Morning Coffee – Sun, Apr 24

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Cover Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

10 things: Siakam’s assertiveness on offence helps Raptors stave off elimination – Sportsnet

5. The Raptors are finally doing what makes them special with the all-forwards lineup. Nick Nurse has actually downsized at times in this series with two point guard looks, while also leaning on a heavy dose of Khem Birch in a traditional center role, but he finally went the opposite way. VanVleet’s injury forced the Raptors to lean more on Siakam as the main playmaker, and it allowed him to trim the rotation down to six interchange forwards with the 6-foot-5 Trent Jr. as the lone guard which created several problems for the Sixers. The ability to switch across the board is making life difficult for Tyrese Maxey and James Harden in particular, as they cannot get downhill nearly as easily in pick-and-roll settings. In previous games, the Raptors were extremely hesitant in rotating off Embiid for fear of a mismatch or him rolling into open space. But what really is the difference if the Raptors can now switch Precious Achiuwa, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Thad Young, or Siakam on him while someone else covers a guard? Harden was 5-for-17 from the field and did not show enough of an ability to score one-on-one.

Pascal Siakam stops Raptors from being swept away by Sixers in Game 4: ‘He’s always gonna fight through adversity’ – The Athletic

If anything, Siakam had a bit too much of the ball down the stretch, but that is the correct side for him to err on with this incarnation of the Raptors. Without VanVleet and with Barnes severely limited, Siakam had to carry the offence. Things bogged down and got predictable, which is easy to understand considering Siakam did not sit for the entire fourth quarter. He was the offence’s North Star, presenting some structure. He had 15 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 of his 15 free-throw attempts, also matching a career high. The Raptors went to the line 10 more times than the 76ers, which is a massive upset given the players on the other side. Siakam’s usage of nearly 29 percent was higher than it’s been all series, and he might need to get even more shot-happy when the series moves back to Philadelphia.

That does not mean he should be using tunnel vision. Siakam did not eschew the rest of his game though. When the lane was entirely cut off, he tried to make the right play. He hooked up OG Anunoby for a 3, and when Joel Embiid was on him, he gave the ball up to Gary Trent Jr., allowing the guard an easier look at the rim.

There was a statement of intent early on. Usually, Siakam only pulls up from the middle of the floor and is more liable to take catch-and-shoot looks from the corners or side. When he dribbled hard to his right and pulled up as he moved toward the baseline, firing over Embiid, you knew he was going to try to set the tone with his mindset.

“He’s always gonna fight through adversity,” Thaddeus Young said. “He knows his game. He knows who he is as a player. He knows how to bounce back and come back from having not so good games. That’s exactly what he did. He just came out and did what Pascal does, play basketball and not care about what people are saying or the last game. It’s about this game. It’s about moving forward, and that’s what he did.”

The assignment gets tougher in Philadelphia, with a whistle that is less likely to be favourable and a crowd that is guaranteed to be loud. It’s a tough ask. After Saturday, Raptors fans can be reasonably sure that if their team is going down, Siakam will not be passive in the process.

Raptors show trademark fighting spirit to stay alive in series vs. 76ers – Sportsnet

Toronto was led by Siakam who shook off questions about a sub-par outing in Game 3 with grinding, determined 34-point showing in Game 4, his playoff career high. He got to the free-throw line 15 times after failing to earn a single free throw attempt in Game 3. His three-point play early in the fourth quarter followed by a steal by Young and lay-up by Precious Achiuwa gave Toronto a seven-point lead with 9:11 to play. From there Siakam worked his way to the line seven times. He also assisted on a key triple by Anunoby that put Toronto up 12 with 3:44 to play that gave the Raptors some breathing room in a game that offered little chance to relax.

The Raptors won despite shooting just 42 per cent from the floor and 8-of-34 from three because they grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to six by the Sixers and had just 11 turnovers to 16 by Philadelphia. They also took 35 free throws to 25 by Philadelphia. The Sixers were led by Joel Embiid who had just 21 points – nine below his season average – while Trent Jr. had 24 for Toronto.

It was fitting in a way that with their season on the line the Raptors doubled down on the positionless approach they have been experimenting with all season. With VanVleet having to sit out the second half and Barnes limited with his ankle, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse rode a lineup of five 6-foot-9 (ish) wings in Siakam, Young, Anunoby, Chris Boucher and Achiuwa. The only adjustment down the stretch was when Nurse exchanged Trent Jr. for Boucher.

