The Timberwolves asked permission to the Raptors on assistant coach Chris Finch and are proceeding on hiring him as head coach to replace Ryan Saunders, sources tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 22, 2021
One — Wow: The Raptors continue to surge in the East standings, following up two wins over the Bucks by grinding it out against the Timberwolves and now knocking off the conference-best Sixers. It looked to be a difficult matchup, especially with Joel Embiid coming off a 50-point performance in the same week where Ben Simmons set his career-high with 42 points. The Raptors were without Kyle Lowry, who always shows up to play his hometown club, and were massively undersized across the frontcourt. However, the Raptors battled back from two double-digit deficits and won it in the end by putting on a defensive masterclass in the second half.
The Raptors – you may have heard – are lacking when it comes to big bodies they can use to make life difficult for Embiid and, by extension, the 76ers. They’ve had to rely on the burly but otherwise limited Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher, who is long and fast and fearless, but weighs just 200 pounds. Even though they’ve found great success recently by playing small – with some combination of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam at centre — with point guard Kyle Lowry missing his third straight game with a sprained thumb, the Raptors’ margin for error seemed razor thin.
But even against those odds the Raptors were able cobble together enough good moments from enough different players – including Boucher and Baynes – to overcome Embiid in an impressive 110-103 win — the Raptors’ fourth straight, three of them without Lowry as Toronto improved to 16-15, pulled into fifth place in the East, only percentage points out of fourth, their 14-7 run taking them miles from their 2-8.
Embiid did his damage, but it was limited. The Philly centre finished with 25 points and 17 rebounds, but he shot just 6-of-20 from the floor, although going 12-of-14 from the free throw line helped his cause.
Meanwhile, the Raptors answered with Boucher, the rail-thin Montrealer who came off the bench to shoot 5-of-6 from deep and score 17 points off the bench – all in the second half and 11 in the fourth quarter. He also had three blocks, including one on Embiid late in the fourth when the Sixers were trying to claw back into the Raptors’ lead.
“It wins you games. It wins you games,” was VanVleet’s assessment of Boucher’s tear. “Chris was balling. That’s the luxury of having a gunslinger like him that can get hot at any moment … That’s what it’s going to take, it’s a team game and we need everybody to pull their weight, and Chris did that and then some tonight.”
Baynes wasn’t too bad either, with eight points on nine shots in 28 minutes. Every little bit helped as the Raptors were led by VanVleet’s 23 points and nine assists and Siakam with 23 points and eight assists. The Sixers most effective player was Simmons, who put up 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting, but the Raptors’ team defence was the real star as they held Philadelphia to 38.8-per cent shooting and only really stayed in the game because they held a 35-18 advantage in free throw attempts.
That is one of Nurse’s best qualities: a patent disregard for how things look. Beyond having a deference to defensive-minded basketball, his fealty to basketball orthodoxy is limited. The league found that out with the box-and-one usage in the 2019 NBA Finals, and furthermore with his array of defensive concepts that epitomized his coach of the year campaign last year.
However, when what he is throwing out there is not working, it feels half-baked. For one, the small starting group against the Sixers, which he scrapped to start the second half. More broadly, the searching he was doing at the start of the season as the Raptors got off to a rocky 2-8 beginning. He was criticized for not giving anyone but his most trusted players any sort of leeway to make mistakes, which would theoretically result in their eventually gaining confidence.
As the Raptors have started winning more consistently, it is not as if he has suddenly changed. Stanley Johnson closed Friday’s game in Minnesota and did not play a minute against the Sixers. Yuta Watanabe, a meaningful (and productive) part of the rotation before he sprained his ankle a few weeks back, has played just 17 minutes total in the three games since his return. Meanwhile, Baynes is playing nearly as much as a reserve as he did when he was a starter, while Terence Davis, whose defence to begin the season was atrocious, has been a significant part of two of the Raptors’ best defensive stretches of the season in the past few games. He made excellent decisions in transition against the 76ers with a three-assist, zero-turnover performance that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago.
“I think it takes time to build a team,” VanVleet said. “It takes time to come together as a team and with the short turnaround and the roster changes that we had, I think it’s taken time to build that chemistry and that flow. And I think we’re starting to find that. I think we saw some things that we tried early that didn’t work, some things that did work, and we’re finding ourselves. Everyone’s falling into their natural roles, and the chemistry is getting better each day and each game.”
VanVleet is right in saying the Raptors are finding an identity, but it has little to do with role certainty. Nurse remains as creative as ever, willing to mix ingredients until he finds a potent cocktail.
“We’re starting to feel like an actual team,” VanVleet said. “Winning builds that, obviously, but you never know what comes first. I think we’ve been building in the right direction.”
