If the Raptors lose tomorrow, just keep in mind that 29 other teams don’t have Scottie Barnespic.twitter.com/q0twWRF0G9
— Amit Mann (@Amit_Mann) April 22, 2022
— House of Highlights (@HoHighlights) April 21, 2022
With a little more help on Wednesday, Anunoby would know he was headed back to Philadelphia, regardless of Saturday’s result. He had 26 points on 8-for-18 shooting — his worst percentage of the series — and matched Joel Embiid for the most free-throw attempts for the night.
“He was good. He looked really confident with the ball, got himself to places,” Nick Nurse said. “I thought he made good plays; he made a few passes out of positions that he took the ball to as well and made some tough shots as well — made some really contested 3s. Those were the plays at the moment, and he stepped into them tonight.”
No argument. Even as Anunoby’s defence hasn’t been quite what you would hope for this series, and the whole season really, his playoff resumé continues to be unimpeachable. A 25-year-old two-way wing who consistently gets better in the playoffs? Yes, please.
There is obviously a big old “but” coming, so let’s not delay it any longer. James Harden, a competent-at-best one-on-one defender, has been the player most frequently defending him. He sees nearly as much of Tyrese Maxey and Danny Green, smaller players whom he can overpower, as he does of Embiid and Tobias Harris.
In other words, the 76ers are game planning to slow down Pascal Siakam (and succeeding). Keeping Anunoby in check is not as much of a priority, and he’s thriving — but the 76ers are winning. Doc Rivers likely wouldn’t oblige Nurse if he asked him, “Hey, can you give Anunoby the attention you usually give Siakam? We need to see it to gain further information to inform our long-term developmental plans.”
Accordingly, the question becomes what is the best way to interpret the information that exists? The answer, with Anunoby, has always been to increase his responsibility, little by little, year by year. This was his first season above 20 percent usage — by definition, league average — and his efficiency tailed off. After two seasons at or above 60 percent true shooting, he was down to 54.9 percent. An extended shooting slump was a big part of that, and that overlapped with the period of unknown length when he was playing with a fractured ring finger.
It was not a lost season for Anunoby, but his 23.4 percent usage before his November hip pointer gave way to an 18.9 percent mark after his return from that injury. He posted the first number largely in the absence of Siakam, and the second number was held down because of a few other disruptions: a run through health and safety protocols, a broken finger and a thigh contusion. Siakam, Anunoby and Scottie Barnes were first, seventh and 12th in minutes played per game this season; given that, the trio logging just 673 minutes together — not a nominal number, but not enough to truly get comfortable with each other in the context of the half-court offence — was unfortunate.
Focussing on Siakam made good sense. He earned his way into all-NBA consideration by putting up 24 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists on 50.1 per cent shooting. Even with extended absences due to injury by OG Anunoby and VanVleet, Siakam guided the Raptors to a 14-3 finish before he sat out the final game of the regular season.
The hope was that Siakam would build on that finish and carry his play into the playoffs, and ideally answer for his poor performance in 2020 against Boston.
It hasn’t happened. After a reasonable first half in a must-win Game 3 where Siakam put up 12 points on 6-of-11 shooting, the Raptors star went missing in the second half, going scoreless on five shots in 27 minutes. It’s perhaps even worse than that, given Siakam put up five shots in the first five minutes of the first quarter. He took just 11 shots for the next 48 minutes.
It’s been a pattern for the series – Nurse was hoping Siakam would take 25 shots in Game 3, and he fell well short of that.
But Siakam wasn’t alone in his struggles. VanVleet has was 3-of-13 and is 10-of-36 over his past two games, and 7/26 from three. He’s taken just 12 shots in the paint and made five in three games. In contrast, Tyrese Maxey, the Sizers breakout second-year guard, has taken 24 and made 18.
Combined, Siakam and VanVleet are shooting 31.9 per cent in Games 2 and 3. VanVleet seems frustrated, Siakam appears to have disengaged – at least in the second half of Game 3 – and it’s fair to wonder whether these struggles are a feature or a bug?
