Surging Raptors unlucky to be trailing series against 76ers

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 103-88 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 5 on Monday.

One — The Raptors have outplayed the Sixers for the last three games: The result in Game 5 was only a surprise to those who have yet to clue into the fact that the Sixers’ early 3-0 advantage wasn’t as dominant as it seemed. As the series has gone along, the Raptors have gotten better and made vital adjustments, and the Sixers are now reeling despite holding a 3-2 series advantage thanks only to Joel Embiid’s heroic shot in Game 3. The pressure is once again back on the Sixers, who have the exact personnel you would hope to see if you were looking to make history by coming back in the playoffs.

Two — The most striking aspect of Game 5 was how similar it was to Game 4: The Raptors’ plan was obvious, as it was their all-forwards lineup that swung the balance of Game 4. But despite being beaten by that strategy, the Sixers made non-tangible adjustments in Game 5, which saw the Raptors leading the entire way after falling behind 2-0. The Raptors once again gave the Sixers fits on defense by being able to switch pick-and-rolls, which kept the Sixers guards from being downhill, while doubling Embiid until he gassed out, and living with the results if Danny Green or Matisse Thybulle were left momentarily open. The Sixers might conclude that they were just unlucky to miss so many open shots, but the reality is that they weren’t able to generate advantages to beat the defense. The Sixers have failed to crack 90 points six times this season, and two of those games have come against the Raptors in the last month with Toronto using the exact same defensive strategy of stacking forwards at every position. When will Doc Rivers respond?

Three — The most important question in this series is are the Sixers drawing dead?: The first two games were easily won by the Sixers, who had four players excelling in Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris. But as the series has dragged on, the Raptors have found solutions to each one defensively. To limit Harden, the Raptors have guarded him in single coverage, bringing help only at the last second under the rim to blind his floaters, and living with the results of his stepback three. For Maxey, the ability to switch more pick-and-roll actions have left him with no gaps to attack, and both OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam have matched him for quickness to cut off drives, thus leaving Maxey with only contested runners. For Embiid, the strategy has been double him and force him to cough it up, and while he still scores efficiently because of his size and touch, he gets tired as the game goes on and starts to show frustration. It’s now a striking difference in how the Raptors can rely on seven players who can come in and maintain the level of play, while the Sixers have only four who must excel. Philadelphia’s leading scorer off the bench had three points, and this is with the caveat that role players do better at home. So who is Rivers going to introduce that swings the series?

Four — Meanwhile, Nick Nurse is figuring things out: The Raptors coach doubled down on the same strategy that swung Game 4. The smallest player in his rotation was Gary Trent Jr., who has bounced back after overcoming a non-COVID illness at the start of the series, while resisting the temptation to introduce another point guard to spell Fred VanVleet’s absence. Of the eight players who played for the Raptors, seven were rangy athletes with 7-foot wingspans who could reliably cover any one of the Sixers aside from Embiid. Nurse trusted Siakam and Scotie Barnes to handle the ball and set the pace, and both players showed both maturity in not turning it over, while also pressing the advantage when they saw the chance to record the assist. The Raptors weren’t able to arrive at this strategy when Barnes and Thad Young were injured in Game 1, but since recovering the Raptors have unleashed their true identity and it’s overwhelming the Sixers.

Five — Siakam sits at the top of this strategy: The Raptors hope to teach all of their players to be positionless, and as the player who has been in the program the longest, it’s no surprise to see Siakam being able to play most effectively in all scenarios . Siakam was efficient as the lead playmaker, getting the Raptors into their offense time after time, while also absorbing the pressure to make his teammates better. If you review his 10 made field goals, you’ll see the degree of difficulty in what Siakam is asked to do. Aside from two catch-and-shoot threes, Siakam is having to create against a set defense time and time again, and he is having success. In single coverage, he is either getting into the paint, or he’s shooting over the top of pesky defenders like Harris. And when the Sixers bring the double team, Siakam is efficiently finding the open man without hesitation. He recorded seven assists, but his teammates also shot only 2-for-10 from deep despite Siakam finding them for open looks. In short, he was asked to be the modern star, the wing who can do everything on the floor, and Siakam delivered.

