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Searching for signs of life heading into Game 3

Since my good pal Louis has been doing autopsies, I thought I might as well try my hand at some form of resuscitation. The Raptors are fighters, to be sure. The DNA of comebacks, champions, and fighters still flow through the veins of the roster.

The first silver lining is the fact that the 76ers can’t play much better. I know that sounds like a dumb thing to say, but it’s true. Tyrese Maxey is shooting 70-percent from the floor on 30-6.5-5 splits. Joel Embiid is punching in with 25 & 13 on 59% TS while bending the Raptors defense to the point of no return and opening up chasms for his teammates. Tobias Harris? 23-8-3.5 on 64-percent from the floor and a handful of impressive finishes off his own self creation. On top of all that, James Harden is dropping 18 & 10 as the Raptors defense continues to lean his way – scared of the prospect of Harden’s 2017 form jumping out and spinning a 50-point classic on them. Hell, Danny Green authored a winning run with Joel Embiid off the floor! The 76ers have rebounded their own misses well, scored well in transition, and defended in transition.

In a playoff series you can expect a decent amount of interesting trends and oddities to pop up, but the sheer amount of things that have gone overwhelmingly the 76ers way? That very clearly points to 1 of 2 things:

  • The Raptors are hopelessly outmatched in this series. The season series revealed little to nothing, and the 76ers were able to outfox the depths of the Raptors aggressive schemes by reaching a little bit farther into themselves and finding a more clinical and hardworking version. Forged in the fire of a more serious playoff environment, this team is a massive threat for the title, and the Raptors are caught in the buzz saw.
  • When it rains it pours. The 76ers secondary and tertiary players of this series can’t maintain this level of excellence. The Raptors have been caught up in an avalanche of shooting variance, and all the while have lost some of their defensive punch. The effect that great shooting has on defenses and their constitution are well recognized and once the 76ers float anywhere closer to earth, the Raptors schemes will start to reclaim some of their former pop. Gary Trent Jr. will join the fray at some point.

As an optimist, I have to choose the latter. Now, the latter doesn’t mean the Raptors win the series, but it certainly means the games will be more competitive. The former? That is nightmare fuel for Raptors fans, and would mean the next two games are some sort of torture that everyone has to endure before we crawl into summer without a first round pick. Let’s choose optimism.

The most important thing the Raptors can do to immediately spur on some sort of change, is to swap their overloading on Harden, for overloading on Maxey. As it currently stands, Maxey is ripping the Raptors to shreds when he’s attacking closeouts, a tilted defense, via second side action – whatever – Maxey is rapid in every sense of the word and the Raptors are dying at his hand. Maxey’s playmaking lags far behind his scoring (not because it’s bad, but the scoring is just so good), and Harden is at a point where his playmaking and vision far outpace his ability to undo defenses on his own via isolation. If you transfer more of those help principles toward Maxey’s on ball possessions you’re going to limit his paint touches and ease the defensive load on a guy like VanVleet. Maxey is getting to the paint at will currently. By sending less attention towards Harden, you’re going to minimize the amount of advantaged possessions Maxey gets. Harden is famously lazy off ball, and his isolation punch is waning. By doing this as a defense you’re leaning into, hopefully, an aging Harden’s isolation possessions and swapping Maxey’s cocaine-fueled forays towards the bucket for a significantly less active Harden. That change in defensive principles could return really positive results. And if it doesn’t? Well, the Raptors have been giving up historic offensive stretches for most of this series anyway. What’s there to lose?

Offensively, these Raptors are on track. Losing Scottie Barnes has been a significant blow, of course. Gary Trent Jr.’s departure midway through game 2 after missing some shots was also hard to stomach. All things considered though? Siakam is getting to the spots he needs to for the most part, and VanVleet’s output should improve significantly once he’s able to plug in and out when he’s feeling it rather than running ragged through a “no breaks” first half where he plays 24 minutes. Neither shot well in game 2, but the process for Siakam in particular was encouraging and those shots will be much less crowded once a healthy-ish Trent Jr.’s spacing hits the lineup again. And even though this is something we knew heading into the series, the 76ers can’t account for Siakam and OG Anunoby at the same time. And despite many people trying to suggest otherwise, Anunoby does not bear the limitations of a ‘3 and D’ player. He will absolutely continue to dominate the likes of Green, Harris, Maxey, Niang – anyone – that the 76ers try and stick on him. He’s going to be a very consistent offensive performer for the duration of this series – however long that is.

None of this erases the fact that the Raptors have been getting hammered, though. And you’re under no obligation to find solace in any of these positive notes. This team is losing games big, and they’re fighting future HOFers and a bit of a whistle and a glut of injuries. It’s been ugly. It doesn’t have to be ugly forever, though.

And for these Raptors? Silver linings extend well past this series, if things continue to go poorly. A death isn’t a death for them. They’re young and improving. They aren’t resigned to Frank Reynolds’ end: “When I’m dead, just throw me in the trash.”

Have a blessed day.

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