It's only one win, but it's hard not to feel good about this Raptors team now
After three straight losses to the Philadelphia 76ers, Raptors fans headed into Game 4 expecting an end to the series following a flurry of injuries to the roster. But after seeing Scottie Barnes accept an award for Rookie of the Year alongside Masai Ujiri to the roar of the crowd and chants of his name, Scotiabank Arena’s lighthearted and celebratory energy was palpable.
As far as elimination games go, you wouldn't think that it was one from the audience’s enthusiasm. Yes, Joel Embiid heard boos for his every possession. Yes, we got an animated “REFS YOU SUCK” chant for a particularly questionable call. Yes, the arena shook once that lead was extended in the fourth.
Pascal Siakam set the tone for the matchup immediately, scoring six consecutive points in addition to carrying the bulk of the first-quarter offense. When a team, especially a young team, faces elimination, entering the game flat and discouraged is the norm. Coupled with Fred VanVleet frustratingly exiting the game around halftime due to a new hip injury, flaming out and losing motivation would’ve been an understandable outcome to Saturday afternoon’s game.
Although the series is unlikely to end in favor of the Raptors, it’s easy to feel encouraged by the efforts of the team’s main contributors. In regards to his health, Gary Trent Jr. said; “Man, I wish I felt like this the first two games. You know, how my body's feeling, you know, I'm good. I'm strong. I'll just continue to take it game by game and chip away, you know?” For Trent Jr., barring the first two games where he was compromised by injury, the shooting guard looked like himself during the matchups in Toronto, averaging 24 points and almost 10 attempts from the perimeter at 36.8%.
As for Precious Achiuwa and Scottie Barnes, both have had memorable stretches during their minutes on the court against the Sixers — with Barnes nearing a triple-double in his very first playoff game, and Achiuwa being good for multiple highlight plays per night. The latter hasn't gone unnoticed by coach Nick Nurse, either, to which he commented, “Precious has so many moves, you never know what he’s going to do out there. I keep saying ‘let's stick with a few’ but he keeps busting out new ones.”
The same quantifiable impact extends to OG Anunoby, who’s looked unfazed by defensive coverages, maximizing the attention focused on other Raptors players and using these opportunities to punish cracks in Philly’s rotation both off- and on-ball. Even Malachi Flynn, who’s seen his minutes virtually erased during the season’s latter half, has received some run against Tyrese Maxey, matching the shifty Philly guard’s quickness and ability to evade defenses, while not looking discouraged or out-of-sorts in the least after going a while without significant time on the court. The Raptors' youngest members have looked polished and eager to contribute, and for what was meant to be a season of integration and development, these minutes are vital — and impressive.
In Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam — the Raptors’ veteran scorers and All-Star caliber talents — Toronto has reliable and experienced leaders that, I think it’s fair to say in most cases, can maintain their regular season production when the lights are brightest. Now that we know the team’s youngest contributors can continue their growth and development as players into the intensity and physicality of the playoffs, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Raptors front office opts to keep this team relatively whole heading into next season.
With a Rookie of the Year on the roster, a franchise’s objective tends to be to surround their young gem with complimentary talent, and the shooting, switchability and playmaking already present in Toronto is a starting point not to scoff at.
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