— Tom Moore (@TomMoorePhilly) April 26, 2022
Sixers backers watching this performance pic.twitter.com/D0d7ZzktkE
— Hammer DAHN (@HammerDAHN) April 26, 2022
Embiid on Harden only taking 11 shots: "I've been saying all season since he got here, he needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself. That's not really my job, that's probably on coach to talk to him and tell him to take more shots"
Full quote: pic.twitter.com/vc5WIpROLO
— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) April 26, 2022
“Not exactly how we’d probably draw it up,” said Nurse. “But we’re happy to still be playing. We need the games, that’s for sure, our goal is to keep improving.”
The Raptors were led by Pascal Siakam, who took over point guard duties in the absence of Fred VanVleet with the latter likely out for the series with a hip injury sustained in Game 4.
Siakam scored 23 points and added 10 rebounds and seven assists in 44 steady minutes. Time and again, he beat whomever the Sixers put in front of him off the dribble, scoring at the rim or creating good looks for teammates against a rotating defence. Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa joined Siakam in double figures with 12, 16, 16 and 17 points, respectively, in a well-rounded attack.
But the real star was the Raptors’ team defence. With VanVleet out, the smallest player to hit the floor was six-foot-five Trent Jr. and Nurse went for long stretches with lineups where everyone on the floor was six-foot-eight (and no one was taller than six-foot-nine). The result was a lot of crowds of long arms for Joel Embiid and Harden to deal with and the speed and length to rotate out to shooters.
The Sixers shot just 39 per cent from the floor and coughed up 16 turnovers, leading to 20 Raptors points.
The key to their defence, which was largely non-existent in Games 1 and 2 but has been smothering in Games 4 and 5?
“Just play hard,” said Thad Young, who contributed three assists and a steal in 16 useful minutes. “… We scrambled all night long, made sure that we kept fresh bodies in, we made Embiid see crowds and force him to pass the ball early. I think that was one of the biggest things, just forcing the ball out of his hands early, not even giving him a chance to go into moves and pick up fouls on guys and stuff like that. Just making sure that when he does see that double-team that we’re scrambling out and getting to the right guys. They had a stretch where they made some threes, but they also had a stretch where the threes were tough on them because we closed out to them.”
Embiid counted just 20 points in the face of constant double- and triple-teams while Harden was a max contract non-factor, counting just 15 points and seven assists in 40 minutes.
And Toronto got a considerable assist from the Sixers fans, who have no problem eating their own. On consecutive possessions early in the fourth quarter Barnes dribbled the length of the floor largely unimpeded and then hit teammates — first Young, then Achiuwa — for undefended alley-oops to put Toronto up 13 and Sixers fans began to boo.
When Embiid picked up his fifth foul midway through the fourth quarter, the nerves drew tighter still. When Anunoby knocked down a pull-up three to keep Toronto’s lead at double figures with 3:52 to play, they anxious murmurings of 20,000 people got louder again. And when Trent Jr. stepped into a wide-open triple to put Toronto up 15 with 3:20 left, they started to leave. Finally, when Anunoby drove the lane unimpeded for a dunk with 2:18 left, it was over.
For a guy who was last seen ripping his jersey in frustration, Fred VanVleet seemed pretty chilled out on Monday morning.
He quickly disabused everybody of the notion he would be playing in the win-or-go-home Game 5 that evening, giving up the gamesmanship and saying his strained left hip flexor would keep him in what turned out to be a mint green tracksuit. When asked if he might be able to return later in the series, he let implication do the heavy lifting.
“I’m always going to leave that window open,” VanVleet said. “It’s not one of those things where I’m out for four weeks. It’ll probably take some time. Hopefully, we can extend this thing and I would feel great about maybe playing in the next round. Nobody believes we can do it, but I think we can, so I would feel good about that. I’m going to stay positive and get as much rehab as I can, and … take it a day at a time.”
Of course, for the Toronto Raptors to make it to the next round, they would have to do something no other team has done in 143 previous chances: erase a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series.
Well, they’re halfway there, and their opponent leads the league in playoff ghosts.
