PHILADELPHIA—The Toronto Raptors should have won Game 2 of this series, and didn’t. It wasn’t the end of the world; it was one game against a good team in the Philadelphia 76ers, but Toronto was still in good shape. Those things only come back to haunt them if you let them.
Well, it’s on the table. In Game 3, the 76ers played well for the first time in the series, and Joel Embiid was larger than life for the first time in the series, and you could see how this thing could unravel. Philadelphia is bigger, and in this game Philadelphia was better. The Sixers led all night, won 116-95, and now lead this series two games to one.
“I trust our guys,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown before the game. “They’re not sort of caught up in the moment. I think that it’s a launching pad.”
It was, and now Raptors coach Nick Nurse needs a solution. Toronto wasted an awful Embiid game in Game 2, with the all-star centre wheezing and sick. They wasted another scintillating Kawhi Leonard game in Game 3, and played their first bad defensive game of the playoffs. Four minutes into the third quarter Philly’s lead was 18 points, and Leonard went to the blowtorch to try to drag them back, because he simply doesn’t blink. He had 14 in the quarter, pulling his game into circus territory. The Raptors outscored Philadelphia by three in the frame, and were down eight with 12 minutes left.
But the bench lineups bled again, and with the game still in question it was Embiid who ruled the world. Early in the fourth, Pascal Siakam had an open corner three to pull Toronto within six and clanked it; Kyle Lowry had an open pull-up at the top and did the same. Embiid splashed a three in response, and then Siakam drove on him and didn’t get a call. He leg-whipped his fellow Cameroonian and got a flagrant foul, as Philly booed; Embiid was cool about it, because it was his night.
He blocked Siakam on Toronto’s next possession, crammed a windmill dunk down the stretch and finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and dominance. And suddenly the Raptors need to win Game 4 to not find themselves jammed up against the wall.
This game raised a spectre that hadn’t arrived in the series yet: the idea that Philadelphia might be able to impose its will on Toronto. Game 1 was the Raptors flying, Game 2 was the Raptors losing a game they should have won. This was the first time it felt like the Sixers were in charge.
This was Embiid the giant, flanked by size that worked. This wasn’t an adjustment game. The Sixers took Embiid off Siakam because asking a near-300-pounder to chase Siakam slithering around the screens that Toronto could have used more of in Game 2 was a tough ask. No, Philadelphia played Toronto straight up, cards on the table.
And they were the better team, straight up, for the first time in the series. The Philly crowd was rabid, Embiid was Godzilla rising from the seabed, and Ben Simmons snuck an elbow to Kyle Lowry’s man parts. By halftime, Toronto’s defence had been strafed, and Toronto’s small guards were being erased. Lowry was reluctant to shoot and missing when he did; Fred VanVleet is a tough-minded player who has risen past a lot to get here, and the Sixers’ size has beset him to the point where it looked like he didn’t want to shoot. The result was the shots were doomed.
Toronto got a little bench scoring in the first round, but this isn’t Orlando. And in the first two games against a big, aggressive Philly team, the gap in the Raptors offensive depth chart had only become more pronounced. Leonard, Siakam and Lowry combined to average 79.5 points in the first two games. Everyone else combined — Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Ibaka, VanVleet and Norm Powell, which is the entirety of the reasonable rotation at this point — couldn’t crack 20.
That was only a part of the problem of this game, but it was there: Leonard and Siakam combined for 53 on 20-of-37 shooting, and everyone else went 15-for-46.
It was a different kind of game than the series has seen before, because Philadelphia’s size finally squeezed to full effect. Lowry was passing up threes partly because when the ball comes there is a wing between six-foot-seven and six-foot-10 flying at him, and when he got shots they weren’t going. VanVleet, as mentioned, looks spooked and missed all seven of his shots. And when they drove, Embiid was often there.
Gasol wasn’t scoring against Embiid, which you might expect, even if he’s clanking open looks. But that meant that if Lowry wasn’t finding the gaps between the trees, suddenly the Raptors had a scoring problem, and Green coming to life wasn’t enough to bridge that gap. This soup suddenly feels thinner than you’d like. And the bench remains a gap.
“(The bench) just need to play,” said Nurse. “Our bench has been good. Defensively they’ve been good, they just need to make shots. I know people say scoring is big, but things are going to happen. If we can win a game with the bench scoring zero points, I’ll be happy and I’m sure they’ll be happy, but they just have to play. There’s nothing to it. It’s not like they’re playing bad. They just didn’t make shots last game.”
Then the bottom fell out of the defence, and there weren’t enough scorers, and Embiid wrecked all kinds of things. The Toronto Raptors can still win this series. They can still be the team they want to be.
But the margin for error was squandered in Game 2, and it may come back to haunt them, if they let it. The pressure is on now, and it’s only going to rise.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur
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