PHILADELPHIA — Everyone loves a good mystery, or at least a cliff hanger.
The Toronto Raptors‘ first visit to the Well Fargo Center since their “classic” – Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s adjective – seven-game, second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers last May offered a couple of them.
First: would Sixers center Joel Embiid score against the Raptors?
Toronto shut him out for the only time his career when the two teams met in Toronto two weeks ago, an emphatic Raptors win that seemed to suggest Toronto might have a spell on their Atlantic Division rivals.
Second: would the Raptors be able to beat a quality opponent with their full lineup intact?
It’s a challenge they hadn’t been able to meet since Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka returned from injury, and since Nurse deepened his rotation while they were out.
The Raptors may be back to full strength – well, almost – but they aren’t operating near full efficiency as they dropped their third game in a row for the first time in over a year to fall to 15-7. Their streak has come against some of the better teams in the league, a concerning pattern.
“I really think we got to figure it out, right?” said Lowry, who had the best game of the three he’s played since missing 11 with a thumb fracture.
“I missed a lot of games and (Ibaka, ankle) missed nine games or 10 games, whatever it was. You get everybody back guys have to figure out things again. They won a bunch of games without me and Serge there. They played hard and they were in a rhythm, but then you have to integrate us back in. We are a part of this team. … I think now we are just at a point where we are playing good teams and we have to figure out how to get everybody back to understanding what roles they are in.”
The tests keeping coming as the Raptors try to avoid dropping four regular-season games in a row for the first time since January 2017. They travelled to Chicago after the game to play the Bulls on Monday night, before hosting Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers on Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena.
The game even offered up some new areas of inquiry as Raptors leading scorer Pascal Siakam continued a trend of struggling against some of the NBA’s best teams. Even a modest fourth-quarter spurt in the midst of a half-baked Raptors comeback saw him finish with just 16 points – far off his 25 points-per-game average he took into Sunday’s contest – on 7-of-18 shooting. He’s hitting on just 39 per cent during the Raptors’ losing streak.
“I have to continue to get better and make sure I don’t let my offence, or anything like that, dictate the way I play,” said a frustrated Siakam afterward. “So I have to be better like that and find other ways to impact the game.”
Not to lay it all at Siakam’s feet, as the Raptors as a whole struggled to find room against the endless success defensive length and quickness the 76ers can roll out. Toronto shot just 43.7 per cent from the floor (its 12-of-22 fourth quarter helped) and 11-of-32 from three while making 17 turnovers.
To make things worse, the Raptors may have to figure out how to manage without Fred VanVleet for the short term. He left the game in the second with discomfort due to a bruised right knee he suffered Thursday against the Houston Rockets.
The Raptors ever-fluctuating lineup may be taking a toll, particularly against quality teams.
“I think we’re integrating some guys back in,” said Nurse. “… We’ve just got to keep plugging away at the schedule and get guys back in rhythm a little bit … and get ourselves back to a high-level team at both ends.”
The Raptors continued to send double-teams and traps at Embiid as they have all season to stifle their opponents’ primary offensive option.
Once again it worked, if the measure is how well they have been able to contain other team’s best players.
Embiid was held to just 10 points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes, but good teams have quality options and they have stepped up and made Toronto pay of late. Embiid did have six assists.
Several were to Tobias Harris who finished with 26 points and rookie Matisse Thybulle who had a career-high five made threes – two of them in a 10-0 third-quarter run that pushed the Sixers’ lead to 73-53 late in the period.
Have teams begun to figure the Raptors out?
“I think (other teams) probably know that there’s coverages and you’ve got to get out of the double and get it out to those guys,” said Nurse. “Yeah, we didn’t want Embiid to shoot (and) this is the guy we wanted to shoot, we’ve still got to go contest them because guys are going to make them as we’ve seen in the last couple of games.”
The Raptors trailed by 18 with five minutes left and showed glimmers of a comeback attempt thanks to an aggressive full-court press, but stalled when then they got the Sixers’ lead down to nine and ran out of time.
If VanVleet is out for any extended period, it will mean even more minutes for Lowry, who played 38 minutes while putting up 26 points, six rebounds and five assists against his hometown team.
Philly fans didn’t fully appreciate the effort as Lowry got into a back-and-forth with a Sixers fan on his way off the floor.
“He was talking too much. I don’t know him, but he ain’t worth my time,” said Lowry afterward.
“I don’t care (though). It’s Philadelphia. I respect it. I love it.
“When I come home, if they still have a problem, they can come find me.”
The Raptors need to find a way to be better against top teams. They are now 6-7 against teams with records above .500 and a perfect 9-0 against teams below .500.
They will be hard-pressed to make much ground up against better teams unless Siakam begins to find another gear.
As exciting as his progress has been in the space of a year, he’s shown a tendency to struggle against better teams and Sunday night was no exception as he finished with just 16 points on 7-of-18 shooting.
Coming into the game he was shooting just 40 per cent against teams with winning records, while averaging 21.3 points a game. In nine games against teams with losing records, he is averaging 30 points a game on 54.6 per cent from the floor.
“For me it’s an adjustment period for me too, understanding that. I’m not saying I’m the best player on the team, I’m saying I have to make plays and I have to keep attacking,” he said.
Sometimes – just the type of person I am – sometimes you just want to go ‘OK, I’m not playing well, let me try to do other things.’ But at the same time you have to do other things, but understand you are that person and you have make those plays. There is no one to look at to make those plays and you have to take charge.”
The pre-game mysteries are a little closer to be solved then:
No, Embiid still can’t dominate the Raptors at will as long as Gasol is playing, but he can help his teammates find their games with deadly results.
And yes, the Raptors continue to struggle against the NBA’s best.
And as Siakam’s struggles against top teams continue to mount, there is an emerging picture as to why.