Raptors show trademark fighting spirit to stay alive in series vs. 76ers

The win that matters most to the long-term future of the Toronto Raptors came before the ball ever went up, when Scottie Barnes walked to center court at Scotiabank Arena, was presented with the NBA’s rookie-of-the-year award from Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and held the trophy aloft for the crowd.

“Scottie, Scottie, Scottie,” came the chant.

It won’t be the last time in his career Barnes here’s his name rain down from the rafters at Scotiabank Arena. And it’s easy to imagine so much more, like “MVP, MVP, MVP.”

The trophy only confirms what those who have watched Barnes’ rookie season unfold, and more, importantly, those who have worked alongside him have come to realize: Barnes is that rare combination of role-player mentality paired with world-class athletic ability, brought to the forefront by just the right combination of character, confidence, and humility.

Mix it all together and what do you got?

“You get a superstar type player,” said Thad Young, the Raptors 15-year veteran. “He’s in his first year, but you get him to continue his growth from him, you get different things that you’re not used to seeing from individuals that play this game. He’s just a special player. He has a unique mindset. He has a unique mindset that he brings to his game every day.

“The biggest thing — we can say he’s unique, we can say he’s special — but [it’s] his work ethic. He comes in and works every single day. He puts in the time to get better. And he wants to get better. He’s always on himself just like his teammates are. Those are the things that really stand out about him, his work ethic.

It was on display Saturday afternoon as the Raptors were able to grind out a 110-102 win to extend their first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers to a fifth game Monday night, trailing 3-1.

Barnes’ box score contribution won’t likely be among in his top-10 playoff performances by the time he plays his 11th playoff game, but his presence was so much more important than just the six points and 11 rebounds he managed in 25 minutes in his first game after a nasty sprained ankle in Game 1.

He willed himself to help his team in a desperate situation and even a diminished version of his bouncy, energetic self, he did just that.

“Just try to bring that defensive effort,” Barnes said of his game plan. “Step on the floor and try to get us into some different things. Really just try to keep us going, bring energy trying to do certain things.

“Just having that presence trying to be a leader out there on the floor, that’s really what I’m trying to do. Not really trying to do so much, just bring that presence.”

It worked, and the Raptors get to keep fighting what has always been an impossible fight, but, hey, there has to be a first time as the Raptors are hoping to become the only team in NBA history to come back from down 3-0 in 144 tries.

The hope is that Barnes ankle will be that much better by then – Barnes attributed to his fast healing to “young bones” — although the status of all-star point guard Fred VanVleet has to be a concern.

VanVleet came up gimpy early in the second quarter with no apparent cause. I didn’t return. He was getting medical imaging done after the game and his status for Game 5 Monday night would seem to be in doubt.

VanVleet ripped his jersey in anger as he left the floor. “I think he probably knew pretty well that it hurt enough that he was leaving the game,” said Nurse. “… he has been banged around pretty good this year and he continues to lace them up and go out there and play big minutes every night. So, there’s a lot to that. Not every guy in this league does that. And when you are fighting through one thing and all of a sudden you get another one that feels as painful as it looked to him, then it’s frustrating.”

The Raptors didn’t give up the fight — almost literally at times as both Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby got into skirmishes with Sixers star Joel Embiid who was clearly agitated at what he believed to be an overly physical approach by the Raptors and not enough support from the referees.

The Raptors certainly saw it otherwise and will try to replicate their harassing, annoying style that their line-ups of long, aggressive wing defenders is so suited for.

Toronto was led by Siakam who shook off questions about a sub-par outing in Game 3 with grinding, determined 34-point showing in Game 4, his playoff career high. He got to the free-throw line 15 times after failing to earn a single free throw attempt in Game 3. His three-point play early in the fourth quarter followed by a steal by Young and lay-up by Precious Achiuwa gave Toronto a seven -point lead with 9:11 to play. From there Siakam worked his way to the line seven times. He also assisted on a key triple by Anunoby that put Toronto up 12 with 3:44 to play that gave the Raptors some breathing room in a game that offered little chance to relax.

The Raptors won despite shooting just 42 per cent from the floor and 8-of-34 from three because they grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to six by the Sixers and had just 11 turnovers to 16 by Philadelphia. They also took 35 free throws to 25 by Philadelphia. The Sixers were led by Joel Embiid who had just 21 points – nine below his season average – while Trent Jr. had 24 for Toronto.

It was fitting in a way that with their season on the line the Raptors doubled down on the positionless approach they have been experimenting with all season. With VanVleet having to sit out the second half and Barnes limited with his ankle, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse rode a lineup of five 6-foot-9(ish) wings in Siakam, Young, Anunoby, Chris Boucher and Achiuwa. The only adjustment down the stretch was when Nurse exchanged Trent Jr. for Boucher.

It paid off as the Raptors held the Sixers to 6-of-18 shooting in the fourth quarter, while forcing five turnovers. It allowed Toronto to finally pull away in a game that was tied after the first quarter, and which they led only narrowly for most of the afternoon.

It’s a formula Toronto hopes they can repeat, and there’s some hope given that Embiid his struggling with a sprained thumb.

“I mean, it’s painful,” said Embiid, who shot 7-of-16 from the floor and made five turnovers. “…In basketball you need to use your hand a lot. So…”

Regardless of the series result, the progress of Barnes has been the on-going success story for Toronto who were able to draft him after their so-called Tampa Tank – their response to the pandemic added 2020-21 season.

The 20-year-old from West Palm Beach Florida became just the third Raptor to ever win the rookie-of-the-year award and he did it in noteworthy fashion, winning the closest vote in 20 years over Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley by just 15 points. Barnes had 48 first-place votes to 43 for Mobley out of the 100 ballots cast. Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham was third. Barnes was taken fourth overall while Mobley and Cunningham went third and first, respectively, as part of the one of the deepest rookie classes on years.

“I was just super, happy, of course at the news,” said Barnes. “I just couldn’t wait to get in the building and for everyone to announce the award … it was a goal of mine all year to try to win it, but I didn’t really try to overthink it or try to do so much . I just played my role, did what I had to do and winning helps with it as well.”

Barnes earned to award thanks to his combination of versatility and durability. He averaged 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.08 steals and 0.74 blocks in 35.4 minutes in 74 games, leading all rookies in minutes, ranking third in points and rebounds and finishing fifth in assists, steals and blocks.

“We are incredibly proud of Scottie and are thrilled and grateful that his hard work has been recognized with this honour,” Toronto Raptors Vice-Chairman and President Masai Ujiri said in a statement. “What you see on the court is exactly who Scottie is: enthusiastic. Joyful. Athletic. Skilled, and a winner. We – and our fans-loved seeing his development of him through this season, and we ca n’t wait to see what the future brings.

For now, it brings Game 5, and a chance for Barnes and the Raptros to author one of the most unlikely comebacks imaginable.

But looking ahead, Barnes showed even one ankle what he can bring to a team, and what that can mean well beyond this series or this season.

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