Morning Coffee – Mon, Apr 18

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Raptors cannot climb back into first-round series if they turn 76ers’ weaknesses into strengths – The Athletic

There is no well-travelled path that leads the Toronto Raptors out of the position they currently find themselves in following Saturday’s Game 1 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

First, the Raptors played one of the worst defensive games in recent playoff history, a contest in which they totally failed to play to their identity.

Then, Toronto had three of its rotation players, including two starters, taken away because of injuries and illness. The Raptors already have an unreliable, if occasionally impactful bench, so this won’t help.

Now, win Game 2?

Admittedly, things don’t look great for the Raptors, who 48 hours ago were the sexy pick to score a first-round upset against a would-be championship contender. If Scottie Barnes (sprained left ankle), Thaddeus Young (sprained left thumb) and Gary Trent Jr. (non-COVID illness) all cannot play on Monday, as Raptors head coach Nick Nurse indicated was likely when talking to reporters in Philadelphia on Sunday, their chances to even the series drop dramatically. Saying that, the Raptors beat the largely healthy 76ers twice this year without a pair of starters, noting that the playoffs and the regular season are very different.

The Raptors played a nine-man rotation on Saturday, and there is a big drop-off in terms of Nurse’s confidence with those players and the back eight of the roster.

Three reasons to stay optimistic despite Raptors’ Game 1 loss, injury woes – Sportsnet

The Raptors will get back to something closer to their disruptive, regular-season selves: It might be over-simplifying things, but when VanVleet picked up two touch fouls within the game’s first 58 seconds, it created a domino effect. At his best VanVleet is an absolute menace as an on-the-ball defender, but maybe even more so when he’s off the ball and leaving his man to attack scorers with late, strong, swipes at the ball as a help defender. But with the two early fouls VanVleet had to play much more cautiously, both guarding Maxey and helping off of him to make life difficult on Embiid.

Added to the problem was that Trent Jr. was – it turns out – playing after being sick most of last week. Trent Jr. and VanVleet ranked second and fourth in the NBA in deflections per game for the season with 3.9 and 3.4 respectively, but combined for just three for the game against the Sixers. That seems like a pretty good proxy for how comfortable the game was overall for Philadelphia, even more than its measly three turnovers, which was a season-low for a Raptors opponent.

Toronto was 2-6 this year when it forced less than nine turnovers a game and 20-10 when it forced more than 16. A more active and handsy VanVleet in the early going of Game 2 should bode well, and with Trent Jr. likely out, look for Nurse to give minutes to whoever among Dalano Banton, Armoni Brooks or Malachi Flynn is determined to cause some chaos after what was an altogether too comfortable opener for the Sixers.

“I feel like we gotta be more physical and also we gotta [have] more ball pressure,” said Raptors centre Khem Birch. “I think we let the ball in the post too easy and it created opportunities for Maxey. I think we gotta deny Embiid in the post better so other guys don’t get opportunities like that.”

Home cooking in the basketball, a very nice tennis story continues and masks are back in Philly | The Star

Yeah, things are going to be tough for the Raptors because I cannot imagine either Scottie Barnes or Thad Young getting back any time soon – Young, maybe; Barnes is way less likely, I’d guess – and since we haven’t actually spoken to Gary Trent Jr. in at least week, he’s got to be really under the weather.

And, yeah, they’ve been through these kinds of circumstances before and came through them all right but it’s also the playoffs and if Saturday proved anything, it’s that the playoffs are a different animal.

It’s obvious that guys like VanVleet and Siakam and Anunoby are going to have to have big games because while it’s nice to think someone else will pop a big game out of nowhere, you’re best players have to be your best players.

They really weren’t on Saturday – no one was, to tell the truth – but if they are, I do think this series still has some legs to it.

Stealing one here tonight would be huge but what’s more likely to get the Raptors eventually back on track is some home cookin’ and some home support.

The crowd here got into the game right off the bat and never relented and, sure, the Sixers made it easy for them to stay supportive all night.

And maybe it’ll give Philly some extra juice tonight, too. There was a sense in Philly before the series began that the fans here might turn quickly on the locals if they weren’t very good; they were and that eases a ton of pressure.

