on by putting Maxey on Trent Jr., but that opened up another array of problems, as the Raptors started to put Maxey in pick-and-roll situations to either get him switched onto a big or force Embiid to guard out on the perimeter instead of being the rim protector. Embiid wore down as the game went along, and part of that was all of the pick-and-rolls that the Raptors put him and Maxey through after the Sixers made the initial adjustment to get Maxey out of the post. It’s like whack-a-mole, with no good options for the Sixers' D.

Standout player

Precious Achiuwa was among many of the Raptors’ standouts on Monday night, scoring 17 points on 7-11 shooting in just 27 minutes off the bench along with seven rebounds and three blocks. He was great on both ends of the floor, denying Embiid the ball and holding him out of good post position for long enough that the Raptors could double-team him with composure. And when he got switched onto a perimeter player like Maxey or Harden, he stayed in front of them with ease, to the point where those two have been calling for screens to get off of Achiuwa, who is normally the Raptors' backup center. The fact that he is guarding Embiid this well at this age should scare the rest of the Eastern Conference for years to come.

“He's been huge for us, on both ends of the floor,” Siakam said of Achiuwa. “Obviously, guarding Embiid is a team job, But at the same time, he's the initial defender out there and he's guarding Harden and he can guard anybody.”

Barnes was also great in his second game back from an ankle injury, dropping 12-8-4 and adding three steals while doing truly sick things that a man probably shouldn’t do in the fourth quarter of an elimination game. But he is still a kid, and that’s what’s so lovable about Barnes. Just look at this staredown on Maxey in transition:

And this no-look lob pass to Achiuwa to all but seal the game:

News and notes

Fred VanVleet said he is day-to-day but sounded highly unlikely for Game 6. He said it was more likely that he would return in the next round of the playoffs, should the Raptors get there.

Barnes looked much better in this one than he did in Game 4, but Nurse said “ he might have been labouring there a bit at the end of the game. So, we’ll have to see but I think he’s okay. That’s the first time I’ve seen him limp in two games and he was limping there a bit at the end of the game.” It shouldn’t be too big of a cause for concern with two days off before Thursday’s Game 6, but it is worth noting.

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