Raptors do what they’re supposed to, roll 76ers

A shaky first quarter gave way to a dominant second and third.

The Toronto Raptors did exactly what they were supposed to do Wednesday, making relatively easy work of a shorthanded and winless team.

The Philadelphia 76ers entered play 0-7 and without the services of Nerlens Noel, Robert Covington, Richaun Holmes, Kendall Marshall, Tony Wroten, Carl Landry, and Joel Embiid. Despite missing DeMarre Carroll and Terrence Ross themselves and playing on the second night of a back-to-back, the Raptors were favored by 10 points. This, despite being on a three-game losing streak of their own, one that had served to highlight some of the perceived weaknesses of the roster.

The Sixers left Wednesday’s game at 0-8, hardly a big deal considering where they are on the franchise development curve. For a third consecutive season, it’s about Trusting the Process, putting player development and lottery balls above wins. For those who wanted general manager Masai Ujiri to do a complete teardown of the Raptors in 2012-13 for a “proper” rebuild, this is what that scenario could have looked like with a seven-year window and without the benefit of good fortune. Philadelphia took a calculated risk on Embiid that is yet to return anything but post-facto second-guessing, they’ve yet to land a pick higher than No. 3 in the lottery, one of their key picks remains stashed in Europe, and one of the picks they hit on became Rookie of the Year and was subsequently traded for a top-three protected pick. There’s a core here, with more help coming, but the window isn’t any time in the next two seasons.

General manager Sam Hinkie has a plan and a long-view for the franchise. Noel looks like a real player, Jahlil Okafor put his absolute offensive beastliness on display against Jonas Valanciunas and the Raptors on Wednesday, and the team appears to have unearthed rotation players in T.J. McConnell and Covington essentially for free. They were paid in picks (and Nik Stauskus) by the Sacramento Kings to take on salary, they have standing bets on the failure of the Kings and Lakers, and they’ll once again own their own high pick in the 2016 draft (Jamal Murray would look good with this core).

But despite any signs of progress, despite the best efforts of head coach Brett Brown and a roster that, if it were to get healthy at any point, isn’t quite as objectionable as years past, the Sixers are quite bad. They’re now 0-8, have been outscored by 13.6 points per-game and 14.2 points per-100 possessions, and any dreams of an unlikely step in the right direction in the standings can more or less be put to rest.

That’s a reality the Sixers organization has accepted and one that they ostensibly remain committed to. Whether or not fans still Trust the Process is a question for them, but it’s not as if they have much choice. This is reality for the 76ers.

And still, they were able to show cracks in the Raptors early on. Philadelphia scored a season-high 34 points in the opening quarter as Okafor went to work, their middling shooters got hot from outside, and the Raptors showed an indifference on defense and on the glass. Philly’s lead always seemed tenuous, having played perhaps their best quarter while the Raptors made their customarily slow start, but struggling for any amount of time against this team is worrisome.

Toronto rolled from there, though, finding their stride at both ends of the floor and on the glass. Seven different Raptors scored in the second quarter as the team opened up a lead, Valanciunas swung the balance of his post battle with Okafor in Toronto’s favor, and the Sixers cooled from outside.

The Raptors also got a major spark off the bench from Norman Powell, who wound up playing a career-high 25 minutes and finishing with eight points, four rebounds, an assist, and a steal. With the exception of losing Isaiah Canaan for an open three early in his stint and then falling victim to the whole team’s general fourth-quarter defensive malaise, Powell’s performance was encouraging. The playing time was something I had suggested could be coming in response to the wing injuries, as Powell’s a safe bet to at least try on the defensive end of the floor, and his north-south style of attacking will work well against poor defensive backcourts like Philadelphia’s.

James Johnson joined Powell in having a strong game, and he’s now played two-and-a-half good games in three starts in place of Carroll. He finished with eight points, five rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a block in 30 minutes and may have played his way back into the rotation, even when Carroll’s healthy, with his performance this week.

The strong games from Powell and Johnson do serve to highlight a concern that we’ll go deeper on in a post this afternoon, which is the Raptors’ complete lack of outside shooting right now. It’s tough, I suppose, to criticize a team for a weakness when two of their strongest players in that area are injured and the team still ranks seventh in offensive efficiency overall, but when your best options to replace injured wings are players who exacerbate a spacing issue, the rotation balance is of some concern.

In any case, it mattered little Wednesday, as the Raptors didn’t require outside shooting. Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry took over for Powell and Johnson out of the break and at one point combined to score 18 consecutive Raptors points in the third quarter. Scola would finish with a season-high 21 points in just 19 minutes, his Old Man Game simply too difficult for the undersized and under-experienced Philly frontcourt to handle. Lowry, meanwhile, enjoyed his homecoming with 23 points and eight assists in 29 minutes.

The Raptors held a 19-point lead entering the fourth quarter, a wonderful luxury in a back-to-back scenario. After tasking Lowry and DeMar DeRozan with nearly 40 minutes each in a loss on Tuesday, neither player cracked 30 minutes Wednesday. Johnson (30) and Cory Joseph (31, in another really strong outing that requires individual attention soon) were the only players asked to hit the 30-minute mark and the Raptors now have until next Tuesday-Wednesday before another back-to-back scenario. Taking care of business early against the Sixers allowed for the team to keep their players relatively well-rested despite playing the week shorthanded, and a day off from practice Thursday will further serve that end.

The fourth quarter, by necessity, got ugly with a full bench mob. The Sixers hung around with a mid-teens deficit long enough that Bruno Caboclo only saw 71 seconds of playing time, just enough to air-ball a corner three and get lost on a simple switch on defense. The 905 open their season Saturday, by the way. The rest of the fourth was so ugly that Bismack Biyombo was the offensive focal point, leading the team with eight points in the frame.

Tor-Phi1st2nd-3rd4th
Score29-3467-4323-26
Rebounds13-1630-1217-14
FG%37.5-56.565.1-41.527.3-43.5
3FGA2/6-4/62/7-4/141/5-4/9

No game in the NBA is ever a certain victory. A shorthanded and winless Sixers team is the closest thing, and the favorable circumstances surrounding Wednesday’s game could’t have come at a better time. Banged up themselves and with confidence potentially low during a three-game skid, the Raptors shook off a(nother) slow start and took care of their business emphatically.

There’s not a great deal to analyze about a game like that. Here’s to taking what you came for.

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