The Raptors find new victory by playing the classics

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Even as we progress, we can’t lose the best parts of ourselves.

A furious 9-0 run from the 76ers towards the back end of the fourth quarter gave them the lead for the first time since the middle of the third. Led by the jittery stylings of the ascendant Tyrese Maxey, the 76ers looked ready to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. Then, the Raptors regained control the same way they had earlier in the game – by reverting to some of the hallmarks of their games.

OG Anunoby, whose first forays into any potency off the bounce were always displayed against big men, put Drummond in the mixer twice. Drummond, with a misstep in pick n’ roll coverage (coming too high) gave a driving lane to Anunoby. The defense collapsed, and in turn he found Trent Jr. for three. The very next possession, Drummond was at the point of attack, and Anunoby watched him, as though through some sort of Kafka-esque metamorphosis, transform into a turnstile. Drummond, left hopelessly out on the perimeter, three 76ers converged into the paint to deter Anunoby, who found Fred VanVleet for a triple. Six quick points, and the game is back under control.

While Anunoby is new to the role of “crunch-time ball handler”, he isn’t new to the ethic of “Expose the big!”. The 76ers lineup selections down the stretch created an environment where Anunoby got to harmoniously tie together the old and new of his game – and to great effect.

And who else was left to tie together the old and new in meaningful fashion? The aforementioned VanVleet, who cut his teeth in the NBA as a hellish defender and steady (Freddy) catch and shoot operator, has since been thrust into the role of lead guard (and he’s done admirably). Questions about VanVleet’s court vision, and his pick n’ roll chops have been asked, and rightfully so, but in last night’s game he found remarkable balance between the two roles. Happy to grease wheels as an off-ball player as Scottie Barnes and Anunoby continue to test just how far their legs stretch as creators. The threat of his shooting and movement opened up countless opportunities for his teammates, and when they were converged upon, the threat of his shooting was realized. Reminiscent of the NBA Finals, where a possession could only be saved by the hand of VanVleet who stood 26 feet away from the basket, and heaves were free throws. VanVleet was also a steadying hand when on-ball – taking account of when Drummond left the paint so his drives stood a better chance, and pushing in pseudo-transition. A masterful sense of where the game was and how to assert himself.

And not to be forgotten, the Raptors accessed the funky defensive mind of coach Nick Nurse, as they took the lead in the 3rd quarter with a zone defense that featured the like-sized quartet of Dalano Banton, Barnes, Chris Boucher, and Precious Achiuwa – and the very not-like-sized, VanVleet. An amorphous blob of defense that made it nearly impossible to penetrate into the middle of the floor with a live dribble, and a series of gang rebounding that recruited all of the go-go-gadget arms in the vicinity. The 76ers were limited to 10 points over 7 minutes and some change of game time, and thanks to a burst of offense from VanVleet and Barnes on the other end, the Raptors took control of the game for a time.

And last but not least, Boucher had his most explosive game of the young season. A spitting image of his Tampa self, Boucher lent all the things to the Raptors that had been missing so far this season. He was a vertical threat in the pick n’ roll, something the Raptors are remarkably short on, and he pushed harder than the other bigs on the floor in transition to find advantageous lanes to the bucket and offensive rebounding opportunities. Boucher isn’t absolutely essential to what the Raptors are doing this year, but there’s no substitute on the roster for what he brings. He is a completely novel experience, and one that added significant punch to the Raptors bench as they stormed to victory against the 76ers.

The Raptors continue to tackle this season with a new playstyle and new pieces, but it’s nice to see the past in the present, especially when it works.

Have a blessed day.

 

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