Raptors have raised ceiling, but there’s still a long way to go

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) reacts just before coming out of the game during second half NBA East Division 1st round game 6 basketball action against the Philadelphia 76ers, in Toronto, Thursday, April 28, 2022. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

TORONTO – “It would probably be us, right?”

That was the Raptors’ collective mindset as they took the floor for the sixth game of a first-round series that had more plot twists than a Marvel movie.

But in the end, there was no hero. There was no feel-good, underdog story.

The bad guys — the Philadelphia 76ers, who sold their soul for James Harden and play to the tune of Joel Embiid, one of the NBA’s last bullies — won the game 132-97 and the series 4-2, ending the Raptors’ remarkable season, and avoiding the ignominy of blowing a 3-0 lead and becoming the biggest chokers in NBA history.

A shame, really.

The Raptors deserved better and — if basketball karma was a thing — the Sixers maybe deserved worse.

Toronto can look back at a number of developments and recognize they could have controlled their destiny just a little bit more — the long list of young-team mistakes down the stretch of Game 3 that cost them a critical win comes to mind. But it’s not like they were getting breaks otherwise. They were without their All-Star point guard Fred VanVleet since the second quarter of Game 4 and missed Scottie Barnes for two games due to an ankle injury. Gary Trent Jr., was sick for two games also. Some of that luck shifts and they’d probably still be playing.

Another option?

Make some shots. The Raptors were plagued all series by their poor three-point shooting — they were at 32 per cent through the first five games and were undone by it when it mattered most.

Poor shooting has been an issue all season and it sunk them in what flipped from a close game at half to a blowout in the blink of an eye.

Raining threes is not the only way to win games — the Raptors’ entire funky, surprising, and unconventional season was an ode to that — but it sure helps. And when your opponents are stepping into a seemingly endless stream of open looks from deep and knocking them down?

Well, it’s going to be a long night and now a long off-season.

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The Sixers shot 16-of-40 from deep to 7-of-35 by the Raptors, the biggest single difference in the game as the defensive energy that Toronto used to hold Philadelphia to 88 points in Game 5 disappeared on a late April wind and the Raptors didn’t have the chops to keep up with a Philly offence on full gas.

“You’ve got to give yourself a chance by executing your defensive schemes and the last three games we did that and tonight we didn’t,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “We’ve got to understand that that stuff has to get done to give ourselves the best chance to win and for whatever reason tonight we made a lot of mistakes in our schemes and we were scrambling a lot tonight.”

Proof that sometimes the bad guys finish first — or at least win a series — came in the decisive third quarter when the Sixers broke open the game with a 24-5 run that featured four triples by Philly to none by Toronto, punctuated by a Harden step-back three that put Philadelphia up by 22 with just under four minutes left in the frame. The Sixers started the fourth with a 21-point lead that was never challenged.

The Raptors were led by Pascal Siakam who finished a strong bounce-back season with 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists, while Chris Boucher shined off the bench with 25 points and 10 rebounds. Scottie Barnes finished his first playoff series with 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

The Sixers got 33 points and 11 rebounds from Embiid, who even broke out his airplane wings when the game was safely out of reach and gave the old Hulk Hogan ‘I can’t hear you’ to the crowd. Earlier he got away with what should have been a flagrant foul for body-checking Boucher — who is about 100 pounds lighter than him — from behind.  Late in the fourth quarter when Siakam split Embiid’s forehead with an inadvertent elbow, no tears were shed.

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Harden played his best game of the series with 22 points and 15 assists, while Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris chipped in with 25 and 19 points respectively as the Sixers shot 57.7 per cent from the floor before the benches emptied.

It wasn’t how the Raptors drew it up.

The Sixers had put themselves in a pickle and the hope was they might not be able to pull themselves out from their own salty brine.

“We got no choice now,” former Raptor and now Sixers guard Danny Green said before Game 6. “We either got to put up or fold.”

In contrast, the Raptors were looking to double-down on house money.

Just by forcing a Game 6, the Raptors did something only 14 teams of the 143 clubs that had gone down 0-3 in a playoff series had done before this season.  A win Thursday night would have made the Raptors just the fourth team to force a Game 7 from that deep a hole and — as every school-aged child in Toronto probably knows by now — a win on Saturday would have made them the first team to win a series after losing the first three games.

But winning Game 6 was a vital first step, and Toronto stumbled.

“Obviously it hurts so it’s kinda hard to think how far we came [this season] and how many guys on this team just showed up night in and night out,” said Boucher. “… And the fact that we made it to the playoffs and were down 3-0 and fought all the way back, I think it showed the character and the fight that we have. It’s just what this team has been going through all year, it wasn’t easy. It’s a special group of guys and like I said, I wouldn’t want to be in the fight with anybody else.”

