PHILADELPHIA -- The plan was to make the Philadelphia 76ers nervous. To make the city of Philadelphia nervous.
To put enough pressure on its under-achieving basketball team as voiced by a fan base burdened by unfulfilled expectations that the weight would be too much.
Would the Sixers bend under it? Would they stagger enough that the Toronto Raptors could keep their dream alive of becoming the first team to come back from down 0-3 in a playoff series and give Philadelphia its ultimate sports nightmare?
There was only one way to find out: The Raptors needed to win Game 5.
The Raptors did it, thoroughly and convincingly as they smothered the Sixers in almost every facet of the game in their well-deserved 103-88 win on Monday. In the process they awakened the Philadelphia boo birds and put the long, cold, creeping shadow of doubt in the minds of their increasingly fragile seeming opponents.
No one in NBA history has lost a seven-game series after sweeping the first three games, not in 143 tries before this year. The Raptors have very much put that on the table. We’ll see if the Sixers fall face first into the ultimate humble pie.
Of course, the Raptors' reward is simply a chance to do it all over again as the series shifts back to Toronto for Game 6. But with the series now at 3-2, the focus turns squarely onto the Sixers, who pulled out all the stops for a title run with their mid-season acquisition of James Harden and at the very least have hit an unexpected speed bump . If the Raptors can keep pushing, the 76ers could be going to a Game 7 with the basketball world watching to see if they’ll tap out in an all-time NBA choke job.
The fun is just starting, in other words. As the Raptors were positioning themselves for the playoffs down the stretch, head coach Nick Nurse kept stressing that his main goal for his young team was to get as many playoff games as possible.
Now -- against considerable odds -- they have six, with a chance for seven and maybe more. Only 14 teams previously down 0-3 have forced a Game 6.
“Not exactly how we’d probably draw it up,” said Nurse. “But we’re happy to still be playing. We need the games, that’s for sure, our goal is to keep improving.”
The Raptors were led by Pascal Siakam, who took over point guard duties in the absence of Fred VanVleet with the latter likely out for the series with a hip injury sustained in Game 4.
Siakam scored 23 points and added 10 rebounds and seven assists in 44 steady minutes. Time and again, he beat whomever the Sixers put in front of him off the dribble, scoring at the rim or creating good looks for teammates against a rotating defence. Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa joined Siakam in double figures with 12, 16, 16 and 17 points, respectively, in a well-rounded attack.
But the real star was the Raptors' team defence. With VanVleet out, the smallest player to hit the floor was six-foot-five Trent Jr. and Nurse went for long stretches with lineups where everyone on the floor was six-foot-eight (and no one was taller than six-foot-nine). The result was a lot of crowds of long arms for Joel Embiid and Harden to deal with and the speed and length to rotate out to shooters.
The Sixers shot just 39 per cent from the floor and coughed up 16 turnovers, leading to 20 Raptors points.
The key to their defence, which was largely non-existent in Games 1 and 2 but has been smothering in Games 4 and 5?
“Just play hard,” said Thad Young, who contributed three assists and a steal in 16 useful minutes. “… We scrambled all night long, made sure that we kept fresh bodies in, we made Embiid see crowds and force him to pass the ball early. I think that was one of the biggest things, just forcing the ball out of his hands early, not even giving him a chance to go into moves and pick up fouls on guys and stuff like that. Just making sure that when he does see that double-team that we’re scrambling out and getting to the right guys. They had a stretch where they made some threes, but they also had a stretch where the threes were tough on them because we closed out to them."
Embiid counted just 20 points in the face of constant double- and triple-teams while Harden was a max contract non-factor, counting just 15 points and seven assists in 40 minutes.
And Toronto got a considerable assist from the Sixers fans, who have no problem eating their own. On consecutive possessions early in the fourth quarter Barnes dribbled the length of the floor largely unimpeded and then hit teammates -- first Young, then Achiuwa -- for undefended alley-oops to put Toronto up 13 and Sixers fans began to boo.
When Embiid picked up his fifth foul midway through the fourth quarter, the nerves drew tighter still. When Anunoby knocked down a pull-up three to keep Toronto’s lead at double figures with 3:52 to play, the anxious murmurings of 20,000 people got louder again. And when Trent Jr. stepped into a wide-open triple to put Toronto up 15 with 3:20 left, they started to leave. Finally, when Anunoby drove the lane unimpeded for a dunk with 2:18 left, it was over.
“It’s very important to keep this crowd out of the game,” said Young, who played the first seven seasons of his career in Philadelphia. “They can get very loud; this building can get to rocking and you don’t want that. Us being the team that we are, we’re a very resilient team and the crowd hasn’t really bothered us too much, but it can get that way sometimes. We don’t want that to happen so we wanna come out and make sure we give our best punch before they’re able to punch us and control the game. I think we did a really good job; we controlled the game from start to finish.”
As an added challenge, the Raptors got it done without the benefit of any contributions from VanVleet, their all-star point guard who was ruled out after leaving the floor early in the second quarter of Game 4 with a strained hip flexor.
VanVleet said he was leaving the window open on a return for Game 6 on Thursday if it came to that, but made it sound like the Raptors would have to make it to the second round for him to realistically take the court again this season.
“I’ll take the positives away from the situation,” said VanVleet, whose True Shooting percentage went from 57 per cent before the all-star break to 47 per cent afterwards as he battled a number of injuries. “There’s something gratifying about just laying it on the line for your teammates, for your brothers in the locker room, knowing you’re not 100. [But] my body finally just tapped out. Here we are.”
The Raptors knew they weren’t going to go anywhere without executing their game plan on Embiid. The Sixers star has averaged five turnovers a game over his last three starts and the Raptors were hoping to maintain that trend while keeping him off the line and making him work defensively.
For the most part, they were successful as Embiid made four turnovers, got to the free-throw line only six times, and often looked over-matched defensively on the perimeter -- a big turnaround from earlier in the series.
“I think we are just trying to be aggressive,” said Siakam, who was 10-of-17 from the floor, and 2-of-4 from three, setting the tone as the Raptors shot 51 per cent on the night. “That’s the main thing. I think he is such a focal part of their offence, just as much as he makes us work on the other side, we have to make him work too. I think that’s basically what it is.”
The game was never really in doubt for the Raptors, but for the Sixers, doubt is now part of their burden. Toronto led after the first quarter, at half and heading into the fourth. The Sixers cut Toronto’s lead to nine in the third quarter and seven early in the fourth, but never got closer.
And now for the Sixers, the pressure mounts. In that sense at least, the Raptors have them just where they want them. Things are going according to plan.
For the Sixers? They’re threatening to go off the rails.