If these seems familiar to Raptors fans, it’s because it’s not all that different from what Lowry and DeRozan did in their second playoff run as the cornerstones of a young Raptors team.
The challenge for Raptors executives Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster is to calculate what to do about it.
There is precedent: Back in 2015, there was some considerable fallout from the Raptors playoff flameout. There were credible reports that Lowry and then head coach Dwane Casey had reached the end of their working relationship, and that Lowry was – if not hoping that Casey would be fired, was at least not working to prevent it. “He’s the coach, I’m a player,” was Lowry’s decidedly lukewarm endorsement of the Casey at the time.
And while a series sweep to the Sixers won’t start a referendum on Nurse’s future in Toronto, it will inevitably renew one on the ability of Siakam and VanVleet to lead a team on a deep playoff run.
Fair or not, it’s impossible to avoid. When teams lose – and in this case, when they fall short of being competitive – blame looks for places to land, and two All-Stars performing well below their regular season standards under the pressure of the post-season will always be fuel to the fire.
It’s a discussion and a decision for Ujiri, Webster and their basketball operations department. But it’s worth noting that even after a dismal showing against the Wizards, Ujiri’s decision was let time do most of the work.
“You know me, no knee-jerk decisions,” he said at his end-of-season media availability.
But barring a historic comeback, the end is near for this pesky, overachieving 2021-22 Raptors club. No NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 series deficit, and that’s exactly where they find themselves after a heartbreaking loss on Wednesday.
Coming home following a couple lopsided losses in Philadelphia, this was their chance to make a real mark on the series. The Raptors were hosting a playoff contest in Toronto for the first time since Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, 1,045 days prior, and the crowd was into it.
With Embiid fresh off a dominant performance in Monday’s Game 2, fans booed the Sixers’ big man every time he touched the ball. They chanted and shouted obscenities at him throughout a first half, where he was held to just five points on five shots.
For the first time in the series, the Raptors had rediscovered the identity that powered them to a 48-win regular season. They were forcing turnovers and turning them into scoring opportunities (21 of their 46 points came off Philly’s 15 first-half turnovers). Their defence was locked in, sending enough help to disrupt Embiid while also rotating out to shooters. The Raptors finally looked like the Raptors.
They were up by as many as 17 points in the first half. Philadelphia didn’t take its first lead until 11 seconds into the overtime period. In the end, Embiid – who finished with 33 points on 12-of-20 shooting – and the Sixers simply executed better down the stretch. The Raptors couldn’t hang on, which stung way worse than the blowout losses in the first two games of the series.
“It’s tough,” Nick Nurse said afterwards. “I’ve got to think about this, but that’s about as tough a loss as I can remember in my time [here]. Obviously, if we pull that thing out, we got ourselves a series and instead, you got yourself a really, really deep hole to dig out of.”
“We definitely thought we should’ve won,” said OG Anunoby.
Now, sitting on the brink of elimination, the Raptors find themselves in the position of having to reconcile silver linings and valuable playoff experience for a young team that desperately wanted and needed them with disappointing results. There have been plenty of both in this series.
The context of the Raptors season was wrapped up in the play of Achiuwa, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. They have been the least playoff-experienced of the team’s core players in Games 2 and 3, and the more chances they get, the better off things should be in the long run.
The trio’s combined 70 points Wednesday — Achiuwa had 20, Trent 24 and Anunoby 26 — and the mere fact they were key components of a stressful learning experience — may ultimately make the Game 3 loss a step forward.
“I think every game’s a learning experience,” Anunoby said. “You can get better from every game, win or loss, and I think (Achiuwa and Trent) both played amazing and this will help catapult their careers.”
When it happens again, Achiuwa and the Raptors will be better for the pain and anguish that Wednesday caused.
“First time I’m actually playing significant minutes in the playoffs, just learning,” Achiuwa said. “Moving on, just getting better. Definitely I know I’m going to be back here a lot of times in my career … it’s a learning experience moving forward for me.”
