Down the stretch, in some of the key moments of a tight game, the Toronto Raptors decided to guard the Philadelphia 76ers superstars straight up, no help.
The Raptors were up three in the dying moments on Sunday and wanted to stay home on the Sixers' long-range threats.
It meant trusting young Raptors playing out of position against some of the best scorers in the NBA.
And it worked. First it was 20-year-old Scottie Barnes playing Philadelphia’s MVP favourite Joel Embiid one-on-one in the post, giving up 70 pounds and seven inches or so. The Sixers centre couldn’t make the Raptors rookie pay with just under two minutes to play.
Then it was Precious Achiuwa -- ostensibly the Raptors centre -- who squared up Sixers all-star guard James Harden on the perimeter and came up with a stop with 58 seconds on the clock.
So far so good, but things were still ramping up.
A moment later the Raptors did throw a double at Embiid on the perimeter, while leading by three with 27 seconds to play. Gary Trent Jr. made the steal and it looked like the reward was going to be a lay-up and a five-point lead.
No so fast. Trent Jr. missed the lay-up after Harden got his hand on the ball. A foul was called but over-turned upon review – frustrating from a Raptors point of view because Embiid fouled Raptors twice on the put-back after Trent’s miss, calls that can’t be corrected on the initial review.
The Raptors had two more chances to ice things, but Achiuwa and then Barnes missed three of four free throws.
“Certainly, we have to step up and make our free throws,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. His team went 8-of-12 in the fourth quarter.
It all led to one more Raptors defensive stand against a Sixers superstar as Chris Boucher went chest-to-chest with a driving Harden, got the stop and when the Sixers star got called for a flagrant foul for delivering an elbow to the Montrealer's face while driving, the game was finally over.
Boucher made one of two free throws with 2.7 seconds left for the flagrant. The Raptors kept the ball and Pascal Siakam made his two foul shots to lock down a very impressive 93-88 win over the star-driven Sixers..
“I love it, being in these close games,” said Nurse, his fingernails having survived. “It’s so good for these guys, Scottie and Precious and Gary that have never been in them. They need as much of them as they can.”
The Raptors are showing signs that they will coming out on the right side of them more often than not as they reeled off their sixth straight road win.
The victory improved the Raptors' record to 40-31 and pulled them to a game behind sixth-place Cleveland and a game-and-a-half behind fifth-place Chicago, where Toronto will be playing on Monday night.
Toronto was without Fred VanVleet, who opted to rest his knee on the first half of the back-to-back with the expectation that he’ll be available in Chicago. They were also missing OG Anunoby (finger) and Malachi Flynn.
But maybe all the Raptors need is their improving defence and a healthy Siakam, who has been Toronto’s best player in 2022 and one of the league’s best too. He sparked the Raptors with 26 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, while Achiuwa -- starting in place of VanVleet -- added 21 points and nine rebounds.
But it was their team defensive effort that made the difference as they held the Sixers to 41.1 per cent shooting (7-of-27 from three) and held Embiid and Harden to 11-of-32 shooting while the latter ended up making six turnovers.
“I think we stayed together. We all knew the defensive scheme,” said Boucher, who scored 12 points and grabbed 14 rebounds -- including five of the Raptors' 20 offensive rebounds -- off the bench. “We tried to make it hard on Joel Embiid. Obviously they have great shooters, so it’s sometimes hard to do both, but I think we have five guys connected, trying to do the help defence. That always helps. When we play with that energy, we can beat a lot of teams.”
The Raptors' advantage -- in theory -- would be to push the pace and get the Sixers in transition: Harden and Embiid aren’t the types to slam the brakes and peel back when an offensive possession gets broken up.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia is in the bottom quarter of the NBA in points off turnovers while the Raptors lead the league in deflections and are third in points from turnovers.
Put simply, the Raptors' key to victory was to hustle. The Raptors ended up taking 20 more shots that Philadelphia -- they needed them since they only shot 37.5 per cent from the floor -- thanks to their edge in offensive rebounds and turnovers (10-8) and put themselves in position to win against another quality opponent.
The Raptors were successful bottling up Embiid and Harden, but early on it looked like the rest of the Sixers were going to make them pay.
Whatever game plan the Raptors may have dreamed up, none of them involved selling out to run Matisse Thybulle off the three-point line. But sure enough, it was the Sixers' defensive specialist -- who has shot 30.1 per cent from deep this season on a steady diet of wide-open looks as teams tilt their defenses to Embiid and more recently Embiid and Harden -- who got Philadelphia rolling early with a pair of threes in the game’s first three minutes.
It was the early story of the game. The Sixers jumped out to a 28-12 lead, but Harden and Embiid were only tangentially involved. In addition to Thybulle’s quick start, Tyrese Maxey -- who has emerged as Philly’s third option after the ‘big two’ -- took advantage of the operating room available as he scored nine points in the first nine minutes, including a steal and a fast break that gave the Sixers their 16-point lead.
But Toronto began playing to its identity soon after that. A Barnes three and a floater helped change the momentum as Toronto cut the Sixers' lead to 10 to start the second quarter. At that point, Boucher knocked in a three and scored three times on offensive rebounds to pull Toronto within six.
And then Achiuwa -- the 22-year-old second-year big man who has made huge strides since the All-Star break –- showed why has earned Nurse’s trust and the spot start in place of VanVleet as he hit two threes and a floater in close succession. But perhaps equally indicative of his growth was when he grabbed an offensive rebound but rather than force it up in a crowd -- a guarantee earlier in the season -- he dribbled out and found Trent Jr. who in turn drove the lane and dished to Siakam for a dunk. By the time Barnes was able to get a left hand above the rim to tip in yet another rebound just before the buzzer, Toronto was able to take a 57-54 lead into the half.
Along the way, the Raptors were able to limit the Sixers stars. They played long stretches of zone, always with an eye having help available whenever Harden or Embiid attacked. They sent a second defender at them when needed and between Khem Birch, Achiuwa and Boucher, Nurse generally kept at least two of the Raptors not-so-big trio of bigs on the floor.
For the most part it worked as the Sixers pair were a combined 6-of-18 from the floor and -- perhaps just as importantly -- combined for only six free-throw attempts in the first half.
But the Raptors have had trouble scoring in the half-court all season and never more than when VanVleet and Anunoby – two of their best three-point shooters – are out. Fortunately Siakam was able to generate some offence -- he scored 10 of the Raptors' 12 points in the third. Outside of Siakam, who was 4-of-7, Toronto shot just 1-of-17 in the period. Toronto went scoreless for five minutes and a 12-0 run by the Sixers allowed them to take a 74-69 lead to start the fourth.
“It’s something I’m trying to get better at, just reading situations and knowing when to attack or when to be more in pass mode or whatever the case might be,” said Siakam.
In the end the Raptors were able to grind out another key win and show that they have a defensive approach that can work against some of the best players in the NBA. It bodes well. The Raptors have 11 games left to lock in their playoff seed but are unquestionably trending in the right direction.
“I know it's important because we'd really like to make the playoffs. I think our team needs that experience,” said Nurse. “My bigger concern I think all the time is can we go out there and play? Can we go out there and look these really good teams eye to eye and go compete and believe we can win and execute to win? And if we believe we can and compete as hard as we've been competing, we're going to get our share, we're going to deserve to get our share of wins.”
The star-laden Sixers would have no choice but to agree.