It’s been a long time coming, but maybe never more needed.
The last time the Toronto Raptors hosted a playoff game was Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. A lot happened in that one, you might remember.
Kevin Durant — then a member of the Golden State Warriors — caught fire early and then tore his Achilles tendon. The Raptors opened up a fourth quarter lead and seemed poised to win the title on their home floor, before Steph Curry and Klay Thompson pulled it back from their grasp. Then-Raptor Kyle Lowry had a potentially title-winning shot blocked by Draymond Green’s fingernail, and everyone packed up and flew to Oakland where Toronto won Game 6, a championship, and a place in NBA history.
But as this version of the Raptors tries to make its first, tentative post-season steps and hosts a playoff game at Scotiabank Arena Wednesday night — the first in nearly three years, thanks to the pandemic and a lost season in Tampa — the distance between where the team was then and is now is as plain as the 0-2 deficit the Raptors find themselves in against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Then? The Raptors were a star-laden, veteran team with a quality bench and a big-man tandem in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka that could reasonably contain Sixers star Joel Embiid.
Now? The Raptors seem thin, small, and a little overwhelmed, a situation made worse by getting no contributions from Gary Trent Jr. (illness) and Thad Young (thumb injury) and what is almost certainly a series-ending ankle injury suffered by rookie Scottie Barnes, although the Raptors officially list him as doubtful.
"Next man up" is an NBA rallying cry and careers have been launched when injuries have opened the door to players normally tied to the bench. But, in Game 2, the deepest Raptors head coach Nick Nurse would venture into the corners of his roster was second-year guard Malachi Flynn, who had nothing to offer — almost literally, as the four fouls and single rebound next to the 21 minutes beside his name in the box score would indicate.
The Raptors' bench was a weak spot all season as Nurse’s preference to ride his starters to league-leading minutes totals suggested all along.
It’s unlikely a Svi Mykhailiuk or Dalano Banton or Yuta Watanabe are going to save anyone’s day.
So, what can the Raptors rely on if they’re going to avoid falling behind 0-3 in the series, a margin no NBA team has ever recovered from?
Well, the energy from the home crowd will need to be a real thing. It’s thin gruel, but maybe a more favourable block-charge call here or some Sixers confusion there can be a factor. Maybe the crowd can help extend a Raptors run from 10 points to 15. Maybe they can be the difference.
“I think it’ll be good for us, just playing in front of the home crowd, they’ve been playing at home. Come out with energy, we have a great home court advantage so use that to our advantage,” said Fred VanVleet, who shot 7-of-23 from the floor (5-of-16 from three) in 44 minutes on Monday night. “…There’s always optimism, we’ve seen it happen, we know it’s possible and we still have faith in our team.
But on a practical level, the Raptors will have to solve two pretty glaring issues: what to do with Embiid when the massive Sixers centre is roaming the floor, and what to do with the Sixers when Embiid isn’t playing.
This was not how the series was supposed to go. Some of the Raptors’ optimism going into the match-up between the East’s fourth- and fifth-seeded teams was that they had, over the years, shown a game plan that had at least limited Embiid’s effectiveness.
Even this season the Raptors had held Embiid to a fairly pedestrian 46.7 per cent from the floor, including keeping him to 16-of-42 in two starts against the Raptors alongside James Harden, both losses.
But defending Embiid without fouling was a problem (he took 37 free throws in three games against Toronto) and continues to be, as he’s been on the line 25 times in the two playoff starts.
Finding the balance between the swarming harassment from multiple defenders the Raptors hope can limit Embiid and begin forcing him into turnovers, while not fouling isn’t easy. Toronto also believes the refereeing hasn't made it any easier – hence Nurse’s harping pre-game on Embiid getting away with uncalled elbows and slaps.
Nurse’s comments came to Embiid’s attention, and if anything, he promised to double down on his aggressiveness, telling the Raptors head coach just that in a brief fourth-quarter exchange caught on camera.
“He's a great coach. Obviously, I get, what he's been able to accomplish and always been a big fan. But, I told him, respectfully, I told him to stop b----ing about calls,” said Embiid. “… I mean, if you're going to triple-team somebody all game, you know they are bound to get to the free-throw line, or if you're going to push them off and you know try to hold them off and all that stuff, they’re bound and get to the free-throw line.
"...To me, this is where it gets interesting for me, because I'm like, 'Well, cool, I'm gonna come back with more power… if you go with the physical, I'm gonna come back with more power and make you foul me and make it more obvious and see if the refs don't want to call it.”
But of even greater concern has been what has happened when Embiid has gone to the bench in the first two games. That could mark a quick end to the series if the Raptors don’t come up with a solution.
In theory, James Harden was brought to the Sixers, in part, to carry Philadelphia in the moments when Embiid sat — and he’s certainly contributed — but mainly in a supporting role to Tyrese Maxey, who has been electric.
Harden has looked the part of veteran role player, rather than game-changing star. If the Raptors were offered a scenario where Harden was averaging a modest — for him — 18 points and 10 rebounds on 34.6 per cent shooting over the first two games of the series, they likely would have leaped at it.
But Maxey has more than filled the gap, thriving in the open spaces created by the attention Harden requires. The 21-year-old is averaging 30.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and five assists over the first two games while shooting 68.8 per cent from the floor. The Sixers are using him as a screener on Harden, a relatively new wrinkle, and it has allowed Philadelphia to make sure that one of their dynamic guards is going against their preferred match-up — and the results have been tough to ignore.
The five-minute stint to start the second quarter gave Philadelphia a 12-point boost. It wasn’t that the Raptors couldn’t score — they connected on 60 per cent of their field goals — it was that they couldn’t stop Philadelphia, as Maxey, Danny Green and Tobias Harris and Harden combined to shoot 9-of-11, and 5-of-6 from three.
It cracked the game open, and the Raptors never recovered.
“Yeah we blew some coverages in guarding that,” said VanVleet. “Definitely messed up a little bit there …our help side has to be there to make a play. We cleaned things up a little bit in the second half and took some charges, so I think we’ll be able to clean that up. But again, I just think we blew some switches …the times that we did guard them it felt like they got the offensive rebound so we’ll find ways to clean that up. It just boils down to locking in and cleaning up and not blowing some of those coverages.”
It boils down to the Raptors hoping that coming home to play meaningful basketball for the first time in a very long time will make a tangible difference in the direction of the game.
Homecourt? It’s supposed to help tilt the refereeing ever so slightly; it’s supposed to make your own role players more comfortable and your opponents that much less so.
It’s supposed to make a difference. It’s been a while since the Raptors have been lucky enough to bask in the glow of their home floor at playoff time, but they need it badly.