Rival Watch: What they’re saying about the Raptors’ big win vs. the 76ers

Kawhi Leonard finished with 36 points 9 rebounds and 5 steals to lead the Raptors to a 113-102 win over the 76ers Wednesday.

With more eyes on them than any game so far this season, the Toronto Raptors made a statement against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night with a convincing 113-102 win at home.

There was a ton of hype surrounding the matchup between two of the Eastern conference’s top teams — Philadelphia entered the game 9-2 since acquiring four-time all-star Jimmy Butler and the Raptors have been the NBA’s winningest team since day one of this season — and the U.S. media were out in droves in Toronto to cover the event.

ESPN made a whole day of it, flaunting a multi-platform “all-access” coverage of the Raptors throughout the lead-up to the game, and sending a small army of more than 100 staffers to Scotiabank Arena, which helped create a playoff-like atmosphere.

With so much attention on the game, there was naturally much to be unpacked when it was all said and done. Here’s what the U.S. media had to say about the Raptors following their latest victory:

ESPN: Kawhi Leonard proving why he belongs atop MVP leaderboard

On ESPN.com, Tim Bontemps makes the case for Kawhi Leonard’s spot at the very top of the early-season MVP race following his 36-point all-around performance on Wednesday night:

Leonard doesn’t just make the game look easy for his teammates; he makes it look easy — period. There is no better example than when, midway through the fourth quarter, Sixers guard Ben Simmons caught the ball at the high post. As he did, one of the NBA’s best passers noticed out of the corner of his eye that Jimmy Butler was seemingly wide open on the wing, waiting to catch the ball for a three-pointer.

When Simmons tried to slip the ball out to Butler, Leonard was there, getting his enormous right hand on the ball, deflecting it away and controlling it all at once. Then, as the ball bounced back up off the floor, he tapped it over to a streaking Pascal Siakam, who raced down the middle of the lane and slammed the ball through the hoop.

“That’s crazy,” Siakam said later when asked about the play, accompanied by both a smile and a shake of his head. “That’s crazy … that’s something you can’t explain.

“That’s just him. I don’t think anybody else can do that.”

NBC Sports Philadelphia: Turnover-prone Sixers overmatched by Raptors yet again

NBC Sports’ Paul Hudrick examines the Sixers’ loss and laments the costly mistakes the club made against a Raptors team that you need to be at your best to beat:

Another game in Toronto and another turnover-ridden loss.

The Sixers looked overmatched yet again and turned the ball over 21 times Wednesday in a 113-102 loss to the Raptors at Scotiabank Arena.

The loss drops the Sixers to 17-9 on the season and snaps their four-game winning streak. They still haven’t won in Toronto in over five years.

…After turning the ball over 23 times back in their Oct. 30 loss, the same issue reared its ugly head, even with Jimmy Butler — who was outstanding — in the fold. You simply can’t turn the ball over that much against an elite team on the road. Toronto’s defense really stifled the Sixers all night.

NBATV: Post-game breakdown

Steve Smith, Tim Hardaway, and the folks at NBATV’s GameTime broke down the Raptors’ strong performance and delved into why the Raptors have been able to gel so well this early into the season following an off-season of major change — beginning with Nick Nurse’s usage of Leonard and his simplistic approach early on:

ESPN: Valanciunas earns praise from Stephen A. Smith

“We knew what we were getting from the Toronto Raptors,” said First Take’s Stephen A. Smith, who expected a big night from the NBA’s best team, and explains how the Raps exposed Philadelphia’s weaknesses.

Sports Illustrated: Kawhi Leonard asserts Eastern Conference dominance vs. Sixers

Rohan Nadkarni over at SI.com also zeroed in on Leonard’s stellar performance, and how Wednesday’s victory strengthens the Raptors’ undebatable place atop the East:

Kawhi Leonard was the best player on the floor… This is an important distinction. Joel Embiid is an MVP candidate in his own right. Ben Simmons is a budding superstar. And Jimmy Butler is another top tier talent. But Kawhi’s all around game makes him the best player in his conference. His repertoire was on full display Wednesday.

His perimeter defense was stifling. He was a load in the post. His three-point shooting was outstanding. And he threw down some fierce dunks in transition for good measure. It’s a cliché, but there’s something to having the best player on the floor in a playoff series. It’s not too long ago that Kawhi was in the conversation for top-three player in the NBA. He’s played great against the Sixers twice now, averaging 33.5 points across both contests. Even with Butler taking the defensive assignment, Leonard couldn’t be slowed down.

ESPN: Post-game:

After the game, Paul Pierce and Chauncey Billups briefly touched on why Wednesday’s win was more important for Toronto than your typical early-December regular season game:

The Ringer: The Raptors are elite — and they’re not even at their best yet

The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy touches on how the Raptors have created a sizeable gap between themselves and the rest of the East, and marvels at the notion that the team hasn’t even hit its stride yet:

The Raptors would’ve remained at the top of the East regardless of Wednesday’s outcome; that’s how good they’ve been this season, even with their best player in and out of the lineup. But with the win, the Raps only furthered their case that they may be a cut above even the biggest challengers in the conference — and that they still might not have hit their ceiling.

Toronto has been a machine this season, and part of that may be due to the fact that the bulk of this team won 59 games just last season. But it has still only played 26 regular-season games with Leonard as the first option and Nick Nurse, an assistant under Dwane Casey last season, as the head coach. As much consistency as the Raptors had coming into the season, plugging in a different superstar isn’t always a clean fit, especially given how long DeMar DeRozan occupied Leonard’s spot in the starting lineup.

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