Raptors role players have no answers in disappointing Game 2 loss

·10 min read

One of the advantages that the Toronto Raptors were supposed to have over the Philadelphia 76ers in their first-round matchup were their role players. In fact, when you compare the two teams side-by-side on paper, the Sixers were supposed to have a clear advantage in their star players 1-through-3, while the Raptors had the advantage 3-through-8, with several two-way players to match up against the Sixers’ one-dimensional bench.

Only the games don’t happen on paper. They happen on the court. And any number of factors can take away that supposed advantage in a hurry, which is exactly what has happened to the Raptors in this series.

After a blowout loss in the series opener, the Raptors were without rookie Scottie Barnes in Game 2, who suffered an ankle sprain in the fourth quarter of Game 1 when Joel Embiid’s foot came down on his ankle. Plus, Gary Trent Jr. and Thad Young were both game-time decisions with a non-COVID illness and a finger sprain, respectively. And while they both played, neither was anywhere near 100 percent, failing to log more than 10 minutes each. And because of that and a disappointing showing from the rest of the Raptors bench, the Sixers ran away with a 112-97 win to take a compelling 2-0 series lead.

“I thought our guys were better physically tonight, I thought our guys were giving great effort,” Nick Nurse said after the loss. “This was going to be a huge challenge tonight, right? Completely healthy coming here and getting a game, I think people would have considered that a major upset. So, here we are 2-0. We go back home and hopefully we can take advantage of some home court advantage.”

The silver lining is that the Raptors’ stars showed up: Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby combined for 66 points on 24-57 shooting, along with 15 rebounds and 15 assists. They were each masterful in their own rights, with VanVleet consistently probing past the first line of the Sixers defence to get deep into the paint and spray it out to open shooters, Siakam having his way in isolation against the Sixers’ wings and doing it all on defence, and Anunoby taking advantage of mismatches in the post until the Raptors began to give him more of the ball in the second half to dominate the Sixers’ single-coverage against him, scoring a playoff career-high 26 points on 10-14 shooting in the game.

You can complain about Toronto’s stars failing to “take over” the game or being imperfect, but they did their job and more, carrying the Raptors offence and playing within the defensive scheme without fault for most of the game. In fact, the 66 points from the Raptors' big three was the exact same amount of points that the Sixers’ big three put up in this one, with Joel Embiid leading the way with 31. This loss does not fall on their shoulders.

Instead, the Raptors’ role players put together their second paltry effort in a row on Monday night, with the non-big three Raptors combining for just 18 points through three (meaningful) quarters of play compared to 35 for the Sixers’, when the Sixers were up 95-73 and the game was all but over.

With injuries mounting to key Raptors contributors, Toronto needed its role players to step up big in Game 2. For the most part, that didn't happen. (Getty)
With injuries mounting to key Raptors contributors, Toronto needed its role players to step up big in Game 2. For the most part, that didn't happen. (Getty)

As I mentioned, Barnes was out and Trent and Young weren’t anywhere close to their normal selves. But the guys who did play, with the exception of Precious Achiuwa, just didn’t have it (until Chris Boucher came alive in the fourth quarter, which is an encouraging sign but was too little too late in this one). In fact, the Raptors had just three players hit a single three-pointer through three quarters of play, while the Sixers had eight different players achieve the feat.

“I think yes, we need OG, Pascal, Freddie, but we also need Gary's points and Scotties' points and those guys shifting in off the bench,” Nurse said. “We got our eight, nine guys who are gonna play. Well, they got to play. They got to contribute.”

And it wasn’t just that the Raptors roll players were missing shots — they weren’t even taking them. The non-big three Raptors combined to go just 1-6 from three-point land through three quarters. And that hesitancy to shoot allowed the Sixers (and Embiid in particular) to sag off of the perimeter and defend the rim, making it harder on the rest of the Raptors to drive into the paint:

To make matters worse, the same could not be said for the Sixers, whose role players thoroughly outplayed Toronto's for a second straight game. Embiid dominated the paint on both ends of the floor and Harden made the Raptors play for helping off the corners in order to shade extra pressure towards him, but the only reason he was able to make them pay was because the non-big three Sixers that were in the corners were knocking down shots, shooting 9-15 from deep.

