PHILADELPHIA — The plan was to make the Philadelphia 76ers nervous. To make the city of Philadelphia nervous.
To put enough pressure on its under-achieving basketball team as voiced by a fan base burdened by unfulfilled expectations that the weight would be too much.
Would the Sixers bend under it? Would they stagger enough that the Toronto Raptors could keep their dream alive of becoming the first team to come back from down 0-3 in a playoff series and to give Philadelphia its ultimate sports nightmare?
There was only one way to find out: The Raptors needed to win Game 5.
The Raptors did it, thoroughly and convincingly as they smothered the Sixers in almost every facet of the game in their well-deserved 103-88 win on Monday. In the process they awakened the Philadelphia boo birds and put the long, cold, creeping shadow of doubt in the minds of their increasingly fragile seeming opponents.
No one in NBA history has lost a seven-game series after sweeping the first three games, not in 143 tries. The Raptors have very much put that on the table. We’ll see if the Sixers fall face first into the ultimate humble pie.
Of course, the Raptors’ reward is simply a chance to do it all over again as the series shifts back to Toronto for Game 6 on Thursday. But the focus turns squarely onto the Sixers, who pulled out all the stops for a title run with their mid-season acquisition of James Harden and at the very least have hit an unexpected speed bump . If the Raptors can keep pushing, the Sixers are at risk of going to Game 7 with the basketball world watching to see if they’ll tap out in an all-time NBA choke job.
The fun is just starting, in other words.
The Raptors were led by Pascal Siakam, who took over point guard duties in the absence of Fred VanVleet. The All-Star is likely out for the series with a hip injury sustained in Game 4.
Siakam scored 23 points and added 10 rebounds and seven assists in 44 steady minutes. Time and time again, he beat whomever the Sixers put in front of him off the dribble, scoring at the rim or creating good looks for teammates against a rotating defence. Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa joined Siakam in double figures with 12, 16, 16 and 17 points, respectively, in a well-rounded attack.
But the real star was the Raptors’ team defence. With VanVleet, out the smallest player to hit the floor was six-foot-five Trent Jr. and coach Nick Nurse went for long stretches with lineups where everyone on the floor was six-foot-eight (and no one was taller than 6-foot-9). The result was a lot of crowds of long arms for Joel Embiid and James Harden to deal with and the speed and length to rotate out to shooters.
The Sixers shot just 39 per cent from the floor and coughed up 16 turnovers, leading to 20 Raptors points.
Embiid counted just 20 points in the face of constant double- and triple-teams while Harden was a max contract non-factor, counting just 15 points and seven assists in 40 minutes.
And Toronto got a considerable assist from the Sixers crowd, which has no problem eating its own. On consecutive possessions early in the fourth quarter, Barnes dribbled the length of the floor largely unimpeded and then hit teammates — first Thad Young, then Achiuwa — for undefended alley-oops to put Toronto up 13 and Sixers fans began to boo.
When Embiid picked up his fifth foul midway through the fourth quarter, the nerves drew tighter still. When Anunoby knocked down a pull-up three to keep Toronto’s lead at double figures with 3:52 to play, the anxious murmurings of 20,000 people got louder again. And when Trent Jr. stepped into a wide-open triple to put Toronto up 15 with 3:20 left, they started to leave. Finally, when Anunoby drove the lane unimpeded for a dunk with 2:18 left, it was over.
The series, now at 3-2, is just getting started.
As an added challenge, the Raptors got it done without the benefit of any contributions from VanVleet, who was ruled out after leaving the floor early in the second quarter of Game 4 with a strained hip flexor.
VanVleet said he was leaving the window open on a return for Game 6 on Thursday if it came to that, but made it sound like the Raptors would have to make it to the second round for him to realistically take the court again this season.
“I’ll take the positives away from the situation,” said VanVleet, whose True Shooting percentage went from 57 per cent before the all-star break to 47 per cent afterwards as he battled a number of injuries. “There’s something gratifying about just laying it on the line for your teammates, for your brothers in the locker room, knowing you’re not 100. [But] my body finally just tapped out. Here we are.”
The Raptors knew they weren’t going to go anywhere without a strong start and to their credit they got the start they wanted. By the midway point of the first quarter, all five starters had scored and the Sixers had committed five turnovers. Barnes was looking far more confident moving on his sore left ankle and the Raptors led 20-14.
But the Sixers do have Embiid and injured thumb or no, it was clear he was determined to make an impact. Not that the Raptors didn’t have plans for him. Embiid has averaged 11 turnovers a game over his last three starts and the Raptors were hoping to maintain that trend.
“It’s no secret that we’re sending a lot of people and a lot of schemes at him because we have to, he’s that good and he’s that big and he’s that strong, and if he gets moving, it’s hard for us to not keep him off the free-throw line,” said Nurse. “So I hope we can turn him over a little bit tonight. I’m not counting on it. But I hope we can just make it a difficult, even if it’s 30 or whatever it ends up being, I hope it’s really hard-earned that he has to really, really work to get them.”
Embiid was willing to put in the effort after the Raptors quick start’ as he went on a quick 6-0 run to pull the Sixers within a point. The Raptors also hurt themselves when Achiuwa and Barnes couldn’t sort out who should grab a wide-open defensive rebound and instead volleyed the ball into their own hoop. But even with that, Toronto got what they needed: a positive start in a game with no margin for error as the visitors took a 29-27 lead into the second quarter.
The next critical question was what would happen in the minutes when Embiid went to the bench. In the first two games in Philly it had been the Tyrese Maxey show and Philadelphia had extended leads in Embiid’s absence.
But on Monday the Raptors upped the pressure, with Trent Jr. and Barnes doing a good job making life difficult on the second-year Sixers guard. Toronto jumped out to a quick 8-0 spurt with in the five minutes Embiid sat to push the Raptors’ lead to 10 on its way to 14. The Sixers trimmed that to six thanks to a triple by Danny Green and a three-point play by Embiid.
But after a well-timed timeout, the Raptors finally began to cash in on some of the open looks from three they’d been misfiring on as Anunoby and Achiuwa both knocked down triples with Siakam racking up assists on Anunoby’s three.
By the time the horn sounded for halftime, the Raptors led 54-41 and you could sense the uneasiness among the fans at Wells Fargo Center, where collapses by this generation of Sixers teams have been baked into their expectations.
The pressure was mounting. It got turned up again at the end of the third quarter. The Raptors tried to cut deeply into what was a fairly steady double-digit lead but kept getting turned back by the size and solid play of Toronto’s defence that held the Sixers to 39 per cent shooting to that point while generating 14 points off 12 Philly turnovers. Embiid and Harden were being reasonably well contained and none of the Sixers role players had been able to shake loose meaningfully. Meanwhile, the Raptors were finding success attacking Embiid off the bounce with Anunoby, Siakam and Achiuwa each making the Sixers star pay.
Things were going to plan, for the Raptors at least.
For the Sixers? Things are going off the rails.