Here are five takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 117-110 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night.
1. The Raptors managed to cut the deficit to two points with plenty of time in the fourth quarter, but the game was lost in the first half when Philadelphia scored 77 points on 77 per cent shooting. There was certainly an element of the Sixers getting hot and hitting some difficult shots, such as James Harden flailing his arms baiting for a foul while still managing to hit the three, but the vast majority of the blame falls on the Raptors for poor and unfocused execution.
On the Sixers’ first two plays of the game, the Raptors failed to even pick up who was covering their assignments, leading to a pair of wide-open corner threes for P.J. Tucker. Joel Embiid fell into early foul trouble after elbowing Jakob Poeltl in the chin, which should have made things easier for Toronto, but the Raptors were utterly unprepared to contain Philadelphia’s reserves led by Harden.
The majority of the damage was done in the second quarter where Harden repeatedly broke down Toronto’s defence, which ironically was converging on Harden and only freed up his teammates for open looks. It didn’t help the Raptors came up empty on a string of possessions on offence, which put the Sixers out on the fast break, nor was it excusable that Pascal Siakam was caught ball-watching on two back cuts or when Chris Boucher took way too long to find his assignment which resulted in a three.
The end result was Toronto only forced two stops in the entirety of the second quarter, where the Sixers shot 18-for-21, including two offensive rebounds on three of the missed shots for putbacks, with the only true missed shot being an Embiid fadeaway three with six seconds left in the half, and a lone turnover.
2. Toronto made some much-needed adjustments at halftime, with the most notable change being O.G. Anunoby taking on Embiid while Jakob Poeltl was hidden away on Tucker, along with more zone looks.
One of the key strategies dating back to last year’s playoffs has been to put Anunoby on the opposing centre while Scottie Barnes takes the primary ball handler, so that the Raptors can switch and contain penetration on pick-and-rolls. But more than anything else, the Raptors also played with more focus on defence, making extra efforts and getting more into the ball to force turnovers and missed shots. It also helped the Sixers went ice-cold from three even despite having mostly open looks, as they hit just 3-for-17 from deep after hitting nine in the first half.
The Raptors were able to immediately eat into the lead with a 12-0 run to open the third quarter, and found themselves in several moments with momentum on their side, only to be sabotaged by self-inflicted mistakes and empty shot-making. When the deficit had been cut to seven, the Raptors suddenly had a breakdown which allowed Tyrese Maxey to walk into the lane for his signature floater. Then a turnover put the Raptors into scramble mode, and Poeltl surrendered a four-point play to Maxey on a clumsy closeout that was never his to make in the first place.
Later on in the fourth, having trimmed it to two with Fred VanVleet nailing a contested three, VanVleet proceeded to commit three straight turnovers while the Sixers pushed it back to nine points.
3. Basketball is much more complex than which star outplayed the other, or even just reading results off of a boxscore, but in this instance the difference in the game was obvious. Siakam and VanVleet combined to shoot 10-for-32 from the field, and while their playmaking helped others score, there were lots of moments in the second half where it was imperative for them to score and it wasn’t there.
Siakam didn’t score at all in the fourth, and his two missed shots were both out-of-rhythm midrange pull-ups where he hit the backboard on the first attempt while trying to sell for a call on the second. VanVleet was better in playmaking and hit two threes in the fourth, but was ultimately undone by an uncharacteristic bout of consecutive turnovers.
On the other side, Embiid was a constant problem no matter what tricky schemes the Raptors sent his way, while Harden made the crucial push at the end with a driving assist to Tucker for three, and then crossed over Anunoby for a difficult layup to force Toronto into a timeout.
It would be cherry-picking to highlight the difference in this game if it weren’t a repetitive pattern throughout the season. The Raptors have struggled all season to execute offensively in tight moments, which has been one of their biggest undoings all season.
4. Scottie Barnes continues to finish the season strong. This was yet another game where Barnes made his mark early, recording 10 points and six assists in the first quarter, before riding out the momentum to the tune of 29 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals in 41 minutes.
An unmistakable sign of Barnes’ aggression is the way he has hunted for midrange jumpers when matched up against shorter players. It’s not the most efficient shot on paper, but it’s a sign Barnes wants to score and it’s clearly a shot he is comfortable taking. Overall, his energy was excellent all night as he was pesky on defence despite taking on the second hardest assignments aside from Anunoby, took it coast to coast repeatedly, and he was relentless on the glass with seven offensive rebounds including several where he won possession despite being on the outside position when the shot went up.
It might be too late in the year to make adjustments — with only five games left in the regular season — but there should be consideration given to how Barnes can be explicitly featured more in the fourth quarter rather than finding his way within the flow or off broken plays. The Raptors don’t go away from him so much as they don’t go out of their way to play through him on every trip down, even though the other options are proven to be inefficient.
5. Our very own Michael Grange wrote an insightful column on Nick Nurse’s revealing pre-game commentary on him potentially moving on after 10 years with the Raptors, so I’ll just keep it brief. This has been an unhappy season for many parties, from management down to players, and not only because of their record falling below expectations, so it’s not surprising that Nurse is looking forward to the offseason to reassess his standing. But since he is still currently employed with the team, the expectation is still to do what’s best for the franchise, especially when you are in one of the most prominent leadership positions.
So in what way did pouring gas over the simmering rumours of his departure to Houston benefit the Raptors in this game against Philadelphia, in the short term of the rest of the season and play-in, or in the long run? How do you then deliver messages to the players to buy in when the coach goes out publicly before a game to waffle on his own commitment? And for a seasoned pro who must have hundreds of interviews under his belt, why did Nurse choose to be so frank when he is proven to be more than capable of downplaying, deflecting, denying, or outright deceiving?
This type of transparency would be more than welcome when there are no more games to be played, but it reads entirely differently when it’s crunch time in the regular season. Is it about the work itself and the task at hand for the Raptors organization, which Nurse swears is to make the playoffs for valuable experience, or is it about making his own power play and spinning ahead of the narrative?