As Joel Embiid did his signature “airplane” celebration, the Toronto Raptors had every reason to be concerned.
Kawhi Leonard fatiguingly walked to the bench after a 33-point performance in 36 minutes played.
Pascal Siakam suffered a calf contusion that put his Game 4 status in doubt.
Fred VanVleet, a pillar of the Raptors secondary scoring, had trouble converting shots.
These concerns predicated the biggest issue of all. The Raptors were down 2-1 in the series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Toronto’s 116-95 Game 3 loss was their largest margin of defeat in the 2019 playoffs thus far.
A tipping point was evident. The Raptors, a franchise with championship aspirations, were reeling against a surging Sixers team.
Something needed to change.
“I think we got out-played in just about every area we could get out-played,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse after Game 3. “In overall physicality, energy, cutting, rebounding, passing, all that kind of stuff … we got thoroughly out-played and it’s been a while, it’s been a while since you’ve seen this team play this way.”
The Raptors defense struggled in Game 3. A unit that hadn’t given up over 100 points since Game 1 against the Orlando Magic, the Sixers found a way to exploit it.
This was accomplished through aggressive play in the paint, taking advantage of the Raptors defense not tightly guarding the Sixers stars. Right before Embiid did the “airplane,” he walked into a wide-open windmill dunk. The Sixers big man muscled his way in the post, where he used his size to draw fouls. Embiid’s 33 points, 10 rebounds on 50 percent shooting from the field and with three made threes demonstrate the complete game he played on both ends of the floor.
It wasn’t just Embiid who had success against the Raptors defense. Jimmy Butler, who put up 22 points, had many instances where he ran to the basket without much trouble. The Sixers small forward was able to run a lot of high pick and roll plays with Tobias Harris, who put up 13 points on 45.5 percent shooting.
For the second consecutive game, the Raptors bench could not keep up with the Sixers. James Ennis III’s 10 points in 24 minutes proved to be effective, using his size to outplay Raptor centers Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. The Raptors bench only put up 15 points, with VanVleet going 0-for-7 from the field.
Thanks to Leonard, the Raptors cut the deficit to seven points heading into the fourth quarter. But the Sixers slammed the door with an 11-0 run to start the fourth quarter, quashing the Raptors chances of making a comeback.
As Kyle Lowry alluded to post-game, the team needs to provide more offensive support for Kawhi.
“I’ve got to help him on the floor. We’ve all got to help him. He’s playing unbelievable right now. We’re not giving him any help. Me, I’m not giving him any help. We’ve got to help him.”
The Raptors required soul searching. A franchise with two previous second-round exits needed to make adjustments.
The road to a championship is never a smooth one. Adversity needs to be conquered to achieve greatness.
The Sixers haven’t won the series yet, despite their airplane antics in the fourth quarter.
With the Raptors down 2-1, the season that brought so much promise hangs in the balance heading into Game 4.
**NOTE: Game 4 of the Raptors/Sixers Series reairs on TSN at 8 pm EST on Saturday, March 28th **