Raptors rally late to edge out Sixers in bench showdown

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Final score: Raptors 125, Sixers 121

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After clinching the second seed in the Eastern Conference in their win against the Grizzlies on Sunday night, I was a bit curious exactly how Nick Nurse and the Raptors coaching staff would approach their final three seeding games against the Bucks, Sixers and Nuggets. Balancing rest vs. rust is always a tricky balance for coaches heading down the stretch of a regular season – but it was a balance that I trusted Nick Nurse to figure out.

It was clear by Monday’s game against the Bucks that the Raptors’ strategy for their stretch run would be a conservative one, as Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Serbe Ibaka all sat out in the back-to-back – and it was more of the same flavour in last night’s game against the Sixers. Nick Nurse opted to hand the head coaching reigns over to Adrian Griffin for the game, who mostly deployed bench-focused lineups in the second half. Kyle and Fred returned in this one, but Serge and OG sat out (joining Oshae Brissett and Patrick McCaw who remain out); and with virtually no seeding consequences on the line for either team, this one had all the makings of an exhibition contest.

The Raptors went with their usual starting lineup with Norm in place of OG, and their start was sluggish to the say the least. Toronto shot 35% from the field in the first quarter and somehow managed to stay within 7, despite giving up 55% shooting to the Sixers. Joel Embiid was kept in check though, thanks to Marc Gasol – who forced the All-Star Centre into 1 for 4 shooting in his 13 minutes, with 5 turnovers. Embiid did not return after suffering a hit to his right hand in the second quarter though – X-rays were taken and came back negative. This has just been life for the Sixers in the bubble, who have received an avalanche of bad news over the past week and a half. Ben Simmons is now presumably ruled out for the rest of the season, and Joel Embiid had only yesterday come back from an ankle injury he suffered two games ago.

The slow start for the Raptors seemed to set the tone for the first half, and despite some attempts at a few runs early on, the Sixers seemed to get timely contributions right when they needed it in order to keep the Raptors at bay. Whether it was Furkan Korkmaz, who was 5 for 9 from beyond the arc, or Tobias Harris, who dropped 10 in the first quarter alone, Philly had a variety of contributors that put pressure on the Raptors defense. That of course didn’t stop Kyle Lowry from doing Kyle Lowry things on the offensive end – Lowry scored 18 of his 19 points in the second quarter, which really helped pick up the Raptors’ slack.

The second half however, was a different story. The Raptors starters came out with a stronger defensive disposition in the third quarter and took advantage of a depleted Philly squad that was playing without their two best offensive players in Simmons and Embiid. Chris Boucher, Terence Davis and Matt Thomas all also found ways to contribute in the flow of the offense, which helped the Raptors outscore the Sixers 36-26 in the third.

The fourth quarter was a depth test for both squads as the Raptors trotted out varying lineups featuring Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas, Terence Davis, Stanley Johnson, Malcolm Miller, Dewan Hernandez, and Paul Watson while the Sixers countered with Mattise Thybulle, Raul Neto, Norvel Pelle, Furkan Korkmaz, and Ottawa’s own Marial Shayok. Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly the prime-time ESPN game was probably hoping for. And when the Sixers started to pull away early in the fourth quarter, this one sure was shaping up to be a sleeper. But then something funny happened…

With the score at 111-101, in favour of Philly, at the 6:15 mark, the Sixers were racing down the floor having just stolen the ball from the Raptors off of a turnover; and on a lead-pass to Raul Neto, who drove to the basket, Stanley Johnson arose from nowhere to pin Neto’s layup against the backboard (a-la LeBron James one may perhaps say?). The play seemed like nothing at first – but it seemed to fuel Stanley Johnson and the Raptors in a way that we could never imagine.

It was sort of on script to have Matt Thomas hit a couple of big threes after that point – but when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Dewan Hernandez also got into the mix with threes of their own – you just had the feeling something special was brewing. And as the Raptors squeaked out stop after stop on the defensive end, their bench (really, the starters who just happened to be on the bench) grew louder and louder on the sidelines. Philly’s lead was 9, then 8, then 5, then 4, then 1. And with a minute to go, the Raptors finally took the lead on a Paul Watson drive to the basket.

The Sixers responded with a three-point play by Raul Neto, but the Raptors had the final word – thanks to…you guessed it…Stanley Johnson. After first tying the game at 121 on an easy driving layup, Stanley was then given the ball to close out the game; and when his driving pass to Dewan Hernandez first was batted away, he calmly regained control of the loose ball and put it back up and in to give the Raptors a decisive 2-point lead. That’s right – Stanley Johnson hit a game winner for the Toronto Raptors. It was simply an incredible moment for the fifth-year pro, who has mostly been unplayable since joining the Raptors this season. But last night was Stanley’s night – and you couldn’t help but be happy for the guy. With amazing plays down the stretch on both ends, Johnson sure managed to show some flashes of why he’s still in the league.

Now sure, this game obviously didn’t mean much in the way of playoff implications or seeding – but what the Raptors made clear with their win was that no matter who they send out on the floor, there’s a level of excellence that expected. It was further assurance that their championship DNA now appears to be firmly entrenched, even deep in their bench reserves. And while Nick Nurse and the Raptors coaching staff probably hope they won’t have to rely on their bench during the post-season, keeping them sharp may turn out to be useful down the road – you just never know.

Bench play aside, the most notable takeaway from the contest was probably the play of Joel Embiid, whose well-documented struggles against the Raptors continued once again. With his performance last night, Embiid is now a combined 4 for 22 (18%), and 0 for 5 from 3-point range in 76 minutes over 3 games against the Raptors this season. We now have a pretty large sample size of Marc Gasol dominating this matchup defensively against Embiid, meaning even if Embiid is healthy in a potential playoff series, I think the Raps will be pretty well-positioned in the front court.

With that, the Raptors will finally look to close out their 2019 – 2020 regular season on Friday against the Denver Nuggets. It will be the Raptors’ 72nd game of the season and they’ll hope to make it win number 53. Tip time on Friday is 1:30 pm.

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