It paid off as the Raptors held the Sixers to 6-of-18 shooting in the fourth quarter, while forcing five turnovers. It allowed Toronto to finally pull away in a game that was tied after the first quarter, and which they led only narrowly for most of the afternoon.

It’s a formula Toronto hopes they can repeat, and there’s some hope given that Embiid his struggling with a sprained thumb.

“I mean, it’s painful,” said Embiid, who shot 7-of-16 from floor and made five turnovers. “… In basketball you need to use your hand a lot. So …”

Regardless of the series result, the progress of Barnes has been the on-going success story for Toronto who were able to draft him after their so-called Tampa Tank – their response to the pandemic addled 2020-21 season.

The 20-year-old from West Palm Beach Florida became just the third Raptor to ever win the rookie-of-the-year award and he did it in noteworthy fashion, winning the closest vote in 20 years over Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley by just 15 points. Barnes had 48 first-place votes to 43 for Mobley out of the 100 ballots cast. Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham was third. Barnes was taken fourth overall while Mobley and Cunningham went third and first, respectively, as part of the one of the deepest rookie classes on years.

“I was just super, happy, of course at the news,” said Barnes. “I just couldn’t wait to get in the building and for everyone to announce the award … it was a goal of mine all year to try to win it, but I didn’t really try to overthink it or try to do so much. I just played my role, did what I had to do and winning helps with it as well.”

Barnes earned to award thank to his combination of versatility and durability. He averaged 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.08 steals and 0.74 blocks in 35.4 minutes in 74 games, leading all rookies in minutes, ranking third in points and rebounds and finishing fifth in assists, steals and blocks.

“We are incredibly proud of Scottie and are thrilled and grateful that his hard work has been recognized with this honour,” Toronto Raptors Vice-Chairman and President Masai Ujiri said in a statement. “What you see on the court is exactly who Scottie is: enthusiastic. Joyful. Athletic. Skilled, and a winner. We – and our fans – loved seeing his development through this season, and we can’t wait to see what the future brings.”

For now, it brings Game 5, and a chance for Barnes and the Raptros to author one of the most unlikely comebacks imaginable.

Offense sputters as Sixers fail to sweep Raptors – Liberty Ballers

Lots of whistles for both sides and it’s a clunky start to the fourth. The Sixers playing into the Raptors’ hands by not taking care of the basketball and giving them transition opportunities. Toronto has 19 points off turnovers while the Sixers have three. The Raptors also have 13 offensive rebounds to the Sixers’ five. It’s not complicated — take care of the ball, force them to play in the half court, rebound, and you should win. Toronto extends its lead to 88-81.
Not a sight you want to see: Harris limped off the floor after committing a foul on Pascal Siakam. It was also Harris’ fifth foul. Sixers leaking oil a bit here, down 93-85 with 6:30 remaining. Siakam up to 30 points.
An ugly ending to this game. The officiating hasn’t been great (Raptors leading in the free throw department, 30-18), but the Sixers doing a very poor job of playing through it. Brutal offensive game for the Sixers. It’s 102-89 Raptors with under three minutes left.
Likely won’t be too many nights where Embiid, Harden and Maxey are all going to shoot so poorly. That trio went 16 of 45. That said, Harden’s struggles as a scorer (5 of 17, 2 of 8 from three) are concerning. The status of Embiid’s right thumb will also be a big storyline going forward. Siakam (34 points) provided most of the Raptors’ offense after being stymied through the first three games.

Sixers Playoff Bell Ringer: Sixers fail to complete sweep in Game 4 loss to Raptors – Liberty Ballers

Anyone have a final count on how many times the national broadcast mentioned Embiid’s thumb? On the court, it appeared evident right away that the big man was affected by the injury, as he recorded just one point in the first quarter. He had some uncharacteristic turnovers trying to pass out of a double team before the second Raptor even got to him, leading to a couple of easy buckets for Toronto. Every time he drew contact, he immediately grabbed for the thumb, and you could see the frustration on his face grow throughout the game. 15 of his 21 points came in the middle two quarters, but he faded in the final 12 minutes and exemplified the aforementioned frustration with a blatant foul on Siakam and a technical foul with 3:06 left in the game. Nevertheless, there were moments when his midrange game didn’t miss a beat, and he still played 39 minutes. Look for the big man to respond in front of the Philly faithful on Monday.

