The Raptors got their first look at the new Sixers on Wednesday night, and with ESPN in town for a day of coverage as well as broadcasting the game nationally, this was an opportunity for each team to showcase their new star.
Back in October the Raptors won the first meeting of the teams, with Kawhi Leonard delivering a dominating performance, shutting down Ben Simmons and dropping 31 points, as Philly struggled to open their season. Since making the trade to bring in Jimmy Butler, however, Philly had been rolling to a 9-2 mark with him in the lineup, moving into a tie for second in the East. With Butler, Simmons and Joel Embiid, the Sixers had proven a tough opponent to match up against for opponents, and it showed in the first half of this game.
A defensive battle early on, the Sixers got the upper hand due to some poor shooting from Toronto, but 21 first half points from Kawhi kept the game close while no one else on the Raptors could seem to find a shot as the rest of the team went 0/12 from downtown in the half as the Raptors took a small half-time lead.
The third quarter largely brought more of the same, with Butler and Leonard trading blows as each team largely struggled to find other offense, before the Raptors bench came to life to open the fourth quarter. Using Pascal Siakam with the reserve unit and running the offense through him and Delon Wright, the Raptors bench generated a run to start the frame that took a solid lead for the team. Jonas Valanciunas, limited by foul trouble in the first half, was able to comfortably win the matchup against Joel Embiid in the fourth, delivering 18 points and frequently getting the better of Embiid at both ends of the floor.
Then, halfway through the frame, the starters for the Raptors returned and sealed the game with their defense, keeping it from getting close the rest of the way. The story of this game was the reason that each team made the big move that they did, getting stars that can compete at this level, and Butler and Kawhi each delivered a dominant performance, but Kawhi was just a little bit better in the end in this one.
This was also an extremely well-coached game by Nick Nurse, planning effectively to slow down Joel Embiid with well-timed help from the Raptors perimeter defenders limiting his ability to be effective in the paint while forcing seven turnovers from Ben Simmons with great ball pressure. Also, Nurse should get credit for making a great adjustment late with Siakam alongside the bench. This move gave them more ballhandling with that unit that had struggled to create shots at times, and helped them build the lead that eventually got the Raptors the win. While the Sixers did a good job in this one taking away Siakam’s scoring, making a concerted effort to keep him away from the situations where he’s created trouble at that end of the floor, he found big ways to contribute with his defense, passing and energy.
There will be a lot of questions for the Raptors about their shooting lately and how much they’ve struggled, but it’s a good sign the way the team fought through that in this game and found a way to win, despite those troubles. Philadelphia is a good, tough opponent, and this wasn’t a perfect outing for the Raptors, but it showed how talented this team is that they can fight through those games, even against a good team, and pull out the win.
After Masai Ujiri and Kyle Lowry both fielded questions today about the huge trade that brought in Kawhi Leonard this summer, this game was, again, vindication for the reasons that Masai made the move. The Raptors in past years have been on the other side of these type of games, frequently against Butler, where an opposing star just won’t stop hitting tough shots, no matter the defense, and the loss feels inevitable. This year’s team, because of that trade, has that type of star as well, and can reply in kind.