The Toronto Raptors undoubtedly have a higher ceiling, but if you get up that high when performing any kind of maintenance and slip up, it can be a pretty hard fall.
Entering Saturday night’s action, the Raptors had a stellar 7-1 record without Kawhi Leonard and were also undefeated through six games of basketball on a second night of a back-to-back. Despite the returns of Kyle Lowry and Danny Green, though, the absences of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas were too much to overcome as both marks came to a screeching halt with a 126-101 loss in Philadelphia against the 76ers. Joel Embiid was too big and too strong after a quiet start and Ben Simmons clearly relished the opportunity to flex in front of Kendall Jenner in the absence of Leonard.
Kawhi really is a good dude and must be in the holiday spirit letting Simmons off the hook by not playing.
After 18 turnovers in two games largely matched up against the giant mitts of Kawhi, Simmons was dominant with 26 points on 13 shots, collected 12 rebounds and dished out eight assists while losing the ball just once. He also picked up OG Anunoby on the defensive end, and did a good job of using his strength and length to take away any rhythm the former Hoosier thought he may have had coming into this game after breaking out for 21 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Jimmy Butler was quietly impactful, the rare superstar who is always prepared to outwork you and that really seemed to unsettle the seemingly always-in-rhythm Danny Green. Add effective cameos from JJ Redick, Jonah Bolden and Furkan Korkmaz and the Raptors just didn’t have enough ammo to last 48 minutes. Bolden was particularly impressive, leading the team with four blocks and providing a strong presence in the paint to supplement the already intimidating Embiid.
Early on, though, the return of Lowry sparked ball movement in the half-court that has generally been lacking in his absence, and if not for being cold from the outside — hitting just two of his nine 3-point attempts — things could have been tighter before the Raptors struggled to keep the Sixers from ferociously tugging away the rope late in the third quarter and early in the fourth.
If there is one concern as we approach the halfway mark of the season, it is possibly that the Raptors aren’t quite the three-point shooting threats they imagined themselves to be. They shot 10-for-40 on the night (including 0-for-6 from Pascal Siakam) and are now 23rd in the league in three-point percentage. You don’t expect Lowry to finish the season making less than a third of his three-point attempts, but where does the rest of the improvement come from?
Outside of his shot — ok, and save for the telepathic understanding he shares with Ibaka and Valanciunas —all the trademarks of Lowry-ball were there: pushing the pace, in-your-face defense, Nash’ing around till space opens up for shooters or cutters, and manipulating the attention his facilitating demands to create his own space for shots. That becomes infectious.
Here, about midway through the second quarter, the Raptors showed tremendous ball movement as every player on the floor touched the ball before a Lowry drive found a cutting Delon Wright who in turn found Anunoby above the break for a three.
Fred VanVleet is often looked at as Lowry-lite, and has really turned a corner after a slow start for the second season in a row. That loss to Milwaukee looks like the turning point, and more opportunity to get in a rhythm with starter minutes can’t have hurt either. He also gets to play alongside Pascal Siakam just about as often as he did last season, and the improvement in Siakam’s scoring ability can only further enhance the Wichita State product’s game.
Going up against his compatriot Embiid more often due to the aforementioned absences of Toronto’s go-to centres, Siakam tried to shoulder as much of the scoring load as he could, attempting a career-high 21 shots from the field for his 26 points. There is value in being able to spell an offense struggling to hit from the outside with that type of volume shooting inside of 10 feet, even though the efficiency wasn’t quite the 26-points on 10 shots he had in that memorable win over the Golden State Warriors.
(Side note: It would be awesome to watch Cameroon in international play just to see Joel and Pascal at the 4 and 5)
Perhaps most encouraging for the Raptors will be the fact that Norman Powell was able to carry over his effectiveness in the Cleveland game over to much more competitive opponents in the Sixers.
There is a genuine sense of composure to Powell’s game since returning, an aspect that may be standing out even more since players generally can be a bit too anxious when returning from an extended period out of commission. Watch the time he takes with these two three-pointers. It’s in rhythm, but there’s a calmness to it that reflects comfort in shooting these shots, no sense of rushing it nor thinking too much about it.
These are in stark contrast to any outside shot C.J. Miles is taking right now. It really feels like the less said about him the better right now, and a particularly brutal stretch from him late in the first quarter contributed to the 76ers cutting a 25-18 deficit to just one point heading into the second. Over the final 1:30 of the first quarter, he committed a turnover, two fouls that led to four Sixers points at the line and a missed three. If not for some Lowry-like 2-for-1 excellence from VanVleet that resulted in five points for the Raptors over the final 30 seconds, the optics could have been much worse.
I’ve probably said this in a recap before since Miles’ struggles have been season-long, but head coach Nick Nurse is clearly aware he has a team so strong he can probably afford to extend the veteran’s leash to Game 82. It’s the nights like these where the Raptors are short-handed that the consequences of his shooting woes are genuinely felt and really hold the team back. Again, with Powell playing the way he is, it’s hard to envision Miles receive any kind of meaningful playing time.
Two players who will very much be needed in a potential series between these two teams are Ibaka and Valanciunas as size and strength is vital against a team as physical as the 76ers. Their absences were sorely felt, especially when remembering that dominant fourth quarter for the Lithuanian in the last meeting between these teams at Scotiabank Arena. Ibaka, on the whole, has also been quite good against Embiid, and if there was any aspect of Lowry’s game outside of his shooting that was missed on this night, it was the two-man game between him and the original man from the motherland who will hopefully receive some serious all-star consideration (Reminder: all-star voting begins Dec. 25).
As the maintenance continues for both those bigs, and Leonard’s health rightly takes precedence over regular season wins, the Raptors will be susceptible to more losses like these. The duo has been vital in accentuating Lowry’s strengths in the games where Leonard has been absent, and so hopefully Ibaka makes a return no later than Boxing Day in Miami.
Till then, thanks for reading everything I’ve thrown out there so far this season, and have a happy holidays!