As they have in previous games, the Raptors ran as much as they could through Pascal Siakam, and continued to find winning basketball through their budding superstar. Siakam was red hot to start this game, scoring 15 of his 20 points in the first quarter alone, hitting his first four threes and five of his first six shots. He had no problem letting primary defender P.J. Tucker know about it either.
Siakam would also finish with a game-high 13 assists and five boards, his shooting cooling to a modest 7-for-16.
Other Raptors were there to pick up the slack, though. A porous Sixers team, who gave Toronto everything they wanted in transition all game, tried to slow things down with zone sets and grifting for fouls in the second half. Without the up-and-down to liven things up, Gary Trent Jr. made three clutch third quarter triples out of half court sets — part of 16 in the frame and a team-high 27 in the game. Trent Jr. will always be a streaky presence for the Raptors, but tonight — with five Raptors players struggling with foul trouble at halftime — his shooting was needed, and the makes were more than welcome.
Also steadying the ship, as he always does, was Fred VanVleet. Fred had two key jumpers down the stretch of the fourth quarter when the Sixers cut Toronto’s lead to six, part of his 15 points, eight assists, two rebounds and three blocks(!) in the game. Lucky you if you had him in fantasy basketball.
For the Sixers, Joel Embiid didn’t always put on his best game face in this one — there was a lot of business decisions made on the defensive end as various Raptors waltzed through the lane — but his offense did its share of talking. Matching Tyrese Maxey for a game-high of 31 points, Embiid was a scorching 12-of-17 from the field. Philly struggled to get other contributions, though, as their bench scored just 18 points — 12 of those from De’Anthony Melton — while the Raptors had 26 from their reserves.
The two teams meet again on Friday, and it’ll be interesting to see if any fire is lit under the Sixers. So far this season, they’ve looked disjointed, and that was often the case again tonight — especially on the defensive end.
Game five of the regular season is a long way from the intensity of a playoff series, but it was hard not to see all the good the Raptors were able to do against the visiting Sixers on Wednesday night and come away thinking the Raptors might be on to something and the Sixers – widely considered as one of the favourites in the Eastern Conference – have some work to do.
The Raptors rode the hot hand of Pascal Siakam early, and Gary Trent Jr. late for a 119-109 win that they were in control of for most of the way. Siakam chipped in with his play-making too, as he ended up with 13 assists to go along with 20 points, a scoring threshold he’s crossed every game this season as Toronto improved to 3-2 on the year.
He also showed well in what looked like a pretty intense battle with Sixers forward – and former Raptor – PJ Tucker, who Philadelphia signed in the off-season as a blunt object to use against top scorers.
Siakam wasn’t having it as he let Tucker hear about it after nearly every basket.
“Hey man, I’m just going to say this: It is what it is. I’m going to go out there and compete to the highest level no matter what,” said Siakam. “I am always going to go out and get my respect, no matter what. I put the work in and I’m never going to back down from anybody.”
‘It’s just friendly competition’: Siakam jokes about trash talk with 76ers’ Tucker
The Sixers? Things might be getting tense as they fell to 1-4, with coach Rivers the Vegas favourite to be the first coach fired this season.
The Raptors weren’t going to admit to trying to make up in October for how their first-round series ended last April, but getting to measure yourself against a quality team this early in the season?
The Sixers had their attention.
“… Every one of these games is super important, and playing against great teams is always good and having history always helps,” said Siakam. “Our focus now turns to Game 2. Having these games where you have two in a row just gives you that playoff feel anyway. I think it’s good for us as a team to just see where we are at and see the things we can get better at, because at the end of the day, that’s our goal anyway, right? Just continue to build towards that spot in the playoffs.”
“We just gifted guys shots early,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers told reporters in Toronto.
“Gift” is the appropriate word for the baskets being surrendered by a transition defense that is making winning an impossible proposition at the moment. It doesn’t matter how much offensive firepower the Sixers have on the roster, no team in the NBA can win consistently by giving up as many easy points as they consistently do.
If something does not change, they will continue to lose more games than they win. It may be a lot more.
In the clip below, look at Fred VanVleet clapping his hands when Precious Achiuwa doesn’t immediately throw the outlet pass. If you have watched enough basketball, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of urgency in this situation. The Sixers didn’t send any rebounders to the glass, so there should be plenty of time for them to match up properly.
A savvy veteran, VanVleet knows better. He understands that all he has to do is dribble the ball over the half-court line and throw it ahead to a wide-open Chris Boucher in the corner. The Sixers aren’t even close to covering him. Embiid is in no-man’s-land, perhaps wanting to defend Achiuwa on the play by pointing at him. But Danuel House Jr. seems content to do that, which leaves Tyrese Maxey to make an unsuccessful last-ditch effort at blocking Boucher’s shot. Ultimately, the details will not matter until they begin to matter to the Sixers players.