NBA Playoffs: Siakam scores 34, Raptors extend series vs. Sixers with 110-102 Game 4 win – Raptors HQ

One of the main goals of this season and these playoffs has been to learn just how feasible their unorthodox playing style can be when the games matter most. The jury may still be out on the offensive side of things, but there is no doubt that Toronto’s brand of defense is a nightmarish obstacle to clear, even for an offense led by Joel Embiid and James Harden.

Confronting a much larger collection of Raps defenders than usual with VanVleet sidelined, Philly’s offense was pressured and rushed at every turn. The trio of Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey combined to shoot just 16-of-45 from the floor with 10 combined turnovers.

With Harden, it didn’t really seem to matter who the Raptors stuck on him, whether it was VanVleet early on, OG Anunoby, Thad Young or Pascal Siakam — there was nothing to be gained for Harden, aside from the bits of driving space the Raptors seemed happy to grant him in exchange for him taking weak floaters instead of spraying passes to shooters.

Embiid was hounded all night by extra defenders in his face almost immediately upon the catch, and some truly brilliant back-line help from the likes of Siakam, Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher. He remains an incredible player, and flashed some of the same ludicrous shot making that pushed his team to the win just three nights ago. He also dished just three assists to five turnovers, and only sealed off deep position for easy looks a couple times all game. All the high-difficulty makes for him over the last couple games belie the fact that this long and limber Raptors defense has him feeling uncomfortable.

Siakam, Trent and the defense were the stars of the night, but the work of Thad Young deserves its own section. Since the trade, Young’s been better when playing alongside the Raptors better players. His skills on offense are connective and amplifying. On defense he’s just about the most Toronto Raptors-ass player there is. Tasked routinely with being the first line of defense against Embiid and Harden, his resistance allowed the Raptors’ to be more deliberate in their help — to send it when it was most opportune, and not out of necessity.

“He’s a big body, big strong guy,” said Young of his time spent guarding Embiid. “This is not my first time, not my first rodeo playing against him,” pointing to the importance of keeping Embiid as far from the basket as possible to prevent him from walking into easy looks.

Young’s steals helped kickstart the Raptors’ transition attack (they outscored the Sixers on the break 21-10), and his deft passing in the half court helped grease the wheels just enough for a team that needed any edges it could find without its point guard available.

Young finished with a 13-5-5-3-1 line in 30 minutes on 6-of-9 shooting. If VanVleet can’t go on Monday due to his left hip strain, his playmaking will be one of the keys to the Raptors bringing the series back to Toronto for Game 6.

History and top-end talent are still against the Raptors as they look to do the impossible and come back from being down 3-0. It’s more likely than not that Monday night will in fact conclude the season. If that’s the case, there’s really nothing to be sour about. Toronto’s now gotten two tight post-season games worth of reps for this still-learning core, and shown all the fight you’d hope to see for a team that started this series off on two wrong feet. Not having VanVleet hurts, of course, though in this matchup the full-on adoption of Vision 6’9 might not be the worst way to muck up the Sixers’ plans.

If this was the last game of the season in Toronto, it was a fitting conclusion to a bizarre and disjointed but ultimately growth-filled year of games back at Scotiabank Arena, from the Barnes celebration to open, to the demolition exacted by Siakam, the game provided everything the level-headed Raptors fan should need to feel happy about this season’s results.

Josh Lewenberg: Raptors get spark from Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes in series-extending win – TSN.ca

Suddenly, as the series shifts back to Philly for Monday’s Game 5, the Raptors have hope again. Going in, the goal – win or lose – was to make this a competitive series and get their young players, Barnes in particular, some valuable playoff experience. Both of those things seemed like a lost cause just a few short days ago. While the odds of them making history and winning four straight to advance remain low, they can still do what they set out to accomplish.

VanVleet’s status is up in the air; he went for further imaging following Saturday’s game. However, Barnes’ ankle will continue to grow stronger by the day, and now, the Raptors’ Rookie of the Year gets at least one more game under his belt.

Barnes and Cleveland’s Evan Mobley led an impressive class of freshman and went toe-to-toe all season in a very tight race for the award. For most of the campaign, Mobley was considered the favourite, thanks to his hot start and impact for the resurgent Cavaliers. But as Mobley got hurt and the Cavs began to fade late in the year, Barnes’ star continued to rise and get brighter. With his late push, he overtook Mobley in the closest vote since the current format for Rookie of the Year was launched in 2002.

