All season long, we wondered how the Toronto Raptors would respond when their chips were down. After all, this was one of the youngest and least experienced teams in the league heading into the playoffs, and while they faced adversity at different points in the season in the name of injuries and COVID-related absences harming their stability, they never got punched and had to fight back. That was until Game 3 on Wednesday night, when they were in a 2-0 hole in their first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“This team has responded really well to a number of things in the adversity column throughout the year. They always seem to find a way to respond,” Nick Nurse said pregame. “I think we’re gonna see it, facing some adversity with guys missing and some guys not 100 percent and down two games in a series. It won’t surprise me if we respond tonight.”
While the Raptors are young, there was reason to believe that they would thrive in the face of adversity, especially considering they were coming back home to Toronto and getting more healthy, with Gary Trent Jr. and Thad Young both fully back in the fold. Plus, they were playing with house money, had veterans who had been in similar circumstances before, and had a strong leadership and coaching group in place to right the ship.
Unfortunately, despite playing their best game of the series and getting inspired efforts from three of their most promising young players, the Raptors lost an overtime heartbreaker, 101-104, because sometimes in the playoffs, star power trumps all.
OG Anunoby had perhaps the best game of his career, all things considered, showing out on both sides of the floor with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, a steal, a block and stellar defence all 46-minutes long. The same could arguably be said for Trent Jr. and Precious Achiuwa, who combined to add 44-points of their own in the second playoff series of each of their young careers.
But with 0.9 seconds on the shot clock and 2.6 remaining in overtime — after head coach Doc Rivers raced onto the court to call a timeout and draw a final play — the possible MVP of the league, Joel Embiid, not only made all of those performances look mediocre in comparison — scoring 33 points on 12-20 shooting including 3 three-pointers, 13 rebounds and 2 assists — he also got his revenge on the Raptors from 2019, hitting a turnaround three-point shot from 27-feet out to give the Sixers the win and, in all likelihood, the series.
“There's nothing you can do against shots like that. Fadeaway threes. Pump-fake threes. Fadeaway, pump-fake, spin-around, top-of-the-free-throw-line jumpers. There's no better defense you can possibly play,” Achiuwa said on Embiid’s performance down the stretch, where he scored a crucial five points in overtime, including the game winner. “He just hit a lot of tough shots. You've just got to live with those.”
“He's about three years better [than he was in 2019]. For a guy that's gotten better seemingly every year he's played, he's at a really high level right now,” Fred VanVleet added about Embiid. “I thought Precious did a solid job on him for most of the game but he was able to get free late and kind of impose his will. He made a couple of tough jumpers and obviously the last one. So we got to do a better job on him.”
Unfortunately for the Raptors, there are no moral victories. At least not until the season is over and they can look back on what was ultimately a successful development season with rosy glasses. For now, it doesn’t matter how comfortable Anunoby has looked with the ball in his hands against physical playoff defenses, how well Trent Jr. bounced back after two disappointing games to open the series, or how well Achiuwa played on both sides of the ball against one of the best big men in the league — all that matters is that they are down 3-0 in a series between the 4th and 5th seeds in the East; one that many people picked them to win.
“It’s tough… That’s about as tough a loss as I can remember here for my time,” Nurse said after the game. “Obviously if we pull that thing out, we got ourselves a series and instead, you got yourself a really, really deep hole to dig out of.”
After a disappointing showing from the Raptors’ role players in Game 2, it was their stars that dropped the ball in the biggest game of the season. VanVleet and Pascal Siakam combined to shoot 9-29 from the field and 2-12 from three, each scoring just 12 points in the game and missing some really good looks down the stretch.
While it’s true that the Sixers are throwing a ton of defensive attention at the both of them and that each has a ton of responsibility as facilitators and versatile defenders — where they combined for 5 steals and were generally great — you still expect your best and most experienced players to find ways to score with their backs up against the wall. They didn’t, each missing a good look in the final two minutes of overtime, where they were held scoreless.
While one game is not an indictment of either of their seasons or of either of them as playoff performers, it’s disappointing that they failed to respond in the face of adversity, especially considering the stage. And while this series is all but over, they still have their pride to play for on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s tough, for sure. But we can't get it back now. We got to stand up, look ourselves in the mirror, get some rest, recover, and go lace ‘em up again,” VanVleet said. “So you can't really cry about it. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.”
“We got to bring even more fight in a couple of days. There’s no room to look around and feel sorry for ourselves. We did a lot of good things tonight. We played a lot of minutes of great basketball and we’re going to have to do it again and bring even more fight, more intensity and more execution.
“We’re playing for our pride. Our pride is on the line.”
Breaking it down
The Raptors started this game off about as well as they could have defensively, double-teaming Embiid with more finesse, showing Tyrese Maxey extra help, and daring James Harden to beat them one-on-one. They held a 10-point lead at the half after turning the Sixers over 14 times and holding them to just 46 points and 6 free-throw attempts. They also won the minutes when Embiid was off the floor by seven points in this one for the first time all series.
Unfortunately, Embiid and Maxey got going in the second half, and it was in large part due to the free-throws, where the Raptors sent the Sixers to the line 14 times in the half, failing to get consecutive stops or any momentum off of their defence. They tightened things up in overtime, where the Sixers didn’t get to the line, but Embiid hit a couple of tough jumpers while the Raptors missed easy ones of their own. Sometimes a game comes down to shotmaking and the stars prevail. This was one of those nights, but it didn’t have to be if the Raptors cleaned things up in the third quarter, which they lost 28-19 and sent the Sixers to the line 10 times.
The silver lining of this entire series for the Raptors has been OG Anunoby, who matched a playoff career-high of 26 from Game 2 in this one, looking like the best Raptor from tip-off until the end of overtime. He knocked down catch and shoot 3s, backed down smaller opponents in the post and hit tough fadeaways over them, seamlessly switched one-through-five on defence and, most importantly, looked comfortable making decisions with the ball in his hands when the Raptors deferred to him.
“He was good. He looked really confident with the ball, right? Got himself to places. I thought he made good plays,” Nurse said of Anunoby. “He made a few passes out of positions that he took the ball to as well and made some tough shots as well, made some really contested threes, but you know, those were the plays at the moment and he stepped into them tonight.”
OG is made for the playoffs pic.twitter.com/Gqn7lVAgC3
— Raptors Republic 🇺🇦 (@raptorsrepublic) April 21, 2022
The problem was that the Raptors didn’t defer to him all that often, with Anunoby shooting just one field-goal attempt in overtime (in addition to a trip to the free-throw line) after scoring eights points in the fourth quarter. The Sixers adjusted by sending more help towards him, but instead of force-feeding him the ball and allowing him to take advantage of that extra help, the Raptors spread the wealth like they have all season, with VanVleet, Siakam and Anunoby all shooting one field goal in overtime and Trent Jr. shooting two.
That strategy has paid dividends for them all season, making them unpredictable down the stretch of games, where they were great in the regular season. However, on a night when their season was on the line and Anunoby was playing the best basketball of his career, their decision to not put the ball in his hands might have cost them the series.
News and Notes
Nick Nurse all but confirmed that rookie Scottie Barnes would be good to go on Saturday afternoon in Game 4, telling the media ahead of the game: “I would certainly assume he’ll be ready for the next one.” After missing Games 2 and 3 of this series with an ankle sprain suffered in Game 1, Barnes is apparently feeling better everyday.
Trent Jr. said he had a viral sickness over the past week, with a fever up to 102 degrees and losing 8 pounds of weight. Fortunately, the fever is gone and Game 3 was the best he has felt. Look for him to be close to 100 percent on Saturday.
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