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Raptors Exhibit Veteran Poise in Crucial Game 5 Win

On Tuesday night in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena the Raptors came to play, embarrassing the Philadelphia 76ers in a 125-89 win. On a night when a lot of things were working for the Raptors, and not many for the 76ers, it was the veteran poise of the Raptors that stood out, helping them take an early lead and, more importantly, not squander it the entire game. It is the veteran poise that defines these Raptors, a team full of high IQ players who are smart on defense and always willing to make the right play, even if that means sacrificing for the good of the team. That mentality was on full display Tuesday night, and the 76ers had absolutely no answers.

It was the starters who set the tone for the Raptors, coming out with frisky defense, contesting every shot and coming up with timely steals and forced turnovers from the get-go. The Raptors were aggressive on their glass all game, out rebounding the 76ers 42-37. That was a real group effort, by the way, as all five Raptors starters had at least five rebounds in the game. Toronto also forced 19 turnovers and had 14 fast-break points in the first half alone (and 33 in the game), tying a franchise record. Those stops and rebounds allowed the Raptors to get out in transition and play at a fast pace, which was clearly part of Nick Nurse’s gameplan, and the 76ers had no answers, despite being the best team in the league and defending the fast break all season. The Raptors were also able to create mismatches throughout the game by getting out quickly on offense, and moments like Leonard attacking Embiid and Lowry attacking Redick stand out.

Perhaps just as important as their effective transition game, the Raptors were finally able to make some shots. They shot the three without hesitation from the start, and several players were rewarded including Danny Green (5-7), Marc Gasol (3-5), Kyle Lowry (2-5), and Pascal Siakam (2-7). Fred VanVleet even hit an open three in the first quarter, just his second bucket of the series, and the Raptors proved they could score without Leonard carrying them. In fact, four guys had double-digit point totals after just the first half (by the way, credit Nurse for sticking with VanVleet even though his shot wasn’t falling. VanVleet was able to impact the game defensively and might have regained his shooting confidence).

It’s important that the rest of the Raptors’ shots are starting to fall, as the entire rotation will need to contribute as the playoffs continue, but so many things only go right in a critical game if a team has the collective mindset and poise to execute. More than anything, the Raptors won with their defense, as is often the case. That sounds weird on a night when the Raptors put up 125 points, but I assure you it’s true. They limited the 76ers to just 41.8 percent shooting and just 25.0 percent from the three point line, but this game was won in the first half when the Raptors held Philadelphia to just 43 points on 36.8 percent from the field and just just 10.0 percent from three.

The Raptors once again stuck to their game plan and it worked. They allowed the 76ers to take mid range shots but everything at the rim and behind the arc was contested. That is how they were able to limit JJ Redick to -20 with zero points in the first half and Embiid to just 2-6 from the field (0-3 from three) with four turnovers. In fact, the only reason the 76ers were still in the game at all after the first half was because Jimmy Butler got to the line 10 times and scored nine points at the stripe despite eight of those attempts coming off an Ibaka foul that consisted of Butler elbowing Ibaka in the head and two three’s where Butler may or may not have been very softly touched.

The Raptors could have let those soft foul calls get to them — a less mature team might have — but instead they demonstrated a poise and patience typical of this team in critical moments. They didn’t force the game, or do anything differently after having those calls go against them. Instead, they continued to play smart defense and get stops, ran on transition, shot the ball with confidence, and took a first quarter lead they never looked back on.

Despite the Butler fouls, the Raptors did a really good job of keeping the 76ers off the line throughout the game, holding Philadelphia to just 20 free throw attempts. The front-court players were all deterrents at the rim and Gasol limited Embiid to just 2 free-throw attempts all game (and just 13 points). But credit the rest of the Raptors too, who contested three point shots without fouling all game and never let Redick or Tobias Harris get going. That is not easy to do in today’s league, especially with a sharpshooter like Redick running around screens. But contesting shots without fouling was something Green mentioned would be important going forward after game 4 and was clearly on the Raptors’ radar, and they executed like the high IQ basketball players they are.

The third quarter started with a 10-2 76ers run, as Embiid and Redick knocked down three-pointers, and it was another moment the Raptors could have let the game get away from them. Instead, Nurse took a timeout and the Raptors continued to play to their strengths. They continued to play the elite defense their starting unit is capable of and Leonard, who was surrounded by blue jerseys throughout the game and not his usual self in the first half, took over with two midrange buckets and a calm, no-look pass to Green for a wide-open corner three to regain comfortable lead.

The Raptors never took their foot off the pedal and showcased the many ways in which they can beat a talented but flawed team like the 76ers. They won every quarter. They outscored the 76ers 38-32 in the paint. They outscored the 76ers 33-8 in transition. They outscored the 76ers 48-18 from behind the arc. They had 6 less turnovers than the 76ers. Their bench outscored the 76ers bench 9-7 in the first half. And, most importantly, they had the defensive intensity and execution that makes them special. Butler said before the series that he believes chemistry is overrated, but the way the Raptors played tonight — picking each other up, communicating on every switch, making the right play even if it meant sacrificing personal numbers — proved that chemistry is fundamental to the Raptors success. It’s the only way that, when it matters most, a group of veterans can come together and execute their game plan to perfection. 

A couple more notes

1. Despite the Raptors leading by 20-30 points for most of the second half, not once could you find any member of the roster showboating. That is because, as I mentioned several times, this is a veteran group who knows that they haven’t won anything yet. Unlike Embiid, who airplaned his way through the court after a windmill dunk in game 3, Leonard dunked all over Embiid’s headtop and celebrated with nothing more than a primal scream.

These Raptors have their eyes set on an NBA championship, and they aren’t going to show off until they get there. The 76ers, on the other hand, look to have lost a lot of confidence in between games 3 and 5. Can they get it back in game 6? Maybe. But I expect them to stay humble if they do.

2. There has been a lot of talk about the 76ers crowd being louder and better than the Raptors, and that is a real shame. Due to increased ticket prices it is harder to get real fans in the door. I noticed this evolve with the Maple Leafs where the crowds have gotten really bad considering how passionate of a hockey city Toronto is.

Toronto is an expensive city and by the looks of it tickets are going to get more and more outrageous, but that doesn’t mean the organization can’t do something to more get real fans in the building. Consider extending the standing area or have a section with ticket prices that are reasonable and stable. I understand the Raptors want to make back some of the money they are paying into the luxury tax, but if you allow it to continue evolving towards a situation where only rich businessmen can afford tickets, the city is going to lose its hard-earned reputation of having passionate fans and a great crowd. That and home court advantage won’t matter so much.

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