Barnes has something in common with the other two Raptors players to win Rookie of the Year, Carter and Stoudamire – none of them were especially well received by the fan base when they were drafted. When Toronto made Stoudamire the first draft pick in franchise history, selecting him seventh-overall in 1995, fans booed because they wanted Ed O’Bannon, who wound up playing only two seasons in the NBA. In 1998, many fans preferred , Carter’s former UNC teammate, who the Raptors actually selected fourth overall before flipping him to Golden State for the player that would become known as Vinsanity. Of the two, Jamison was the better college player and he went on to have a good, long NBA career, but Carter turned into a likely hall of famer.

Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster turned heads and raised eyebrows when they passed up on the presumed fourth pick, Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs, to take Barnes. It wasn’t completely out of left field. Barnes was shooting up draft boards and likely would have been a top-five pick regardless, but there were questions. For all of his defensive upside, how quickly would his shot develop and could he score at the NBA level? If Suggs wasn’t the obvious pick, he sure seemed like the safer choice.

The Raptors saw something in Barnes, though. They loved his versatility and believed he was capable of playing and guarding all five positions. With his work ethic and big personality, and after coming off the bench as a freshman at Florida State last year, they thought he was just starting to scratch the surface.

Siakam steps up and Raptors stay alive with Game 4 victory | The Star

Too much had been made of Siakam’s Game 3 performance, especially since the Raptors were ultimately beaten on a crazy hard Joel Embiid three-pointer after giving themselves a chance to win. But Siakam’s a bit of a lightning rod, and how he responds to critics is always on the minds of fans.

He answered them Saturday with a 10-for-10 shooting day from the field and 13-for-15 at the foul line, more free throws than he’d ever shot in a playoff game.

“I just think he was so much more assertive and decisive,” coach Nick Nurse said. “Less looking around and just going (to the basket).

“I like that he came down and took a couple of perimeter threes right off quick screen-and-rolls; that was an indication that he was ready to fire when he was open.”

In a more physical Game 4, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid was held in check while Toronto’s Pascal Siakam rebounded with a big performance at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.

The Raptors also got an emotional boost — and a very good player back — when Scottie Barnes was cleared to play after missing two games with a sprained left ankle.

Barnes, named NBA rookie of the year about half an hour before tipoff, came off the bench and survived an early scare when he limped off the court after just six minutes, when he stepped on the foot of Philadelphia backup centre Paul Reed.

Barnes ended up playing 25 minutes with six points and 11 rebounds. But most important, he was able to provide an additional ballhandler to help smooth out the Toronto offence.

Getting Barnes back was mitigated by the struggles of point guard Fred VanVleet, who missed most of the game with a left hip strain.

VanVleet’s been battling knee soreness since the middle of February and was obviously upset when he walked off the court: ripping his jersey while heading right to the locker room with about five minutes left in the second quarter.

“He is going to play through a lot of bangs and bruises and bumps and not being healthy, and I’m sure he just wanted to play, so I’m sure he was frustrated,” Nurse said of VanVleet, who finished with just five points in 14 minutes and was off Saturday night to have an MRI on his hip.

VanVleet’s absence made big games by Siakam and Gary Trent, who poured in 24 points, even more critical.

“I think it’s the usual aggressiveness, but at the same time it’s me having the ball and knowing that I have to make plays,” Siakam said. “And it’s not just only scoring. It’s everything. Just initiating the offence and making sure that everyone is in the right spots.”

Raptors Stave off Elimination as Pascal Siakam Bounces Back – Sports Illustrated

There’s no hiding from the disaster that was Game 3 for Siakam who didn’t register a single point in the second half Wednesday night, but what’s clear is he’s learning from his mistakes. He was unhappy with his lack of aggression in his last outing and was clearly on a mission to fix that Saturday afternoon.

“He’s always been a resilient player. He’s always gonna fight through adversity. He knows his game. He knows who he is as a player. He knows how to bounce back and come back from having not-so-good games. That’s exactly what he did,” Young said. “He just came out and did what Pascal does, play basketball and not care about what people are saying or the last game. It’s about this game. It’s about moving forward, and that’s what he did.”

Siakam got to work early, getting to the bucket against the 76ers’ defense or settling for the kind of deep mid-range shots Philly was happy to let him take. A 4-for-5 shooting first quarter with 10 points let him find his groove early. Then, in the fourth quarter, he took over for Toronto, scoring six straight points to open the quarter and sticking the Raptors to a seven-point lead early in the quarter from which they never looked back. His 15-point fourth quarter blew the game open for the Raptors as the 76ers struggled for any way to slow down the potential All-NBA forward.

