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Behind in the series, the Raptors assume control one game at a time

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PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - APRIL 25: Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors controls the ball in the third quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers during Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round at Wells Fargo Center on April 25, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Very similar to game 4, game 5 was a fairly easy watch for someone whose rooting interests lie with the northern squad. It provided heaps of opportunities for fans to jump up and celebrate, but very few moments where everyone sat around with certain body parts puckered. The Raptors exercised control with their carefully crafted defensive game plan, and on offense, by allowing Pascal Siakam to guide them to victory.

In typical Siakam fashion, he is stuffing the stat sheet. He’s currently in the top-20 in all 3 of points per game, rebounds per game, and assists per game in the playoffs, and doing so on a Raptors team that has been battling a glut of injuries and illnesses to all of Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, and Fred VanVleet. The 76ers are fixated on him and he continues to sidestep that tension in pursuit of possession by possession wins. Inching closer to a 3-1 AST/TO ratio, and climbing the efficiency ladder as he finds more of his spots in this series – Siakam looks poised to lead this team to an extremely interesting place, if not a series win.

OG Anunoby made sure to sing Siakam’s praises on the court, as well as his fluent French after the game: “Both are equally impressive.” Adding afterwards: “Give him the ball, get out the way. He’s a really talented player. He can score from anywhere, and he makes his teammates better. So, he led us to a victory today.”

Siakam is the architect of the organized Raptors offense. Chaos exists within it, and Siakam can live there too, but if there’s going to be something dependable? Siakam creates the breakdown, makes the read, and does so again and again. Against the 76ers, not only did he create looks and hit shots, but he siphoned away time to do so and slowed the game down to a crawl repeatedly to make sure that the Raptors were always able to set up shop on the less glamorous end. A set defense means Joel Embiid has to push through multiple bodies and resistance to find property on the low block, and more often than not he wouldn’t make it past the free throw line. Siakam organized offense, brought enough of his own, and managed pace. 23 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists. A guiding hand, especially with Fred VanVleet out for this one.

“I think that it’s just kinda been the story of the season for us. We had a lot of guys in and out of the lineups. And we always, kind of, figure it out.” Siakam said after the win. “Everyone coming in. Guys stepping up. We had a good solid game plan, and guys coming off the bench and executing the game plan, and everyone kind of stepping up their level a little bit. I think that’s what it kind of forces us to do. With such a big part of our team (Fred) being out.”

Now chaos? Well, that exists in the cozy confines of Barnes’ no look lob passes while coming downhill, and Precious Achiuwa’s fluid and formless drives past Embiid. Embiid, who roams the paint like a parent in the shallow end of a pool – exercising his authority to correct anything he dislikes while wading powerfully through the liquid – was suddenly, and repeatedly out past the buoys trying to swim in space with newly anthropomorphized Sea-Doo, Precious Achiuwa. When the ball funneled to Achiuwa and he had Embiid on him? That was a win. When Barnes had the ball on the fast break or in transition? That was a win. You can’t always set these types of possessions in motion when you want to, but the Raptors certainly made hay in them when they came along.

Defensively, the Raptors put on an absolute masterclass. The extremely hyperbolic “Five guys on a string” ethic that is often parroted as the platonic defensive ideal, is basically never achieved. However, the Raptors managed to always find composure, always maintain form, even though their defense was amoebic and amorphous by design. Double Embiid, sink the back end, zone it up, follow the pass, peel switch, now the front end is the back end, now that guy roams over. Rinse, repeat, get steals, get stops. Every 76er who tried to attack a gap was met suddenly by a long, and disruptive Raptors defender who was busting their behind to beat them to a spot. A spot the 76er thought had no chance of being occupied. The Raptors competed for things the 76ers thought were a given, and then the Raptors beat them back once they clashed in that space. Long offensive possessions were taxing for the 76ers. For the Raptors? An opportunity for everyone to catch a breath while Siakam performed wizardry.

James Harden dared not try and isolate on the likes of Siakam and Anunoby again, but he did size Achiuwa up one last time – ending in defeat. Slumped shoulders followed, as Harden realized just how destitute his offensive game was with the Raptors presenting so many talented defenders his way. Embiid is injured, battered, and bruised. Harden’s burst is very clearly hampered after he played through that hamstring injury almost a year ago. The 76ers are looking for something to fall back on, and nothing is coming.

The Raptors succeeded against the 76ers zone once again. Because as anyone who has played high level zone before knows: you gotta bust your butt to make it work, and the 76ers didn’t have it in them. Not to mention, they went to zone to protect Embiid from fouls and exposure in isolation – I’ll have way more on this in a breakdown video Thursday morning, but Embiid hit a wall in game 5. There was no safe haven for the 76ers big man, as every offensive possession for him was an overwhelming harassment of his person, and he suddenly found himself being pulled out and beaten repeatedly on defense. No solace anywhere. The Raptors present the same overwhelming terror that Anton Chigurh presented in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men – they’re relentless, so the moment you aren’t? That’s when you die.

For the 5th game in a row, the Raptors improved their defensive rating. They started with one of the worst defensive performances in playoff history, allowing 1.47 PPP in game 1. In game 5 they held the 76ers to a paltry 0.94The 76ers missed shots at the rim, they missed heaps of above-the-break threes, and they missed another opportunity to close out these scrappy as hell Raptors.

So, here we are. The momentum is firmly on the Raptors side as they head back to Toronto for game 6. Amassing power with each passing moment. The 76ers get two more chances at this thing, but they seem perplexed with how to make good on those opportunities right now – they’ve already wasted half of them.

Have a blessed day.

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