It is still hard to take. The magnitude of the Raptors’ job is unspeakable — no NBA team has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series — and the lingering sting of an overtime loss at the buzzer will linger.
Toronto Raptors forward Precious Achiuwa celebrates a basket against the Sixers on Wednesday night.
There are probably some strategic moves that can be made, although being tied with two seconds left in overtime would suggest the Raptors played very well for much of Wednesday. It will be the mental side that will be worth watching in Game 4 on Saturday afternoon.
“Yeah, well there’s no moral victories right now,” VanVleet said. “We can sit back once it’s all said and done … and appreciate and have an optimistic perspective, but right now we’re still in the trenches, still in the fight.
“We’ve got to bring even more fight in a couple of days. There’s no room to look around and feel sorry for ourselves.”
Achiuwa’s presence on the court late in the game is an example of the growth some of the Raptors have made, no matter when or how bitterly this season ends. Achiuwa, who played nearly 36 minutes in the playoff home opener, was light years better than the skittish second-year big man who first showed up at training camp.
“He’s worked really hard on his shooting and his free-throw shooting this year, he’s going to continue to work on that,” coach Nick Nurse said. “I’m really proud of the way he played.
“Don’t want him to live in that play for sure because he was really, really effective and forceful out there (Wednesday). And that’s just what happens. Man, you get out there and you play this game, you’re going to get put in situations like that and you’re going to live and die with the results.”
“Lost like eight pounds,” he said. “(Fever) was going from 102 to 100 to 99, that type of thing.”
In the first two games of the series, Trent was essentially unplayable. He scored nine points in Game 1 and zero in Game 2, mustering a combined 36 minutes in Philadelphia. As Raptors coach Nick Nurse said following Game 2, he never should have been out there.
Even heading into Game 3, there was a concern that his lungs wouldn’t be physically ready for the toll of a playoff game. But whatever had been plaguing him certainly wasn’t causing any problems Wednesday night in a 24-points outing that included some pesky defense and a pair of early steals against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“This is the best that I’ve felt in the last week,” he said post-game. “Slowly but surely I was getting my body back, getting my wind back, that’s about it. Just trying to push through.”
With Toronto down 3-0, this series is virtually over for the Raptors, but the goal now is to just extend the playoffs for as long as possible and gain that invaluable post-season experience. If Trent is healthy, Toronto is still in a position to take a game or two off Philly.
The question then becomes, why bother trying?
Why not just get it over with against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday and get on with the off-season?
All three previous times the Raptors have been in this position, being down 3-0 – 2018 vs. the Cavs in the Eastern Conference semis, 2017 again vs. the Cavs in the Eastern Conference semis, and finally in 2015 vs. Washington in the Eastern Conference first round — they have succumbed to the pressure and were swept.
Only once in team history have they been the team up 3-0 in a series and finished it off and that was in the Bubble in 2020 when they swept the Nets out in the first round.
So why push now to extend this, well, apart from the obvious chance to become the first ever NBA team to turn a series on its head?
Well, there are a few answers.
First, there is a basic pride that every professional athlete has or, in rare instances, has somehow hidden that glaring oversight in their competitive DNA to reach the pinnacle of their profession.
Fred VanVleet mentioned it Wednesday night.
“We’re playing for our pride,” he said. “Our pride is on the line.”
But there are tangible benefits to extending this series too, even if it’s for only one more game.
This team came into this series knowing full well they had plenty to learn about playoff basketball and therefore plenty to gain from the experience.
Precious Achiuwa experienced firsthand how quickly a great NBA playoff performance can go to being memorable for all the wrong reasons on Wednesday.
Achiuwa is one of the young Raptors gaining playoff experience. In his second year in the NBA and getting his first real taste of the playoffs — he was on the court for a grand total of 12 minutes of post-season play in his rookie year with Miami — Achiuwa was having the game of his life until he went to the line with 27.5 seconds left to play in regulation and missed both.
As it turned out one make would have sufficed and got the Raptors a win, but it was not to be.