Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 110-103 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
One — Wow: The Raptors continue to surge in the East standings, following up two wins over the Bucks by grinding it out against the Timberwolves and now knocking off the conference-best Sixers. It looked to be a difficult matchup, especially with Joel Embiid coming off a 50-point performance in the same week where Ben Simmons set his career-high with 42 points. The Raptors were without Kyle Lowry, who always shows up to play his hometown club, and were massively undersized across the frontcourt. However, the Raptors battled back from two double-digit deficits and won it in the end by putting on a defensive masterclass in the second half.
Two — Gritty: Philadelphia racked up 84 points through the first three quarters, largely by asserting its size advantage and living at the foul line. To combat this, Nick Nurse went to his supersized frontcourt with Aron Baynes at center, Chris Boucher at power forward, while also adding Pascal Siakam at the three. Matching the Sixers' size allowed the Raptors to control the paint and secure defensive rebounds, and the Sixers fell into an extended slump by missing 10-straight field-goals over a seven-minute stretch. It wasn't that pretty offensively, as the Raptors largely lived on huge spurts of three-point shooting, but they still built a double-digit lead just off the strength of their defense. Philadelphia eventually solved it at the end, but it was too late.
Three — Sensational: Boucher was a plus-32 in 25 minutes, and that's not just a statistical quirk. Boucher carried the Raptors for a stretch in the second half, scoring 12-straight points on four threes, while also equalling his effort defensively. Boucher dominated the matchup against Dwight Howard, as the veteran generally likes to drop back and protect the paint, which left Boucher wide open for three. Once he knocked down his first shot, the Raptors made a point to hunt the matchup, putting Boucher in the pick-and-pop, and even once calling a down screen for Boucher as if he were a shooting guard. Boucher was on such a roll that the Raptors left him in for 16 consecutive minutes in the second half, as Nurse wisely rode out the hot streak until the need arose for another perimeter player to relieve Philadelphia's intense ball pressure.
— NBA (@NBA) February 22, 2021
Four — Active: Boucher was just as effective defensively. The one-on-one matchup with Embiid was clearly a mismatch, but Baynes took that assignment which freed Boucher to play more free safety. The Sixers usually have at least one non-shooter on the floor, so it was easy for Boucher to rove freely and help at the basket and at the three-point line. Boucher swatted a corner three, forced an awkward miss on another three, and came up with the block of the game by chasing down Embiid at the basket. The combined length of Boucher, Baynes, and Siakam was reminiscent of the Raptors' tactics in the 2019 playoffs, where Siakam combined with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to gain size superiority over the Sixers which swung the series. If anything, Boucher's quickness, athleticism, and endless motor allowed him to be even more effective than Ibaka in the power forward role.
Five — Clever: Fred VanVleet struck a perfect balance between forcing his shot and setting up his teammates. Even though the SIxers are stacked with lengthy perimeter defenders, VanVleet was still able to have his way with just above every assignment aside from Simmons. VanVleet caught fire in the first quarter, knocking down three triples and getting to the foul line to pull the Raptors out of a double-digit deficit, and it forced the Sixers to change their coverage. First, the Sixers started pressing up higher on VanVleet on the pick-and-roll, which allowed VanVleet to capitalize by setting up his teammates rolling unimpeded to the basket. Second, the Sixers put Simmons on VanVleet, which meant Simmons wasn't covering Siakam and that allowed him to attack easier matchups. And defensively, VanVleet continues to collect momentum-shifting steals, this time ripping the ball away from Embiid in similar fashion to how he picked Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Switching it up to the PnR after the iso didn't go anywhere pic.twitter.com/2SiFOQFQZc
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) February 22, 2021
Six — Smart: Siakam was the steadying presence for the Raptors from start to finish. When the offense was stuck early on, Siakam worked his way in the post and scored difficult baskets over Simmons to get the team going. As the game went on, the Sixers shifted their defensive attention towards VanVleet, and Siakam promptly capitalized by dominating the matchup against Tobias Harris. Siakam was forceful and aggressive in the paint and overwhelmed Harris, who picked up two fouls in the third quarter. Siakam also took it strong against Danny Green, and generally found a nice balance between forcing the issue and setting up his teammates. Of late, involving Siakam in the pick-and-roll has produced fantastic results, as Siakam can both run the play, or screen to get his teammates open.
Seven — Solid: This is why the Raptors signed Baynes, to match the physicality of behemoths like Embiid. Similar to when Gasol had the assignment, the Raptors refuse to leave anyone on an island against Embiid, and will show help from various positions to keep the Sixers guessing. The key to playing that scheme, however, is to have someone strong enough to take away one half of the floor from Embiid, and forcing him to play towards the help. Baynes had the muscle to match Embiid, and he deserves the most credit for limiting Embiid to 6-of-20 shooting. It was also refreshing to see Baynes take it to Embiid in the pick-and-roll, beating him for a dunk at the basket and knocking Embiid to the ground (not a flop, for once) to win a rebound.
Eight — Details: The main focus in the rematch is transition defense. The Sixers are a nightmare in the open floor with Simmons running the break, and bad shots or sloppy turnovers can easily put the Sixers on a run. The Raptors have enough pieces to match the Sixers' halfcourt defense, especially if they go big against Embiid, but there's a cost to the offense with so much size on the floor. Boucher's red-hot shooting covered up for much of their shortcomings, but Baynes does allow Embiid to stay at the basket, which can sometimes lead the Raptors to hoist bad jumpers that fuel the break. The Raptors need to cut down on turnovers, particularly in the case of Norman Powell who wasn't always strong with the ball when he needed to be.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 22, 2021
Nine — Adjustments: Nurse bluffed in the pre-game interview, saying that the smallball lineup wouldn't be feasible against the Sixers, but he still started the game without a true center. The difference between being small against the Sixers and doing the same against the Bucks is that Milwaukee didn't press their advantage in the post, whereas the SIxers deployed all three of Embiid, Simmons, and Harris when the matchup called for it. Nurse wisely shifted to a bigger group, which solved their defense. Odds are that Nurse will keep to his word, and start big in the rematch. Baynes is the only Raptors player that can match Embiid's strength, and even janky zone defenses won't be able to mask the matchup.
Ten — Awkward: It's starting to become very strange that Danny Green has still not received his 2019 championship ring. Green was slated to be honoured last season when the Lakers visited Toronto in March, but the pandemic nixed that plan. Since then, Green has played the Raptors inside the Disney bubble, and another two times in empty arenas this season, and still he remains ringless. Even Jeremy Lin was able to receive his ring in Beijing. Green's rationale is that he wants to get his ring in a full arena, with his family in attendance, but he may not have that chance for another year still.
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