The Toronto Raptors have nothing to lose in their first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, who carry the weight of expectations due to the presence of two future Hall-of-Famers and three max players in their starting lineup, not to mention homecourt advantage in the first-round series.
But the Raptors don’t see themselves as warm-up acts for the Sixers power couple of Joel Embiid and James Harden. They look at the Sixers as a team with vulnerabilities they can exploit and themselves as having strengths Philadelphia might have difficulty matching.
But the Raptors' best chance is if they can control the nature of the competition and force the Sixers into uncomfortable places thanks to the very specific ways the Raptors believe they have to play to win games — especially against teams with higher-end top-line talent.
Well, better luck in Game 2.
Because the Philadelphia 76ers put on a seminar on how to turn the Raptors' weirdo, positionless, ways on their head and served themselves up an all-too-easy 131-111 win.
And luck? From the Raptors point of view that will have to start with hoping that star rookie Scottie Barnes — the team’s bright spot in his playoff debut — is not as badly injured as it appeared when he was helped off the court by his teammates after writhing in pain as Sixers star Joel Embiid — all 300 pounds or so — stepped on his left foot and ended his night early in the fourth quarter.
The Raptors can only hope Embiid’s big foot didn’t end the rookie’s season, because the way the Sixers played in Game 1, it might not have too many games left.
It’s only one game of a seven-game series, but the Raptors were beaten by a better team playing superior basketball.
“I just think they were really great,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “They were fast and physical, making shots and zinging the ball and not turning it over and crashing the glass. They were really great, so I give them a lot of credit.”
Just one example? The Sixers counted 29 assists on 43 made field goals against — astoundingly — just three turnovers for the game. It doesn’t get much better than that, but there was more: The Sixers shot 51.2 per cent from the floor, 16-of-32 from deep and 29-of-34 from the free throw line.
“We certainly helped them. A lot. In those areas,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “But they played a heck of a game… We'll lace them up on Monday and give them another shot.”
On the bright side? It will be hard for the Sixers to play that flawlessly three more times. The Raptors have to hope they can interrupt Philadelphia’s trajectory and get them to play in the kind of chaos Toronto wants to create.
The Raptors' path to success generally relies on controlling the offensive glass; forcing teams into turnovers and mistakes and making opposing stars' lives a vision of basketball hell thanks to double and triple teams when necessary and an accompanying flurry of long, reaching hands and arms every time their opponents touch the ball.
It’s an approach that has worked over and over again during the regular season when teams don’t have the luxury or the energy to adjust their game plan for a couple of meetings a season.
But the playoffs give teams the luxury to prepare, and full credit to the Sixers, they were extremely well-prepared.
The Raptors didn’t play particularly poorly — early in the fourth quarter they were shooting better than 50 per cent from the floor, were 12-of-26 from three and had made just seven turnovers: all outstanding levels for them. Four of their five starters were in double figures.
But the Sixers were playing almost perfectly as they shrink-wrapped the paint to keep the Raptors off the offensive glass, while forcing their way into enough of their own to make Toronto pay for all the running around they do to help defensively. They were antiseptic with the ball all game and while Sixers stars Embiid (19 points and 15 rebounds) and Harden (22 points and 14 assists) made themselves known, the attention they drew created ample chances for Philadelphia’s secondary players to shine and they bathed themselves in the light.
No one more than second-year guard Tyrese Maxey who finished with a career playoff-high of 38, while Tobias Harris had 26 points on 14 shots.
“We just [have] to guard him a little bit better,” said VanVleet of Maxey, who shot 14-of-21 from the floor and 5-of-8 from three. “I think he found the cracks in the defence and our game plan. Obviously we loaded up a ton on Joel and loaded up a ton on James, and he was able to find success in the cracks and the creases. [We] just have to guard him better and give him a little bit more attention. He's a heck of a player. He had an amazing, almost damn-near perfect game tonight… but it's one game.”