Tonight was a far cry from Joel’s career-best 50-point barrage on Friday. The big man had an ice-cold shooting night, going just 6-of-20 from the floor. Still, he flashed some big-time moves, including his Hakeem Olajuwon-esque Dream Shake in the third quarter. Embiid scored seven points in the last two and a half minutes of the game as part of a failed last gasp of a comeback. 25 and 17 and this was basically a bad game for Joel. Quite a high bar he has set.
Green fouled out after just 24 minutes, but was impactful on both ends during his time on the court. Danny went 3-of-6 from behind the arc, and was a hugely disruptive defensive presence with his seven combined stocks. Plus-minus is far from perfect, but it’s tough to pin this loss anywhere near Green and his team-best plus-18 mark.
With Toronto’s experiment over, Baynes started the second half for the Raptors and did his thing: he slammed home dunks in the pick-and-roll. It was an inspiring start to the second half, but things quickly got out of control from there for Toronto. Turnovers again accounted for some of that trouble, but it was also Philly finding shooters like Seth Curry and Danny Green (deadly from the corner, as we know) to put some distance on the Raptors. An 11-0 run from the Sixers had the Raptors on their heels after six minutes, down 13. But VanVleet caught them getting complacent and went at the rim twice to get the lead back into single digits. While Philly now had them at arm’s length, Fred’s effort suggested the Raptors weren’t just going to fade away without a fight.
And so it went down the stretch, with VanVleet pitching in another three, Chris Boucher finally hitting one — then another — and the Raptors going on an 12-2 run to close the third. Thanks to that inspired stretch of play, the Raptors were down just one as we headed into the fourth — with their spirit definitely still in it. To open the fourth, Boucher bombed a couple more threes, punking Dwight Howard’s sad pick-and-pop coverage, and Toronto’s defense got the team driving down the lane to take yet another lead. Yes, the Sixers still had Simmons and Embiid for help, always threatening to turn the game on its head, but the team effort Toronto was putting forth was exciting to see.
With eight minutes left, wouldn’t you know it, the Sixers tried going small to match the Raptors. As with Toronto’s earlier experiment, Philly’s attempt didn’t work either and the Raptors grew their fourth quarter lead. After the stalwart Green fouled out and Embiid returned, things were still cooking. In this moment, it was something to watch Boucher continue to hit 3s, clean up rebounds on the offensive glass, and block Joel Embiid to keep the Sixers, that most oversized team, in their place. It was in the last few minutes when the Raptors took their largest lead of the game (ten points) before waiting out the Sixers’ steady chipping away from the free throw line. We can admit that that last minute of game action felt quite long. But for Philly, it would not be enough.
While it’s clear the Raptors didn’t get off to the start they wanted this season, the squad makes much more sense now. That’s not to say they’re a perfect team or anything, but they have indeed battled back from that 2-8 opening to become one of the hotter teams in the league. They’re now 7-3 over their last ten, and can point to wins against the Bucks (twice), the Nets, and now the Sixers, as proof that they’re no joke in the Eastern Conference. If nothing else, it feels good to see the Raptors playing with that swagger again on a nightly basis. Now, let’s see what happens next.
Although it seemed like he was leaning towards going back to Aron Baynes in the starting five, the Raptors’ head coach went all-in on the small-ball experiment. It was the ultimate contrast in styles – Philadelphia, with its big bruising centre in the middle and plenty of length and athleticism around him, and Toronto, with a lineup that featured 6-foot-9 Pascal Siakam as its tallest player and OG Anunoby as its acting centre, giving up almost half a foot and nearly 50 pounds in the match up with Embiid. And, in the end, it worked. Well, sort of.
With the Raptors falling behind in the first quarter, Baynes subbed in early. He wound up starting the second half, and went on to log 29 minutes off the bench – the most he’s played since the beginning of February. Still, regardless of whether they had their lone traditional big on the floor, they found a way to hold their ground and overcome the lack of size that held them back early in the year.
“The way we play, the way we scramble around, we’re doubling on the post, on the block, it doesn’t really matter what size the guy is that’s guarding Embiid,” Fred VanVleet said on the heels of his club’s impressive 110-103 win, improving to 16-15 and climbing above .500 for the first time this season. “If you can push him out far enough we’ll double and rotate out of that.”
“You’ve got to be able to adjust, not giving a steady diet of one thing the whole game and it’s give and take. As much as we might be out-sized, they still gotta keep up with our speed and flow offensively.”
During a season in which only a handful of teams have been able to separate themselves, particularly in the wide-open East, Embiid’s historic start has powered the first-place Sixers. Entering Sunday’s contest, the 26-year-old was averaging more than 30 points and 11 rebounds, with at least one steal and one block per game, while shooting almost 55 per cent. Only one player in NBA history has ever put up those numbers over the course of a full season – hall-of-famer Bob McAdoo, who did it twice in the ‘70s. Nobody has ever done it while shooting at least 40 per cent from three-point range, like Embiid is this season.
