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HomeSportsUsing lessons learned in the playoffs, Raptors avenge series defeat vs. 76ers

Using lessons learned in the playoffs, Raptors avenge series defeat vs. 76ers


There was so much good that happened for the Toronto Raptors when they played the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs last year.

Before Toronto got pushed aside in six games, there was enough time for – as examples:

Pascal Siakam to lead his team to a couple of must-wins in Games 4 and 5 as the fulcrum of an offence, the way an all-NBA player should.

• (Then) rookie Scottie Barnes nearly put up a triple-double in his playoff debut before getting his ankle stepped on by Joel Embiid, and then impressed all with his grit when he came back for the final three games of the series.

• O.G. Anunoby to go off for 24 points a game with a True Shooting percentage of 69.4 over the first three games of the series, the best run of playoff games in his career.

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There were other positives too, but as a whole, they didn’t happen in enough volume for the series to be tilted in the Raptors’ favour. Still, if you squinted hard enough you could see it. And the Raptors left a mark:

“Anytime, honestly, you go through a series, you’re better when you come out of it, you really are,” said Sixers head coach Doc Rivers before his club kicked off two games in Toronto in three nights. “We couldn’t have picked a more perfect opponent because of the way they play. They make you think, just because they’re all the same size, they switch a lot of stuff. They threw a lot of stuff at us. So, I thought that was good for us.”

Was it good for the Raptors?

Toronto head coach Nick Nurse says the way it finished – his club was down by a point at halftime of the sixth game and were routed by 31 in the second half – took some time to get over.

“I go away from it somewhat disappointed because we lost the series,” Nurse said. “More disappointed that I didn’t think we executed very well in the last game of that series. As a coach, when you lose one like that you have to think about that all summer. So the aftermath of the non-execution part stays with you for a long time.”

Spoken or unspoken – Nurse says he’s never shown video of the Game 6 debacle to his club – the series has informed what Toronto has done since.

There was enough good for Toronto’s executive team to commit to continuing on the path they’d set out on post-Kyle Lowry. They largely stood pat in the off-season, bringing back 13-of-15 players, encouraged the group had more to give. But there was also further recognition they need both effort and execution to reach their potential – it was their lack of execution in Game 6 that crushed them – which has been a mantra since.

Game five of the regular season is a long way from the intensity of a playoff series, but it was hard not to see all the good the Raptors were able to do against the visiting Sixers on Wednesday night and come away thinking the Raptors might be on to something and the Sixers – widely considered as one of the favourites in the Eastern Conference – have some work to do.

The Raptors rode the hot hand of Pascal Siakam early, and Gary Trent Jr. late for a 119-109 win that they were in control of for most of the way. Siakam chipped in with his play-making too, as he ended up with 13 assists to go along with 20 points, a scoring threshold he’s crossed every game this season as Toronto improved to 3-2 on the year.

The Sixers? Things might be getting tense as they fell to 1-4, with coach Rivers the Vegas favourite to be the first coach fired this season.

It makes Friday night’s rematch between the two clubs all that more intriguing.

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From a Raptors perspective, it was perhaps their most complete team effort of the young season, with six players hitting double figures in scoring and the Raptors counting a season-high 32 assists. While Siakam scored 19 of his 20 points in the first half before flipping into play-making mode in the second, Trent Jr. had 21 of his game-high 27 after intermission.

The Raptors closed out the Sixers as Fred VanVleet hit a pair of late triples – one a solo effort and another set up by Siakam – and Siakam found Barnes for a dunk and then a lay-up with 20.9 seconds that put a lid on things.

Toronto’s bench seems to be turning a corner too. For the second straight game since Chris Boucher returned from his hamstring injury, the Raptors won their bench minutes, in this case decisively as Toronto’s reserves outscored their Sixers counterparts 26-16, with Precious Achuiwa and Boucher alone combining for 20 points and 10 rebounds.

In the first half it looked like the Raptors were trying to avenge the whole playoff series from last year in 24 minutes.

No one was more pumped up and ready to go than Siakam, who missed a post-up against his old teammate – and new Sixer – PJ Tucker on his first shot attempt, shrugged his shoulders and decided to take it to the three-point line where he made four straight triples in the first quarter alone, chatting more animatedly at Tucker and anyone else nearby after each make.

Best of all, Siakam’s hot shooting was contagious. Boucher and Achiuwa both hit their first looks from deep soon after they checked in. Barnes’ triple was the Raptors’ first basket off the game. Toronto was 7-of-12 from deep in the first quarter and led 35-27.

Some of this could have been predicted: The Sixers give up nearly the highest percentage of opponent’s shots from three in the league, with 46 per cent of the shots taken against them coming from deep, third most in the NBA, and opponents cashing in on more than 13 a game, which is tied for 26th. It makes sense: driving the lane against Embiid isn’t always fruitful.

But if you know you’re going to get looks, a smart team can load up and let them fly with confidence, which the Raptors certainly did.

Yet it was another Sixers tendency that the Raptors were able to exploit even more sustainably. Philadelphia came into the game ranked seventh in the NBA in points given up in transition and last in points allowed per fast break opportunity.

The Raptors, of course, live and die by their ability to score in transition – they came into the game ranked fourth in points scored on the run.

It was a bad match-up for the Sixers in that sense. “With Joel and James, we’re not going to win the Olympics,” said Rivers.

The Raptors’ three-point shooting slowed down a little – they ended the half at 9-of-22, which was still remarkable given VanVleet and Trent Jr., Toronto’s best marksmen, were 0-of-5 combined.

But the Raptors were able to take a 63-53 lead into that half thanks also to 12 points they scored off six Philadelphia turnovers and an 11-8 edge in transition scoring.

They ended up with 29 fastbreak points to Philadelphia’s 17. Sixers big guns Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey had 31 points each, but that wasn’t enough to keep up with Toronto.

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