The Raptors were led by Pascal Siakam who had 24 points and seven assists while VanVleet and OG Anunoby had 18 and 20, respectively. Barnes looked comfortable in his first playoff start, chipping in 15 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists before going down with his injury after 32 minutes.
He was sent for X-rays after — as was Thad Young, who left after halftime with a sprained thumb. In both cases the images came back negative for fractures, but each will get MRIs done on Sunday.
Barnes' injury signalled the end of the game, realistically, but before that you kept waiting for the Raptors to force a mistake and turn a trickle into a torrent as is their habit. But the Sixers were so tidy, Toronto could never get rolling.
The Raptors didn’t let go of the rope easily. The effort was there. Their best stretch came during a 17-4 run early in the third quarter that helped cut what had been 24-point Sixers lead to 11, but with the Sixers making so few mistakes, the Raptors didn’t have the materials to blow the game open. They could score off of the Sixers misses, but there weren’t enough extra chances to turn the run into a game-turning avalanche.
Harden steadied Philadelphia with a triple, then drove the lane for lay-up and then hit a streaking Maxey for a fastbreak and order was restored.
The Raptors had one more chance to make a dent when Sixers head coach Doc Rivers opted to rest both Embiid and Harden in the final minutes of the third quarter. For this series to have a long life the Raptors are going to have to dominate those types of opportunities, but it didn’t happen in Game 1.
Maxey’s presentation as a legitimate third star didn’t miss a beat as he launched himself on a 10-run in the final two minutes of the third to send the Sixers into the fourth leading by 21.
The Raptors' success during the regular season hinged mainly on their commitment to earn more field goal attempts than their opponents, something they do by being aggressive on the offensive glass, in the passing lanes and on double teams to generate additional shots and possessions.
They are the kinds of things that a well-coached team would aim to clean up during a playoff series, so it was going to be interesting to see which would win out early: the Raptors' determination to generate extra shots or the Sixers' care in limiting offensive rebounds or turnovers.
Nurse called it a test of wills, and the Sixers won it early.
The 76ers jumped out to an early 11-2 run that was fueled by a trio of elements Rivers will take all series long: a three from Harden, a strip on the Raptors and a fast break by Maxey, and an offensive rebound and bucket by Embiid.
The Sixers had more elements working for them than that: all the bodies being sent at Embiid and Harden inevitably is going to leave open looks elsewhere and no one benefitted more than Maxey and Harris.
The tone was set. Meanwhile the Raptors got nothing from any secondary sources. Gary Trent Jr. was 2-for-11 and the Raptors got just 16 points from their bench before garbage time.
The Sixers set the tone physically as well, with Embiid bulling his way on the offensive glass and sending the likes of Khem Birch and Barnes to the floor in hard collisions. The Raptors didn’t exactly back down but lacking a single body to match up with Embiid, they’re going to have to do it as a group.
The Raptors would argue that the officials played just as big a role. Two touch fouls on VanVleet in the first two minutes forced one of the NBA’s peskiest help defenders to play with caution, while Chris Boucher’s reckless energy on the offensive glass was curtailed by three quick fouls.
And in general, there was the matter of Embiid, who was the bowling ball that sent the Raptors flying more often than not.
“We’ve got to believe that if we’re legal defensively that they're going to call those, right?” said Nurse. “Like we had a couple of times where we beat him to the spot and he bulled us right over and they just let him lay it in.
“I don't care if you're five-foot-11 and 160 pounds, if you beat him to the spot and he runs over, it's a foul. I thought he threw three or four elbows to the face, he got called for one. OK. I mean, we're gonna stand in there. We just need, if we’re legal defensively, then we’ve got to have ‘em called or we don't have a chance, period. Nobody can guard that guy if they’re just gonna let him run you over time and time again.”
It's just one game, and adjustments will be made, but heading into Game 2 on Monday, the Raptors have a fairly long list to accomplish if they’re going to play the way they need to have a chance in the series.