Young teams are supposed to be subsumed by the playoffs. Closeout games on the road are supposed to be the peak of that, if not stage fright, then stage inexperience. Yet, the Raptors, en route to a 103-88 win, look like the calm, relaxed team. The Philadelphia 76ers look burdened by the moment.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Thaddeus Young said of his team’s calm presence. “These guys, from Day 1 when I got here, seemed like a great group of guys who are very poised. We have a really good coaching staff. We have a really good staff that puts game plans together, and our job is to execute the game plan to the best of our ability. And that’s what we all do. We go out there and we play as hard as we can. Everybody listens to each other. No one man is bigger than the team and that’s why we’re able to go out there and win basketball games. We’re able to get ourselves back into this series and continue to fight each and every night.”
Sometimes, they stay in the fight with a pinch of panache. At the end of the second half Monday night, incandescent Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes was limping on his recently sprained ankle. In the fourth quarter, moments after Tyrese Maxey asked the crowd for noise, he recorded two assists in a row, both on alley-oops. The second one was a no-look dish to Precious Achiuwa. The gall.
Joel Embiid was clearly tiring in the second half, and the Raptors were relentless in attacking him. There was nothing terribly subtle about it. Sometimes they set a screen to create some uncertainty or sometimes there was just an isolation, but all three of OG Anunoby, Achiuwa and Pascal Siakam drove right at the big man. The Raptors got four buckets and a foul out of it in the middle of the third quarter.
Monday night’s convincing 103-88 loss to the Toronto Raptors was a different type of pain, a slower drip. Unlike the blown lead against the Hawks, the Sixers’ home-court advantage turned into a decided disadvantage for all 48 minutes against Toronto. The players heard boos constantly throughout the game, which is more typical of a mid-February game when the crowd is trying to wake the team from its slumber. The Sixers, with everything to play for in a closeout playoff game, just didn’t give them anything to cheer for.
“That was a terrible game by us, terrible outing just in terms of effort,” Tobias Harris said. “And that sucks.”
The time span between Game 2 and Game 5 of this series against Toronto was just one week. But with how those two games unfolded, and how drastically the series has shifted since then, it truthfully might as well have been a year ago.
In Game 2, the Sixers rang up 95 points in three quarters. They ran the ball down Toronto’s throat in transition. They drove and kicked for open 3 after open 3. Joel Embiid was the most physical player on the court.
Fast forward to Thursday. The Sixers managed just 88 points the entire game. After a dominant start, Embiid was relegated to the perimeter, while James Harden and Tyrese Maxey submitted woefully inadequate performances.
“I just thought they were the tougher team all night. They were more physical all night,” Doc Rivers said. “I thought they attacked us, and we didn’t attack back. We didn’t get in the paint enough, and it led to shots. I thought we took a lot of tough shots.”
This marked the second straight game where the Sixers’ postgame explanations focused on subjects like toughness and effort. Those things may be both true and concerning, but like Game 4, the story of the Sixers’ struggles begins with the offensive execution. The Sixers scored 75.6 points per 100 possessions in the half court per Cleaning The Glass, an anemic number against a defense they carved up at the beginning of the series.
Much of that blame falls on Harden’s shoulders. After all, he has the ball in his hands on most plays and dictates how the offense is playing. Harden had 15 points (4-of-11 field goals, 5-of-6 free throws) and seven assists to five turnovers, but the best way to judge Harden is how efficiently the Sixers’ offense is playing. Are they getting good shots?
By that criteria, Harden’s individual stat line was very kind to him Monday. He did not play with enough pace, leading to stagnant possessions and contested jumpers. He did not get into the paint and find 3-point shooters as he did in the first few games of the series. His uneven drives turned into transition opportunities for Toronto. And on a night the Sixers knew they had to take care of the ball, Harden committed a couple of turnovers in the first four minutes of the game.
Tobias Harris: 16 points, seven rebounds, four assists,
Harris has been, as everyone expected, the Sixers’ most consistent player of this series. His frustrating moments of indecision are considerably less frequent, and he’s playing with so much more confidence compared to earlier in the season. He is letting three-pointers fly as quickly as he ever has during his time with the Sixers. Harris’s defense has been his most impressive part of this series, however. He’s done a great job being a pesky on-ball defender for pretty much anyone he’s been asked to guard.