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In the early going, there was concerning signs for the Raptors and encouraging ones for the Sixers. Harden — a non-factor in Game 5 and carrying the collective weight of several playoff failures — came out aggressively, coming off screens and driving. He had one dunk, got fouled trying to dunk another time and finished the first quarter with 10 points and five assists. Each of Maxey and Harris — the role players who were essential in Philly jumping out to a 3-0 lead — hit threes as Philadelphia led 34-29 after the first quarter.

The Raptors’ best moments came in the second quarter. Having taken Philadelphia’s first punch early, Toronto began to hit back in the form of an 11-0 run engineered by a far more aggressive Siakam, who looked like the player who dissected the Sixers in Game 5 and topped off by Boucher, who played as if shot from a cannon. His triple gave the Raptors a five-point lead on his way to putting up 19 points and nine rebounds in the first half. But it was Siakam who was carrying the groceries. Possession after possession, he isolated at the top of the circle, hunted the matchup he wanted, put it on the floor, got his feet in the paint and scored. It was big-time stuff, though not quite enough to keep the Raptors in front heading into the half as the three triples by Green in the second quarter helped Philly to a 62-61 halftime lead.

It looked promising, but then the second half happened, or the third quarter at least, and the Raptors’ pluck finally ran out.

Even in defeat, it’s a season that has to be deemed a triumph, and a building block. Being swept or even losing in five games would have been an unfair resolution to a year that has been overwhelmingly full of positives, and which has reset the franchise’s trajectory in the post-Kyle Lowry era. 

In no particular order the Raptors ‘wins’ this season include: Exceeding the oddsmaker’s actual projected win total by a dozen; having Siakam returning to All-NBA form after some time in the wilderness; VanVleet making his first all-star team and seeing Precious Achiuwa transition from project to fixture in a matter of months.

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But wait, there’s more: In between injuries, OG Anunoby has looked like a borderline all-star at times and never more so than in the playoffs, his five points and one rebound in Game 6 notwithstanding. Trent Jr., has advanced from curiosity to constant and Boucher has cemented his role as a game-changer off the bench.

And all of that on top of choosing the rookie-of-the-year Barnes in a deep draft with the No.4 pick?

There is no chance the Raptors wouldn’t have signed off on that when the season started. It was a season for development, and Toronto checked off a lot of boxes.

But in some essential ways, the Raptors are who you thought they were. Coming out of training camp, the plan was to make a commitment to crashing the offensive glass, and play an aggressive, swarming defensively style where they used their overall team length to be aggressive on the ball and in passing lanes to force turnovers. Both strategies were to compensate for predictable weakness, based on their personnel: poor shooting.

The thinking was earning more field goal attempts would make up for their lack of efficiency with them, and for the most part, it worked: The Raptors took more shots than their opponents in 69 out of 82 games and went 44-25 when they did. But they were 27th in the regular season in True Shooting percentage at 54.3 and after five games of the playoffs they were at 55.4, ranking them 14th out 16 teams in the post-season.

Even going into their final game of the season, the Raptors’ best hope to shoot the ball well enough to win was just that: hope.

It didn’t pan out. It’s something that needs to be addressed in the off-season.

“We have to develop in a lot of areas, that’s definitely one of them,” said Siakam. “I think we took a lot of steps, we got a lot better, you can see that in the season. It was obviously up and down, but we did get better. Knowing this team and our front office and the people that we have in the organization I know that the goal is to continue to get better and we’re going to look at all those areas and improve and be a way better team next year.

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As well, depth was a challenge for the Raptors all year. There was a reason four of their five starters ranked in the top 14 of minutes played this season, with VanVleet and Siakam tied for first at 37.9 per game: Nurse didn’t trust the rest of his lineup. The Raptors failed to develop or acquire a point guard who could handle 20 minutes a game behind VanVleet, and while that opened opportunities for Siakam and Barnes as playmakers, it also meant their minutes could only climb when VanVleet’s injuries mounted.

Was the load on VanVleet a factor in him breaking down at the season’s most critical point? Impossible to know, but by his own admission, the hard-nosed point guard didn’t leave anything in the tank.

“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. “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.”

Where is that? The Raptors are further along than anyone anticipated at the start of the season.

And their comeback from down 0-3 to force a sixth game in itself was a triumph, cementing a growing internal belief about their collective ceiling.

The final ‘Let’s Go Raptors’ of the season, as the starters were subbed out, was well deserved.

But in the end, they lost the last game of the season which means although they are further along than anyone rightly expected, there’s still a long way to go.

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