Every missed Sixers shot, particularly a missed layup, has essentially been a full-blown crisis at this early stage of the season. The book is out on them, as every team is going to push the ball until they prove they can stop it. That did not happen on opening night in Boston. That did not happen in their lone win of the season, Monday night against lowly Indiana. And it certainly did not happen in Toronto against a team they knocked out of the postseason last season.
In this clip, P.J. Tucker, who shot 3 of 10 from the field while getting lit up on the other end of the floor by Pascal Siakam, pulls the string on a floater. That quickly turns into two points because Embiid misses the offensive rebound when Tucker gambles, Tobias Harris is too far back in the corner and James Harden is forced to stop a two-on-one that he has no chance of defending.
At one point in the postgame news conference, Rivers mentioned the “pick-sixes” that the Sixers threw to Toronto. Those are turnovers that immediately lead to baskets. And he was correct to do so, as the Sixers’ offensive outside of Embiid was a major issue. Against the same team they toyed with for long stretches in April, Harden and Maxey looked unsure of how to execute the offense at times. Maxey had a big scoring night — 31 points on 23 shooting possessions — but even the young player struggled to get the Sixers into their offense at key junctures.
The lack of offensive continuity is certainly an issue, but the most fundamental problem this team must solve is that every missed shot feels like a pick-six going the other way. Entering the game, the Sixers statistically had the worst transition defense in the league by a mile. They somehow managed to make it considerably worse. Per Cleaning The Glass, 23 percent of the Raptors’ possessions started in transition. That is a huge number.
Joel Embiid: 31 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 turnovers
On Wednesday night, Joel was about as good as we’ve seen him against a Toronto Raptors team that used to give him fits. He came out of the gate on fire, hitting his first five shots and finishing with 11 points in the first quarter. Embiid scored in a multitude of ways, hitting outside jumpers, ripping through a double team and powering to the rim, establishing deep post position and a seal for an easy two, or cutting down the lane for a hammer dunk off a James Harden feed. All night long, Embiid read the double teams wisely and picked his spots, finishing a sparkling 12-of-17 from the field. There were stretches when Joel would take over the game with his scoring, and you would think “If they could only string some stops together…” Alas, the stops never came, with Joel as much to blame as anyone, and a strong offensive outing from the big man was wasted.
Tyrese Maxey: 31 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 4 turnovers
Tyrese Maxey often looks like he’s playing at a different speed, but against a long, athletic Raptors bunch, it’s incredibly impressive how he still manages to get to the rim and finish by kicking it into warp speed. Tyrese scored on all three levels, shooting 4-of-8 from downtown, finishing at the rim in the half court and transition, and also drawing a couple fouls by bullying into defenders (thanks, James Harden finishing school). I’m not sure how defenses can be expected to guard him, especially as his distribution skills continue to grow (six assists tonight). Maxey remains a joy to watch, which is saying something on a team in which the viewing experience has largely been a state of drudgery this season.
James Harden: 18 points, 7 rebounds, 9 assists, 1 block, 3 turnovers
It was a quieter scoring night for Harden, although he did knock down a trio of triples and draw a handful of fouls early in the game, both as a driver and on his signature stepback three. But I was most impressed by his work as a passer tonight. James threw some beautiful over-the-top post entry passes to Embiid to set the star center up for easy buckets. Joel must be dying from shock when he actually has someone get him the ball on some of his seals. The Beard also hit both Embiid and Montrezl Harrell perfectly on the roll in the first half. While not much is going right for the Sixers across this first week-plus of the regular season, you have to continue to be encouraged by the rejuvenated look from Harden.
The Raptors could have learned the same lesson this past year. They lost to Philadelphia in six games, and Joel Embiid was by far the best player in that series. Embiid averaged 26.2 points and 11.3 rebounds per game on 52 percent shooting. The Raptors forced him into nearly four turnovers per game, but that didn’t end up affecting the 76ers too badly; they ran away with three of their four wins in the series.
They could have repeated the franchise’s response from 14 minutes and done something, anything, to get a legitimate starting big man on the roster to deal with the Embiids of the world, never mind that there are only three or four of them. To be sure, the Raptors looked at some options for traditional centres to complement their roster full of 6-foot-8 guys. Ultimately, though, the only big man they averaged was a skinny rim-runner, picked in the second round of the NBA Draft. The Raptors defence, built on creating turnovers, applying ball pressure and scrambling to recover when necessary, remains essentially intact.
“I go away from (the series) somewhat disappointed because we lost the series. (I was) more disappointed that I didn’t think we executed very well in the last game of that series,” coach Nick Nurse said before the Raptors beat the 76ers 119-109 on Wednesday. “As a coach, when you lose one like that, you have to think about that all summer. So the aftermath of the nonexecution part stays with you for a long time. That’s kind of our whole thing. … We need to play hard on (defence), and we’ve got to execute our schemes. If we don’t do one or the other, we’re probably not gonna be good on D. If we do both, we’re gonna be very, very good.”