Facing elimination at the Wells Fargo Center on Monday, the Raptors did what can best be classified as “smacked the Sixers in the mouth”. They out-scored Philly 56-36 in the paint, exhausted Joel Embiid and James Harden by involving them in almost every offensive possession, and held a once-blistering Sixers offense to 88 points on 38 percent shooting with rabid, intense defensive pressure.
Winning 103-88, the Raptors are sending this series back to Toronto. More than that, they’re doing so with a tool belt full of legitimate, sustainable ways to topple this Sixers team and their superstar centre.
That’s where the Game 5 plan really came together, with how the Raptors dealt with Joel Embiid. Always destined to be the centrifugal force in this series, Embiid has been at the literal centre — both on the court and off. His team thrives when he’s on the court and ambles around when he sits. There’s a reason he’s one of the frontrunners for the league MVP award and we’ve seen it through four games, culminating in that heartbreaking triple at the end of Game 3 to put his team on the edge of the second round.
They’ve remained on that edge, though, because the Toronto Raptors have started to unlock how to make Embiid look human.
Some will blame a thumb ligament injury that is obviously dogging him, but the issues for Embiid have gone beyond that in Games 4 and 5. The Raptors have simply made it a point to go at him, relentlessly, both in pick and rolls and one-on-one. Mainly, Nick Nurse is trusting that Precious Achiuwa and Pascal Siakam can straight up beat Embiid off the dribble. The two combined for 40 points tonight. He appears to be right.
All game, the Raptors seemed determined to force Embiid to defend in space — preferably with James Harden as the other piece in a pick and roll.
There were some rough moments, sure, but on the whole it was a dynamite strategy. When Embiid returned from just two minutes on the bench to start the fourth quarter, his body language was the tale of the tape. The Raptors had done enough to take his legs out in 40 minutes of play, and even shooting as poorly as they were — 8-for-31 from three — they were able to continue scoring by exploiting Embiid, who was standing straight up on defense through the entire second half.
This isn’t to say that the story can’t change going forward. Embiid is way too good and way too motivated to let this performance define him, especially given his past struggles against the Raptors. The strategy worked tonight, though, and Nurse will likely use this blueprint to try to keep extending this series — beginning Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena.
Of course, there is no strategy without players smart and talented enough to execute.
Rather than turning to sparingly used sophomore point guard Malachi Flynn, Nurse opted to put the ball in the hands of his two hybrid bigs: Siakam and Scottie Barnes, who logged 41 minutes in his second game back from an ankle sprain. The newly minted Rookie of the Year looked to be moving better than in his return over the weekend, and he was more assertive early on, looking to attack Harden in the post. By the second half, he was walking with a bit of a limp, something that Nurse said they will have to monitor, but he did a good job initiating the offence.
Coming off a playoff career-high 34-point performance on Saturday, Siakam was brilliant again while carrying an even bigger workload in the absence of VanVleet. In 44 minutes, he scored 23 points to go along with 10 rebounds and seven assists. His much-maligned second half of Game 3 – in which he was held scoreless on just five shot attempts – feels like eons ago now.
But for the Raptors’ defence, the key was in slowing down Embiid. With a little help from the officiating and his injured thumb, they may have stumbled onto something in Game 4. The superstar centre spent most of Saturday afternoon jawing at the refs – he was fined $15,000 for his post-game inference that they were trying to make sure Philly didn’t sweep the series. You could see the discomfort on his face each time he took a jumper, playing through a torn ligament in his shooting thumb, which will require surgery after the playoffs. He was also visibly annoyed with the way the Raptors were defending him, and perhaps that frustration carried over into Monday.
Credit Toronto’s defence for taking the ball out of his hands, but Embiid was way too passive, especially when it became clear that he would need to take over for Philly to have any chance at salvaging the night. The Raptors have tried to make him work on defence all series in an effort to tire him out, but by the third quarter they were actively going at him on almost every play, and it was working.
First, Precious Achiuwa got Embiid to bite on a pump fake and drew the foul. Then, Anunoby drove past him for a dunk. Achiuwa beat him off the dribble for a layup, followed by Siakam, who did the same. Finally, Siakam found Achiuwa, who had Embiid sealed under the rim, for an easy bucket. The Raptors scored on Embiid on five straight possessions, as the big man tugged at his shorts and laboured up and down the court.