Tobias Harris and Danny Green were especially lethal, shooting a combined 6-12 from three and taking advantage of the Raptors’ mistakes on defence, which once again were more often than not the faults of role players rather than the stars:

VanVleet was quick to take the blame himself for the loss after shooting just 7-23 with 4 turnovers, saying: “It’s on myself to be better. I’m always going to take responsibility for my team’s performance and we didn’t get the win so just put the blame on me.” But the reality is that VanVleet, who played 44 out of a possible 48 minutes after carrying a similarly heavy load all season, is being asked to do too much on both ends of the ball, while the Raptors’ depth has disappeared in this series. They’re young, yes. So some of this was to be expected. But between Malachi Flynn, Khem Birch, Trent, Young and Achiuwa, the Raptors need more from their supporting pieces. And they need it soon.

The problem for the Raptors is that they don’t have a good adjustment to make on the defensive end, given that this is how they have played defence all season, and really since Nick Nurse took over as head coach: throw everything you have at the star players, help off the corners in order to protect the rim, and make the role players beat you by making extra decisions and hitting outside shots.

The Sixers’ role players came into this series prepared to do just that, and so far they have won the battle. Whether or not they can do it two more times will determine if they can win the war.

Breaking it down

For the second consecutive contest, the Sixers won the fast-break battle, and they won it significantly. After outscoring the Raptors 29-10 in transition in Game 1, they outscored them 22-10 in Game 2, turning one of the Raptors’ biggest strengths into a weakness. As I noted after Game 1, the Sixers were expected to bog this down into a half court battle, where they have the advantage. Instead of doing that, they are constantly running after Raptors’ misses, and they are doing it with significantly more efficiency than the Raptors are themselves.

After all, the Sixers were a more efficient transition team in the regular season than the Raptors were, they just didn’t do run nearly as often, with Embiid and Harden preferring to play in the half court. But head coach Doc Rivers has his guys running against the Raptors, and they are doing it with verve, scoring 51 points on just 19 turnovers on the Raptors through two games.

Meanwhile, the Raptors have scored just 20 points off 15 turnovers through two, missing opportunities in ways that are just uncharacteristic of the group. They will need to win that battle going forward.

Standout player

Joel Embiid has been utterly dominant in this series on both sides of the ball, and if the Raptors don’t find a better way to stop him in the post, in the pick-and-roll, and as a rebounder on both sides of the ball, they are going to be in Cancun sooner than they would like.

Embiid scored 31 points on 9-16 shooting with 12-14 from the three-throw line, while limiting the Raptors to just 36 points in the paint (compared to 48 for the Sixers) as a rim protector.

“We’re doing the same things but the refs are calling fouls. We were aggressive all season, not getting called as much as now. We can’t control that, just gotta try to play the game,” Anunoby said about how the Raptors guarded Embiid in the regular season versus the postseason. “He’s just putting his head down and being aggressive just like we would. He’s putting it in the ref’s hand to call foul, to make that decision. That’s what’s happening”

You can complain about the officiating all you want — and it has been very abnormal for them to call it looser in the playoffs than the did in the regular season — but the Raptors are going to have to slow down Embiid.

One option to limit Embiid’s offence would be to put Achiuwa on him and guard him straight-up more often rather than sending double-teams on every possession (he’s done a great job of passing out of doubles early before the Raptors can set their weak-side defence). Unfortunately, the Raptors have switched ball-screens all season, and they would be hard pressed to change that strategy now, limiting their ways of keeping Achiuwa stuck onto him. Plus, that strategy could get Achiuwa into foul trouble quickly. Either way, they’re going to have to find a way to limit Embiid’s passing and his free throws for a chance to win this series, and it might just come down to hoping the other Sixers miss their outside shots.

News and notes

Barnes is currently in a walking boot. He has not been ruled out for Game 3, but given the severity of the injury, it remains doubtful that he will return by then.

However, Trent Jr. and Young should both feel significantly better with the two days off, and the Raptors are going to need them. The fact that they even played despite being less than 100 percent shows a lot about their character, according to Siakam:

“Those guys are fighters, they want to be out there with us. And I think that we’re a team and we cover for each other, we work together as a team and it’s not about being an individual, it’s about being together. And no matter what’s happening out there, we’ve got to stay together.”

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