Afternoon games, especially on weekdays, offer the promise of weirdness. So, too, to so-called let-down games following big matchups with tough opponents. As it turns out, working an injured point guard back in doesn’t exactly limit that. Mix in some potential hubris with an 18-1 record against the Philadelphia 76ers in the last 19 meetings and, well, you get what happened Monday, with the Toronto Raptors turning in three-quarters of a bad game and coming up short on a fourth-quarter comeback.
The Raptors didn’t lead once the entire game, trailed by as many as 21, and only kicked it into gear when one of their only effortful players to that point, Fred VanVleet, went down injured. It was a case of too-little, too-late at that point, the team’s defensive lethargy, relative lack of ball movement early, cold shooting from outside, and a tough return for Kyle Lowry conspiring to put them on the wrong end of a 117-111 decision.
The 76ers had a clearly edict out of the gate, and that was to pound the inside. Seven of their first 10 field-goal attempts came from the elbows in, and Joel Embiid was featured nearly as much in the first few minutes as he was in the last meeting. He and Jonas Valanciunas basically opened the game playing one-on-one, and after Valanciunas got him to bite on the pump-fake for a driving reverse dunk, Embiid answered the Lithuanian’s energy level. He showed most of the package, too, hitting from mid-range, driving, and working on the block, starting the game four-for-five with an assist. Add in a Ben Simmons cut past OG Anunoby and into open space under the rim, and it was a tough defensive start.
The Raptors had a similar strategy at the other end. Valanciunas got a pair of looks, and Serge Ibaka looked to take advantage of a major strength edge on Dario Saric. The star guards eased into their own offense, choosing instead to facilitate, at least until a nice out-of-timeout piece got DeMar DeRozan a good look. Not much changed from there, with Valanciunas and Ibaka both delivering big finishes at the rim, Simmons pushing into the paint against Anunoby, and Embiid finishing the full mixtape with a three before checking out with 12 first-quarter points. Toronto’s ball-handlers continued taking advantage of Philly’s scheme by finding the rollers – one particular set piece saw C.J. Miles catch on a curl and find Jakob Poeltl cutting underneath him – and when they adjusted, DeRozan had space.
There were issues, though. Consecutive turnovers late in the quarter got J.J. Redick cooking in transition, and Dwane Casey had to burn a timeout to stop a mini-Sixers pull-away run. It didn’t work, with Philly extending it to a 10-2 run before Delon Wright ended it with a tip-in. That put Toronto in a nine-point hole after a quarter, the requisite energy a little lacking with the early tip and coming off of a few high-emotion outings.
The bench continued that slide, unable to take advantage of the vast expanse Philly was giving them to shoot in and unable to contain T.J. McConnell (understandable, because it’s T.J. McConnell). Poeltl was the one bench piece who did step up, bringing some nice aggression against Embiid. It looked as if the Raptors’ second unit might be getting back into it, but a disastrous sequence saw Embiid score in the post, the Raptors lose a turnover they’d just forced, Wright miss a Euro-step in transition against Embiid hustling back, and Miles losing Redick in transition. From knocking on the door of a one-possession game to down 10 is a tough swing.
Toronto went small from there, and it at least had the desired effect defensively. Simmons got into foul trouble, too, which helped slow Philly down. The frustration remained at the other end, with DeRozan getting whistled for a frustration foul for shoving McConnell after he felt Robert Covington got the benefit of the doubt a couple of times. They received double technicals, part of a gummed-up three-minute stretch where neither side hit a field goal. The Raptors shifted back big to get VanVleet, really DeRozan’s best support to that point, a breather, and Valanciunas promptly picking up a third foul expanded the rotation to 11 to include Lucas Nogueira.
They kept tinkering like that, but the team really didn’t have the juice to turn it around, in spirit or in shooting. It was the first time in 64 outings they’d failed to hit a three in the first half, which says a lot. They did manage to close on a 6-0 run to stay within 10 points at the half, with Pascal Siakam going coast-to-coast, Lowry coming up with a steal, and Nogueira finding DeRozan for a late bank-shot. It was a familiar situation, the Raptors having played poorly and doing just enough to stay within striking distance for the second half.
They didn’t come out of the break with any better a demeanor. Redick got what he wanted, the Raptors’ jumpers remained errant at the end of sticky possessions, and the team complaining to the officials instead of playing team defense reached a crescendo in the form of a rare Casey technical foul, which felt intended to fire his team up more than anything. Even their positive moments were followed by negatives, like surrendering an offensive rebound or gambling for a steal after a make and surrendering a transition three. It took all of five minutes for the deficit to swell to 19 and Casey to go to the bench.
Naturally, Siakam was the one to get the team on the board from long-range. He then willed his way to an offensive rebound and put-back, and given the Sixers’ third-quarter struggles this year, even a 5-0 run was too large for Brett Brown. A timeout didn’t help, and the Raptors’ try-hard hybrid lineup with little regard for matchups continued that little run thanks in large part to Siakam’s energetic spark. Lowry tried to find a gear, too, but while he drew a charge, his shooting didn’t come around and he really didn’t look himself in his first game back. It didn’t take long for the frustration to come back, and VanVleet picked up a technical in front of a lot of somber faces on the bench as Philadelphia went ahead by 20.
The all-bench group tried to make the same push they’d made in earlier games against Philly. It didn’t take, and a frustrating game turned downright worrisome when VanVleet landed badly in transition after an Embiid block, eventually limping to the locker room with a right knee contusion. Pyrrhus’ ears turned red at that point, as VanVleet’s injury seemed to give the Raptors, Lowry in particular, the spark they’d lacked all game. DeRozan joined the Lowry-and-bench group, Lowry drew a third offensive foul of the night which doubled as Simmons’ fifth of the game, and Wright cut the lead to seven.
Swings drew dramatic from there. Philly pushed it back to nine, the Raptors went on an 8-0 run to get it down to one, and a Saric three made it a six-point game with two minutes to go. Casey went offense-defense with Miles and Siakam where he could and opted to intentionally foul Simmons, a 55.7-percent free-throw shooter. Simmons hit both, and a DeRozan missed three led to a Robert Covington run-out that just can’t happen in that spot. The Raptors still had a chance when Lowry drilled a three on a nice inbound play (after a weird/bad review) and Miles made a ridiculous tip-in on a Lowry pull-up miss. Philly went to Embiid on a post-up against Poeltl, the Raptors opted to double on the spin and not the catch, and Poeltl fouled Embiid before the help could come to put them up five.
That set the stage for maybe the goofiest play of all time, a mad scramble with multiple Raptors turnovers and Sixers missed shots that ended with Embiid at the line to seal the game. Lowry and Simmons topped it off with matching ejections.
In the end, it’s a pretty similar story to Saturday without any of the positive vibes. The Raptors were either on a let-down after their big week, took Philly lightly after beating them three times, got in their own heads about the officiating, or some combination of all three. They have gotten away with playing one or two good quarters against bad teams. They can’t do that against good ones, and as spirited as the fourth quarter was – and as willing as Philly was to give this away with turnovers – Toronto’s approach got the better of them here. This marks the first time all season the Raptors have dropped three out of four, and with Detroit, San Antonio, and Minnesota on tap this week, they have to hope it was another short-term blip.