Meanwhile, the Philly fans were growing increasingly restless. They’ve experienced playoff heartbreak before. Despite lofty expectations over the past few years, Embiid and the Sixers haven’t been able to get past the second round. Harden was brought in to help them get over the hump, but it’s not like he comes with an encouraging track record.
Then there’s Doc Rivers’ uninspiring playoff history. Rivers is the only coach in NBA history who has been on the wrong end of three 3-1 series comebacks. He’s now lost seven of his last eight chances to close out a series, dating back to his time with the Clippers.
Is there a momentum shift now that the Raptors have won two straight?
“Maybe there is but it doesn’t really matter,” coach Nick Nurse said. “Ball goes up on Thursday, everybody’s gotta play like heck.”
The Raptors extended their season, once again, by coming up with a gritty effort despite being short-handed. They were minus leader Fred VanVleet. But the group was outstanding with five players in double figures — Pascal Siakam led all Toronto scorers with 23 points — in a collective effort that exemplified Toronto’s entire season.
“They’re doing a really good job of just finding some things offensively, I think they feel really good down there,” Nurse said. “We’re generating, for the most part, really good shots and they should feel good about that. They’re just moving the pieces around and we’ve got a few principles we want to follow and they’re doing a good job of it.”
Precious Achiuwa continued his emergence as an all-around threat with 17 points and the way he attacked Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid was a master-class in not taking a step back.
Raptors forward OG Anunoby chases a loose ball with 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey in Game 5 of their first-round series in Philadelphia.
“I’m just out there figuring out how they play, where my shots are going to come from,” Achiuwa said. “I feel like the last two games I’ve been able to do a good job of that, and I’m just taking advantage of it.”
Back-to-back three-pointers by OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. gave the Raptors a 15-point lead with about three minutes to go and quelled the final Sixers run. And an emphatic Anunoby baseline dunk with about two minutes left sent fans scurrying to the exits.
“I think we’re just a resilient group,” Anunoby said. “We weren’t even worried about the crowd. We were just trying to get a stop and score. Every time we’re trying to get a stop and score.”
The way the Raptors defended the entire game was the way they had played for most of the regular season. They forced 15 turnovers, gave up only five offensive rebounds to the Sixers and held Embiid to 20 points as he watched the final two minutes from the bench.
But it was Pascal Siakam doing a little bit of everything for the Raptors in those first 24 minutes with eight points, six rebounds and four assists as the Sixers defence stayed locked in on him and he kept finding ways to make them pay for all that attention, that proved to be the ultimate difference.
Siakam would go off for 15 more in the second half to finish with a Raptors best 23. He fell just three assists for the triple double.
OG Anunoby had no issue sharing the offensive game plan for the night.
“Just give him the ball, get out of the way,” Anunoby said of Siakam. “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 had his hands more full than usual without Fred VanVleet in the lineup.
That hip flexor strain he suffered in Game 4 proved to be too constraining, forcing VanVleet, the toughest Raptor, to keep out of the lineup regardless of condition, out of last night’s game.
Siakam and Barnes shared the point guard duties but it was primarily Siakam.
“Obviously he is a big part of what we do as a team and we definitely need him out there,” Siakam said of VanVleet. “I think it’s just kind of been like the story of the season for us. We have had a lot of guys in and out of the lineup and we always kind of figure it out.”
While few gave the Raptors any chance at all in this game, Nurse had a very definitive reply to why he thought his Raptors weren’t quite done yet when asked pre-game.
“I think the biggest thing that I have seen is we’ve generated really good shots for most of the series, and we haven’t shot very well yet,” Nurse said. “I told the guys today, ‘Today would be a good day to go ahead and start making some of those open shots. If we can do that and generate them — I don’t know how it will look. Obviously we’ve got one of our best shooters out of the game (VanVleet) and a guy who creates a lot of those shots out of the game. Don’t know how it will look for a full 48 without him out there. I hope we can continue to generate shots and maybe get a little hotter from the perimeter.”
For the game the Raptors shot over 50% from the field for the first time all series. Nurse didn’t get the red-hot three-point shooting he thought might be coming, but turns out he didn’t need it.