The Raptors are not going to reorient themselves around the idea of stopping Embiid, and it showed, as he scored 31 points. Instead, the Raptors are going to not only identify their identity but also get closer to perfecting it, trying to bother Embiid with extra attention whenever possible.
Wednesday, the Raptors deviated from their normal plans at times. Khem Birch mostly got to guard Embiid one-on-one and picked up four fouls in six minutes in the second quarter for his trouble. And when Embiid got deep post position, either in transition or the half court, it was curtains for their wings. That happened too much in the third quarter.
However, the Raptors mostly sent two defenders, or at least shaded an extra guy over to Embiid, and dared the 76ers to move the ball well enough to beat them. The 76ers were not completely overhauled in the offseason, but there are enough new pieces that spacing isn’t perfect, chemistry isn’t pristine. The Raptors rotated with purpose, and turnovers or awkward shots were the results.
The Raptors gave James Harden the same treatment when Embiid was off the floor in the third quarter, and the results were similar. The Raptors were not perfect in either case, but you could see both Sixers stars out there wondering whether help was coming, when it was coming and where it was coming from. Huge chunks of entire possessions were spent like that.
“I think that whatever we were doing, depending on who it was, it had us active,” Nurse said. “I thought we really were flying around. … It seems like we didn’t create a ton of turnovers, but it seemed like there was a lot of disruption anyway. And there were some big ones. There were a couple of pickoffs for dunks the other way. … I thought we got our hands on the ball a lot. We created a lot of hangtime passes, so we could continue to rotate, and we finished most of the possessions.
After that six-game crash course in defending one of the league’s most dynamic offensive duos, Embiid and James Harden, they were better prepared to execute their game plan on Wednesday night.
The numbers don’t necessarily reflect it. Philadelphia shot 51 per cent, including 16-for-36 from three-point range. Embiid scored 31 points on 12-of-17, even if – at times – it seemed like a disinterested 31 points. He, Harden and third-year star Tyrese Maxey combined for 80 points. But the Raptors set out to make them uncomfortable and, for most of the night, they succeeded.
“I was super happy with the defence,” Nurse said following his club’s impressive 119-109 win, improving their record to 3-2.
Without a big man who could match the sheer size or strength of Embiid, Toronto sent multiple defenders his way whenever and wherever he caught the ball. If nothing else, it put pressure on him to make quicker reads, and unlike most of last year’s playoff series, the Raptors did a good job of flying around and recovering out to shooters.
Coming out of a timeout early in the fourth quarter, Christian Koloko – who was giving up at least 50 pounds in the matchup – fronted Embiid in the post and deflected an entry pass, leading to a fast-break dunk for the Raptors’ rookie. A few minutes later, O.G. Anunoby picked off a Sixers pass, also intended for Embiid, and turned the transition opportunity into a couple free throws. With Embiid off the court, they showed Harden that same defensive pressure, doubling him at the top of the arc and ceding difficult looks in the corner.
The Raptors only forced 13 turnovers, low by their standards, but they turned them into 21 points. Part of that can be credited to Philadelphia’s shaky transition defence, but it’s how Nurse wants to play.
“We’ve got some work to do, for sure, but the effort’s there,” said Fred VanVleet, who scored 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter. “We’re probably never going to play a perfect game, but I thought we executed the game plan, for the most part.”
Of course, it helps when shots are falling the way they have been to open the campaign. On Wednesday, Toronto hit 16 of its 37 three-point attempts. With P.J. Tucker going under screens and playing the red-hot Pascal Siakam to drive, the Raptors forward made him pay, knocking down his first four threes. As the defence adjusted in the second half, Siakam became a playmaker, assisting on a couple of Gary Trent Jr.’s four third-quarter triples.
A year ago, the Raptors shot 35 per cent from beyond the arc, good for 20th in the league. In the preseason, they shot 24 per cent. Through five games this season, they’re at 41 per cent, third-best in the NBA. While the sample size is small and they’re due for some regression, if guys like Siakam and Scottie Barnes continue to show improvement in their jumpers, that opens things up for the offence.
The Raptors are always going to try to play fast and utilize a multitude of ball-handlers who can rip down a rebound and run.
It’s how they’re built, how they need to play. It is their offensive identity, and the Philadelphia 76ers knew it.
“What makes them so difficult (is) other teams have to find the point guard or two guard to bring the ball up,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers was saying Wednesday evening. “Anyone can bring it up on that team.”
And while it was nice of Rivers to bring it up in his pre-game media session, the message never got through to his players.
Unable — and maybe unwilling — to get back on defence, the Sixers were run ragged most of the night and the Raptors registered a 119-109 win in a delightful early-season game at Scotiabank Arena.