He’s always been capable of asserting his will and taking over games, but after years of underachieving, he’s finally healthy, in good shape and living up to his lofty potential under new coach Doc Rivers.
Toronto has always found ways of getting under his skin, though – neutralizing him in that memorable seven-game, second-round playoff series in 2019, or holding him scoreless for the first time in his career last season. While most of the credit would go to the primary defender, Marc Gasol – and rightly so – maybe there was more to it.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse chose to stay with his best starting lineup, which even by today’s NBA standards is small, and put his faith that his smaller players would play big and smart and limit the damage the league’s potential MVP could do to his team.
Nurse started that way and then used a heavy dose of Baynes off the bench to combat Embiid’s size and the strategy paid off nicely in a 110-103 win with Embiid held to 25 points.
“We kind of had to have him in there,” Nurse said of Baynes. “The times we didn’t it wasn’t pretty, it was tough, that’s where (Embiid) did most of his damage and we just didn’t really have any answer and there almost wasn’t time to do anything, because he was just coming down and planting under the basket and catching it, getting a foul, and laying it in there a couple possessions in a row. So we didn’t really have much choice. So unbelievable job (by Baynes) and I thought he battled him hard.”
Offensively the Raptors got off to a slow start but found the range from three towards the end of the first quarter with Fred VanVleet scoring 13 points in just over three minutes and then rode the hot hand of Chris Boucher off the bench to the win in the early part of the fourth.
Starters VanVleet and Pascal Siakam had 23 points each but with Norm Powell having his first tough scoring night in ages, it was Boucher to the rescue with five three-pointers on six attempts as the Sixers chose to roll the dice leaving Boucher open behind the three-point line and eventually regretted it.
With the win the Raptors improved to 16-15, the first time this season they have been above the .500 mark.
The two teams go at it again Tuesday night in Tampa.
The Chris Finch era on the Raptors coaching staff lasted less than half an abbreviated regular season.
Finch will be named head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday to replace Ryan Saunders, who was fired Sunday night, a league source said, confirming initial reports from The Athletic and ESPN.
Finch came to Toronto from the New Orleans Pelicans, where he was the associate head coach before Stan Van Gundy took over to start this season.
With Finch, the Raptors clawed over the .500 mark for the first time this season on Sunday, going to 16-15 with a 110-103 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
He and Raptors coach Nick Nurse have a relationship that dates back decades, and Finch joined Nurse’s staff in Toronto when Nate Bjorkgren moved on to become the head coach of the Indiana Pacers.
Finch was also head coach of Britain’s team at the 2012 London Olympics when Nurse was one of his assistants.
You can look at all the defensive stats you want, such as on-off per 100 possessions. VanVleet is currently at +10.2, while Young and LaVine are +9.8 and -10.4 respectively (or disrespectivley in LaVine’s case). Or you can pour over Defensive Win Shares: VanVleet 1.1, Young 0.5 and LaVine 0.9. But some of these stats can be noisy.
The eye test tells you everything you need to know. While both Young and LaVine are perpetually at the top the opposing team’s scouting report (and rightfully so), they treat defense like children treat vegetables — by shaking their heads and saying, “Not for me.” On the other hand, VanVleet happily asks for seconds and thirds.
Very few players in the league work harder on the defensive end than he does, especially having to regularly execute Nick Nurse’s out of the box and switch-heavy schemes. On ball. Off ball. Man-to-man. Doubling. Zone. Box-and-one. Whatever defense Nurse draws up, VanVleet’s versatility and IQ allow him to execute it to perfection.
Not only that, the Raptors’ guard is first in the NBA in both steals and deflections, blowing up the other team’s plays on the regular. This often leads to fast breaks and more scoring opportunities for the Raptors.
VanVleet may be small in stature, but he’s a defensive force to be reckoned with. Just ask 3-time NBA champ and 2-time MVP Steph Curry if VanVleet is a defensive game-changer (and championship-changer). How many players in the league can guard Curry the way VanVleet can? His ability to weave through screens and shadow the Golden State guard all over the court has been a thorn in Curry’s side since the 2019 NBA Finals.
Just last month, VanVleet once again shut off Curry’s splash valve. Curry, who is currently averaging an eye-popping 30 points per game and who was on a tear heading into the game versus the Raptors, shot a measly 2-for-16 for 11 points with VanVleet as his primary defender. This was no fluke.
VanVleet also literally punches above his weight, often switching onto much bigger players. In the first quarter of the Raptors’ most recent victory over the floundering Bucks, on a powerful Giannis drive, VanVleet stole the ball right out of the reigning MVP’s hands. That’s six feet, 197 pounds taking on 6’11”, 242 pounds. And just for fun, he later forced the 6’7”, 222-pound Middleton out of bounds by staying in front of him.
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