Toronto’s defence made it unnecessary.
If there was one bit of negative news to come out Game 5, it was that Barnes appeared to be limping late in the game. That will get plenty of attention ahead of Game 6 back in Toronto on Thursday.
This series has been the tail of two parts for Pascal Siakam and Toronto. After a mediocre first two games and a miserable Game 3, Siakam has totally flipped the script on the 76ers with aggressive play that’s transformed Toronto’s offense.
Even with his right wrist in a brace for the first time this series, Siakam showed no signs of injury in Game 5. He let others find a groove early with the kind of brilliant passing that returned him to All-NBA form in the regular season. Then, in the third quarter, he did it himself. He got to his spots in the mid-range, nailing his classic go-to pull-up jumper, and even mixed in one of his two three-pointers for the night.
“He made some big tough buckets when there wasn’t much going and those are huge, you know, your scorer needs to produce some baskets on his own sometimes and he was able to do that,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.
That aggressiveness carried over into the fourth quarter where Siakam made his presence felt, keeping Toronto’s offense moving by getting into the teeth of Philadelphia’s defense and either taking it himself or finding his teammates like OG Anunoby who nailed a crucial three-pointer to put the Raptors up 12 with four minutes to go. Moments later, Anunoby threw down a one-handed slam and Siakam clinched the game with another one of his patented floaters.
“I thought he was composed, he was taking his time when he needed to, he was finding people, especially late,” Nurse added. “It’s great that he’s seeing both situations because you’ve got to take what’s there and sometimes, they’re spraying out to stop Gary or OG from getting a three and guys are cutting in behind him and he’s finding those guys, too.
“Really good composure by him.”
Siakam’s 23 points led all scorers as he finished the night shooting 10-for-17 from the floor with 10 rebounds and seven assists.
“Just give him the ball, get out of the way,” said Anunoby who tallied 18. “He’s a really talented player. He can score from anywhere and he makes his teammates better.”
This is what these Raptors do. They get kicked to the curb and keep on fighting.
They pay no attention to the logic or the odds that surrounds them. They just keep on battling, and scrapping and clawing and executing, and finding ways to do the impossible.
No team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series — at this stage, in these days where betting is everywhere, I wouldn’t bet against the Raptors becoming the first team to make that mighty climb.
This team is everything we want in sports in Toronto and always have. This team is about effort. This team is about performance. This team is about an unlikely style of play, with a lineup Monday night that was missing its only all-star, finding ways to execute the game plans put together brilliantly by coach Nick Nurse.
This team is about finding players for the moment, players for the circumstance, with Fred VanVleet out, with rookie of the year Scottie Barnes limping and directing the Raptors offence, with Pascal Siakam, for the second game in a row, being the player who mattered most. Joel Embiid may get all the notice around the NBA, but in Games 4 and 5, with Embiid playing with a bum thumb, both games turned when Siakam made them turn.
He could do what Embiid couldn’t do. He could do what Harden, a Top 75 player of all-time, couldn’t do. He scored when it mattered most. He made the game one-sided when it appeared it was about to get close. He had eight points at halftime but had 15 in the second half, ended with a game high of 23 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists. He shot 59% from the floor. There wasn’t much he didn’t do.
The combination of NBA also-rans, Khem Birch, and Precious Achiuwa played 37 minutes at centre for the Raptors. Almost all of that time against Embiid’s 39 minutes. Embiid scored 20, well below his season average. Birch and Achiuwa combined to score 24.
That won’t be part of the MVP voting that has already taken place.
The Raptors should have won Game 3, and played well enough to get the victory. They won Game 4 and now won Game 5 and neither of those was really in question. The 76ers led 2-0 Monday night after scoring the first basket in Philadelphia and the booing was heard not much after that from a crowd well known for being cranky and loud. And now comes the talk-show conversation today in Philadelphia.
Who’s to blame for this? Embiid? His injury? A Doc being outcoached by a Nurse. Harden looking old and rather average? The Ben Simmons deal that didn’t help either team? An inability to match the Raptors size and depth?
There are all kinds of questions for the Sixers to answer now: The Raptors, as they have all season long, are playing on house money.