With the Raptors scoring 29 fast-break baskets and moving the ball well enough to dish out a season-best 32 assists, they won their second straight game and first of two in a row against one of their top rivals.
Gary Trent Jr. had 18 points in the third quarter alone and led Toronto with 27, while Pascal Siakam had 20 points and 11 assists. Fred VanVleet finished with 15 points, eight assists, six rebounds, two steals and three blocked shots in a sublime outing.
Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey had 31 each for Philadelphia.
Trent, one of the few legitimate three-point shooting threats on the roster, is off to a normal start to the season but his shooting from the corners needs to become more of a staple of his game.
The six-foot-five guard/forward was shooting better than 50 per cent from the corner (8-for-15) and less than 30 per cent (7-for-24) from above the break heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers at Scotiabank Arena — where he went 5-for-10 from three-point range as part of a game-high 27-point performance in a 119-109 win.
It’s a tiny sample size, but Trent’s overall three-point percentage is right near his career average of 38.9 per cent.
“It can be very frustrating,” he said of the inconsistency. “Obviously, putting in countless reps and hours, you continue to believe in yourself and believe in the craft and your work, and you know the rest, to take care of yourself no matter what it is.”
Still, the Raptors offence, both in transition and the halfcourt, needs him to be a floor spacer to create room for others. In fact, it needs more shooters in the corners.
“He’s got to get there; everybody has to get there,” VanVleet said. “He’s out in front a lot (in transition) but he can open up so much of the floor when we get to our spots. A lot of our issues have been spacing and just finding a flow and a rhythm.”
Everyone knows it. Everyone tells Trent.
“You know, I’ll go anywhere my teammates need me to be,” Trent said. “The coaches are harping on it … Even if I don’t get a shot, run to the corners. I’m a good enough shooter I’ll take someone with me. So if I don’t get the shot, just me going to the corner will give someone else an opportunity.
“It helps our offence.”
One thing Trent does possess is the requisite short memory that is so important to shooters. He’s always convinced the next one he takes is going to go in. And even though he was just 4-for-12 from distance Monday in Miami, he made the game-sealing three from the corner right in front of the Heat bench with less than 30 seconds to go.
He wasn’t nearly as open as he had been on a handful of other attempts, but that didn’t matter.
“The (passing) window was big for a second, but Gary is always open,” VanVleet joked. “It doesn’t matter, if he catches it and he can see the rim, he’s open. We don’t really worry about him in that regard.”
For really the first time this year, the Raptors put an emphasis on sharing the basketball, finishing with a season-high 36 assists. The 16 made three-pointers were a nice by-product of that.
With the win the Raptors improved to 3-2, while the Sixers, playing a pretty tough opening week schedule of their own, fell to 1-4.
Both Embiid and Tyrese Maxey wound up with 31 points, but the key was the Raptors holding James Harden to just 18.
The Raptors were locked in offensively for this one from the opening tip.
It stated with Siakam but he had plenty of company.
Siakam would finish the first half with 19 points, but most of that damage came in the first quarter.
For the quarter Siakam was 5-for-6 for 15 points, two rebounds and two assists
P.J. Tucker, the two-time short-lived Raptor played 10 minutes and had two rebounds.
Matched up for most of that quarter it was almost comical watching Siakam, first physically and then verbally, abusing Tucker who has built his NBA reputation on his defence.
Siakam has been known to do some talking on the court, but this was a little more than that.
The Sixers were down by as many as 17 at one point in the half but on the strength of their big three — Embiid, Maxey and Harden they whittled it back down to a 10-point deficit at the half.
Embiid and Maxey, whose speed was a real problem for the Raptors as he continually turned the corner and beat the defence to the window, both had 14 while Harden was limited to 13 on 3-of-7 shooting.
Also helping Philadelphia stay in this one was a generous whistle that favoured them substantially in that first half.
Toronto was whistled for 13 personal fouls in that first half compared to just five for the Sixers.
Khem Birch and rookie Christian Koloko, both guarding Embiid, combined for seven of those fouls with OG Anunoby picking up three in the first as well.
Masai Ujiri’s anger at the end of a Raptors loss in Miami last weekend has cost him $35,000.
The Raptors vice-chair was fined by the league on Wednesday for “approaching the scorer’s table and directing inappropriate remarks toward a game official,” the NBA announced.
Ujiri’s outburst came after the Raptors dropped a 112-109 decision to the Heat on Saturday, in a game that included a fracas involving Miami’s Caleb Martin and Toronto rookie Christian Koloko.
Martin was later suspended one game for driving Koloko into the baseline seats at FTX Arena. Koloko was fined $15,000 for his part in the melee, and Miami’s Nikola Jovic was suspended one game for leaving the bench area to take part in the fray.