It might be just the kind of extra impetus the Raptors need at home when they get there.

Plenty of adversity to handle, but Raptors have been here before | Toronto Sun

As a number of the Raptors pointed out post game, Barnes, who sprained his left ankle when Joel Embiid came down on his left foot with all his weight, was on his way to a triple-double in his first ever playoff experience. There was never been a moment too big for the young man the Raptors will build around for years to come.

He’s nowhere near a finished product yet, but he’s already capable of impacting the game in a variety of ways from scoring, defence, rebounding, making those who share the floor with him better.

His youthful energy and will to win will also be missed.

Now add on to that the likely expected loss of Thad Young with that hyper-extended left thumb for at least the series and then Gary Trent Jr. likely out for at least Game 2 and the Raptors have their adversity plates overflowing.

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The personnel losses are beyond anyone’s control. All the Raptors can do is select someone else to fill those minutes. The good news is they’ve done that all year with success, though rarely has it been Barnes’ minutes to fill.

What they can do and what they must do if they have any hope of avoiding an 0-2 hole in the series is find a way to take back the physicality lead in this battle.

The Raptors, when they are at their best, are a punch-first team.

They set the physical tone and force their opponent to respond, normally resulting in retaliation fouls.

Philly owned that throughout Game 1.

Embiid, James, Harden and Tobias Harris, even Tyrese Maxey, set that tone early and the rest of the rotation followed suit.

“I think that we’ve got to get to some more of our identity, which I don’t think showed up as much (Saturday) night,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “For whatever reason, maybe it was the moment, the bright lights, and playoffs, and all that stuff. But again, good experience for us. We’ll learn from it, and we’re going to have to be a lot better in handling the moment Monday, for sure.”

After Game 1 disaster, maybe the Raptors are due in Game 2 | The Star

Nobody’s suggesting basketball is life and death. But when you’re talking about Toronto’s tenuous competitive mortality at this time of year, the deadpan gallows humour was appropriate. Teams that have taken a 2-0 lead in NBA best-of-sevens have advanced to the next round 92 per cent of the time. So Monday isn’t a must-win, unless you fancy an eight per cent chance at a miracle comeback.

The bookmakers definitely don’t like Toronto’s prospects. Philadelphia was favoured by 4 1/2 points in Game 1, but that number was up to as many as seven points for Game 2 as of Sunday afternoon.

Still, any decent contrarian will understand it’s not unreasonable to spin a scenario in which the Raptors can rise to Monday’s moment.

For one, it’s hard to fathom the Sixers playing better than they did in a post-season opener, in which they shot a ridiculously hot 50 per cent from both the field and three-point range, this while coughing up a season-low three turnovers.

A left ankle sprain suffered in Game 1 on Saturday is likely to keep Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes out of Monday’s Game 2 in Philadelphia.

For another, the officials have been sufficiently lobbied. The widely respected VanVleet took a technical foul before he sat down with his sixth foul early in the fourth quarter of Game 1, and Nurse tore a strip off the referees in a post-game press conference in which he suggested the Raptors “don’t have a chance” if the officials don’t call fouls when Sixers MVP candidate Joel Embiid runs roughshod over smaller opponents taking up legal defensive positions.

Beyond all that, it’s not hard to fathom the Raptors playing better, even without some key contributors. They’ve done it in spurts all season. It was only last month, for instance, they went on the road and beat the league-best Suns and the playoff-bound Nuggets without VanVleet (against Denver) and OG Anunoby (against both).

“We’ve played without guys all year,” VanVleet said.

Said Nurse: “You could say a lot of times this year we played eight, or seven, or whatever, pretty heavy (minutes for the top players). But then all of a sudden you’d see a game where we play 11.”

As Nurse said, listing off a roster of little-used bench players from Delano Banton to Malachi Flynn to Armoni Brooks to Yuta Watanabe: “It might be all of ’em (in Monday’s game). For little stints.”

“Little stints,” of course, is a not-so-subtle code for what you think it is. Righting the ship after a wayward Game 1 isn’t on Banton and Flynn and Brooks. It’s on VanVleet and Pascal Siakam and Anunoby, who are in for even heavier doses of their usual hefty minutes.

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