Six — The Raptors needed every bit of secondary scoring they could find and OG Anunoby delivered: He got the team off to a hot start, creating the first 10 points of the game through a steal and score on Maxey, a midrange pull-up attacking a closeout , posting up Harden to draw a double team, which triggered a swing sequence that resulted in Siakam stepping into a three, and then a drive and kick to set up Khem Birch for a rare corner look. Anunoby hasn’t hit the mark from distance in the last two games, but the looks are good and he’s confident in his attempts at it. Aside from the makes, his defense of him is stellar as he consistently keeps Maxey contained, and he is doing just enough of everything to produce as a secondary scorer in Fred VanVleet’s absence. Next to Siakam, Anunoby has been the main driver of the comeback.

Seven — Precious Achiuwa is having his moment: Achiuwa is as advertised on defense, where he is able to both body up on Embiid, while also sticking with Harden on switches. But what’s truly eye-opening is Achiuwa’s ability to score. His aggressiveness from him was misplaced early in the season, when he broke the rhythm of the attack while being frustratingly wasteful around the basket. A few months later, that same player is faking out an elite shot blocker in Embiid with a series of fakes, while also showing breathtaking athleticism on his decisive drives to the basket. Achiuwa was a perfect 6-for-6 in the paint, which shouldn’t be that remarkable for a center, and yet it tells the entire story of Achiuwa’s turnaround this season.

eight — Embiid is growing more weary with each game: The Raptors have smartly left their most physical defender in Birch on the floor at the start of games and to open the second half to endure Embiid’s most energetic spells. But after his first stint, there is a noticeable drop in Embiid’s energy and effectiveness from him. The Raptors can swarm Embiid when he’s stationary, but where he hurts the Raptors is when he is posting up off the ball, working overtime for duck-ins, running the floor hard for deep post position, and catching it so deep that the Raptors are unable to answer his shot. Outside of Game 3, Embiid hasn’t shown the endurance to maintain his aggression from him. And for the first time in the series, Embiid was actively bad on defense to the point where the Raptors attacked him specifically in the third quarter for six straight drives. Some of this might come down to Embiid’s finger from him and the concern of re-injury, but if he’s playing tired, scared, and frustrated, the Raptors have him exactly where they want him.

Nine — Barnes is excelling in a secondary role as he did all season: The expectation has not been for Barnes to check in and dominate, only that he steps in and fills gaps as he sees fit. His contributions come entirely within the team game, where Barnes gets into the post against a smaller defender to score a duck-in, or cutting behind the defecse, and getting out in transition where he is truly at his best with his size, finishing ability , and his penchant for flashy passing. Defensively, the job that Barnes has done on Harden has been excellent, as he’s keeping his arms down to avoid Harden’s trickery, and doing an admirable job when asked to switch onto Embiid. But what makes Barnes special is how he keeps his cool under pressure. The Sixers crowd rose to it feet at the start of the fourth after the deficit was trimmed to single digits, and it was then when Barnes sped up rather than slowing down. He burst past Harden knowing that he would engage Embiid on the rotation, which opened up the lob to Young. On the next trip down, Young poked the ball free and advanced it to Barnes, who had a three-on-one break and used a subtle pass fake, fooling the defender with his eyes as he served a no-look feed to Achiuwa. The crowd went right back to booing the Sixers from that point forward.

have — The Sixers look especially uncomfortable under pressure. Embiid blamed the officials for Game 4, but after receiving a $15,000 fine, he turned his Game 5 criticism at his own teammate in Harden. Nothing that Embiid said was untrue about how Harden needs to pick up his scoring from him, but that he should be kept in the locker room instead of playing out publicly. Embiid also put the onus on Rivers to relay that message to Harden, which is again totally fair to say, but did not need to be said to the media. There’s this lingering impression you get from watching how this team interacts that if they face adversity, they will turn against each other rather than coming together and being resilient. It’s the Raptors’ job to keep putting them under pressure.

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