At certain points in sports, you can just feel something is in the air.
There are plays that defy all logic, all sense of sensibility, suggesting one player or team is just destined to win. That moment for the Toronto Raptors during their championship run came when Kawhi Leonard dribbled to the right corner, faded away over Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid and hoisted a shot that bounded in four of the most amazing ways before dropping through the hoop.
It was a moment that suggested Toronto was finally freed of their playoff demons of the past and that henceforth would be a new day. And so it has been. The Raptors won the championship, and then despite losing Leonard and Danny Green, showed little grief and kept marching to win after win.
The Raptors have since marched with a strut to their step, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat when for the better part of their first two decades of existence they did exactly the opposite. There was the 30-point comeback against Dallas, the unlikely late comeback against the Pacers to extend a franchise-record winning streak, and now there’s this latest win with Stanley Johnson scoring both the tying and go-ahead basket to give Toronto a thrilling 125-121 win over the Sixers.
The moment you knew? When the Raptors were labouring through a halfcourt set and Johnson found Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for a three-point look, which he knocked down courtesy an extremely kind couple of bounces on the rim.
It was a joy to watch Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas, Malcolm Miller, Paul Watson and Dewan Hernandez contribute to a win. They all played their part and should be immensely proud of owning that moment on US national television.
Considering he was the one to clinch it at the end, this breakdown will be on Johnson.
Working with a nine-minute sample size here so there’s only so much to go off of, but Johnson made a few nice plays that showcased his size and quickness. In the first play below, the Raptors lose the ball but Johnson does a nice job hustling back in transition. Watch as he quickly takes a look to his right to recognize where the danger is coming from, takes another look at the ball handler to anticipate the pass, and then pounces for the block. Now, the replay showed he was slightly late and got the benefit of the call, but that doesn’t take away from the effort.
In the second play, the Sixers do a bad job of screening for Furkan Korkmaz at the free-throw lane and that opens a lane for Johnson to shoot through the gap. Norvel Pelle realizes this a bit too late, and so is called for the illegal screen when he moves to impede Johnson’s progress. Good on Johnson for not trying to go around it.
Finally, Johnson does well to close out on Marial Shayok on the kick-out to the weakside corner, stays right along with him on the attempted drive to contest the shot, then follows up with the rebound.
Johnson initially struggled creating looks for himself after entering the game because Terence Davis fouled out. There’s only so much that can work for him without a dependable jumper, but there were hints of the areas in which he could at least look to make a staple of his offence. He looked his best when pushing the pace and getting a step on his primary defender, and had one play on the left block (0:20) where he showcased solid strength and quickness to get to the basket.
He’s clearly much more comfortable going back to his right, both when looking to make a pass and finish at the rim, and that does him a disservice in the very first play below where he has excellent inside position but ends up settling for a fadeaway moving away from the basket. Johnson misses out on making the initial catch, but if he were to trust himself going left he had every opportunity to finish over Korkmaz up close.
The final play was his best move, where he fakes the hand-off and explodes to the rim for the easy finish, tying up the ball game. The spacing Hernandez provides here is also valuable, as after Johnson gets the initial step, there’s no one to help and contest at the rim.
Just like with Hollis-Jefferson, there may just be something to creating value with non-shooters by having them handle the ball and add playmaking to their skill set. With Johnson’s physique, other players providing appropriate spacing can open up the opportunity to use his best attributes to bull doze his way to the rim and finish strong. He’s got a ways to go with the handle, but there at least seems to be a theoretical path to success this way.
The first play below highlights exactly that opportunity, and the help by Raul Neto forces Johnson to distribute. It’s a good pass across his body to Hernandez, but when the help doesn’t come over, Johnson needs to have the option of finishing with his left.
And then there’s the final play (0:23) that wins the Raptors the game. Johnson copes with the double-team expertly (why on earth are the Sixers double-teaming Johnson at half-court?!?!), and after navigating his way out of trouble, goes to what looks to be his pet move of shading left and passing right, Hernandez gets rejected, and it falls right into the lap of Johnson for the put-back.
What I find hilarious about the Sixers double-team is just how horrible a position it leaves them in once Johnson is able to evade it.
That’s three options for Johnson to pick from between Hernandez, Miller and Thomas in the corner. Pick your poison, Philly.
BONUS: SHOUTOUT DEWAN HERNANDEZ
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Hernandez’s contributions a decent mention. Selected 59th overall last year, Hernandez offers intrigue as a stretch big who can run the floor. He still needs to bulk up some for the NBA level, but he showed a good feel for the game and a smooth shooting stroke. The highlight of the moves was at the 0:12 second mark when he looked to set up a dribble hand-off to Miller but identified a lack of awareness on Pelle’s part and, unlike Johnson, had no issues going up with his left and finished strong.
Toronto will have their hands full in the off-season with free agent decisions to be made across the board with their big men. If both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are brought back, Hernandez may end up making life difficult for Boucher. At three years younger and already under contract, it would just be tough to validate money for Boucher when he will probably command more than the qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. If the Raptors can only bring back one of Gasol or Ibaka (a more plausible scenario considering the Raptors’ desire to maintain cap space for free agency in 2021), then that would open up the opportunity to bring back both Boucher and Hernandez as back-ups.
There’s no sense in drawing too much from a meaningless game with no real stakes, but it speaks volumes of the Raptors players that they happily root for each other, battle for each other, and truly want nothing but the best for each other.
This was a great night for those who more than likely won’t figure into the playoff rotation to have “their” night, and the fact that they were ready for it is a testament to the character of player the Raptors look to sign and the mindset the organization’s culture tries to instill.