“He did a great job of seeing what he had and attacking it and I thought he just wasn’t fearful of whoever was on him tonight to try to take it in there and make a play,” Nurse said.

When it was all said and done, Siakam almost single-handedly kept the Raptors alive for another game with a playoff career-high 34 points, topping his 32-point outing in Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals.

Raptors force Game 5 as they finally solve the Embiid question | Toronto Sun

From Precious Achiuwa to Pascal Siakam to Thad Young and even some Chris Boucher, Embiid did not have a lot of room to manoeuvre, but it worked well for the Raptors.

Embiid came into the game with this right thumb taped. There are suggestions he may have a torn ligament but that won’t be confirmed until he gets some imaging done on it Monday in Philly.

Either way, it’s an impediment that helped the Raptors on Saturday afternoon’s season-saver and should help them in Game 5 on Monday in Philadelphia.

The Raptors have their own injury issues, however. All-star point guard Fred VanVleet left the game with about five minutes to play in the second quarter with a hip injury.

“I did talk to (trainer) Alex McKechnie before I came in here,” head coach Nick Nurse said at his post-game press conference. “He said it’s going to need some work. The imaging and the work will determine the next steps.”

Losing VanVleet for any portion of a game is tough. He’s the unquestioned leader of this group who puts everyone in position to best succeed. But the Raptors did welcomed Scottie Barnes back into the rotation after a two-game absence.

After being presented with his NBA rookie of the year trophy, Barnes wasn’t quite what he was before he sprained his ankle when Embiid stepped on him in Game 1. But he had an impact on the game, as he has in almost every one he has played in his rookie year.

Barnes came off the bench about six minutes into the game and, when VanVleet was unable to return, assumed a chunk of the point-guard duties, as well. He wound up playing 25 minutes, pulling down a game-high 11 rebounds and chipping in with six points.

“I think that’s a great run out for him on that thing (ankle) to give him some confidence going forward,” Nurse said.

Embiid and the Sixers don’t look all that scary after Game 4 | The Star

The Sixers sloughed off Saturday as just one game, and maybe it was. The ever-theatrical Embiid seemed to blame the officials for the loss, clapping his hands while motioning to the referees as he left the floor, mouthing the words “Good job. Good job.”

At some point between then and the post-game press conference it dawned on Embiid that he’d spent the dying seconds of Game 2 chastising Nurse for shamelessly lobbying the refs.

“I’m going to take my own advice and not complain about fouls,” he said. “Like I was doing at the end of the game, they did a great job … They had one job, to come in here (today) and they got it done.”

In one breath, he was above complaining. In the next, he was an NBA conspiracy theorist. Was he actually suggesting the referees were instructed to make sure there was a Game 5?

“You can figure it out … I don’t know what I’m talking about,” he said with a sly smile. “I’m going to take my own advice and not complain about it.”

As for the injury, Embiid, like VanVleet, said he was due for a post-game MRI. And then he elaborated.

In one breath, he wanted the world to know he’d played through pain.

“It’s painful. In basketball you need to use your hand a lot, so …” he said. “I would say it was more (painful) when it comes to rebounding and the free-throw line. Also passing.”

In another breath, he was playing the macho warrior.

“Africans don’t feel pain,” said the man from Cameroon.

If nobody’s actually questioning Embiid’s struggle — Rivers said before the game that the Sixers know what it is and “it’s not a great injury” — nobody who has followed Embiid’s career closely would be surprised by the timing. Call it bad luck, but as reliably spectacular as he’s been during his six NBA seasons, he’s been an unrelentless presence on the injury report, particularly in the playoffs.

A year ago Embiid played, and played well, with a torn right meniscus in a two-round run through the post-season. But he didn’t seem so gallant in 2019, when seemingly every game of Toronto’s second-round series with the Sixers came with an Embiid-induced plot twist. Diarrhea, a bad night of sleep, a common cold — it always seemed to be something. You’d need a book to chronicle Embiid’s adventures in the trainer’s room.

He added another page Saturday, not that anybody was asking.

“Nobody knows, but I was really sick for the first few games (of this series),” Embiid volunteered. “I fought through it. It’s the playoffs. Nothing is going to stop me.”

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