Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 115-109 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
One — This was a great response after the no-show in Boston. The Raptors played a much more comprehensive game, were overflowing with effort and courage from the start, and finished strong despite an equally plucky showing by the undermanned Sixers.
Toronto looked to have the game in hand, but Philadelphia launched a quick 9-0 run to regain the lead at home, and it was shaping up to be a repeat of the Cavaliers game, only this time the Raptors were able to execute effectively in crunch time and sink the Sixers with two dagger threes. It was an especially satisfying result because all eight players who suited up for the Raptors gave positive contributions that culminated in the win.
Two — Fred VanVleet keeps playing at an All-Star level. He ensured the Raptors got off to a strong start offensively, as he directly created the first nine points of the game with a dish to Scottie Barnes, a triple, two free throws, and a layup as part of his 13-point outburst in the first quarter.
VanVleet then settled more into a team game, but made a number of momentum-shifting plays in the third quarter as the Raptors were surging ahead, where VanVleet would beat multiple defenders before finishing with exquisite skill at the basket over top several shot blockers. Then at the end, VanVleet returned to close out the win with a banked-in three, a genius cross-court feed to Svi Mykhailiuk in the opposite corner, and the last triple that closed the book on the Sixers.
VanVleet has been the best player all season for the Raptors, and they can always count on him.
Three — VanVleet’s current averages are eerily similar to that of Kyle Lowry at the same age. The age-27 year was Lowry’s breakout and the first time he was given sole command over a team, just as it is for VanVleet. They’re both at 18 points, seven assists, five rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting roughly 43 per cent from the field and 38 per cent from three to go along with heady defence.
The Raptors have been blessed to go from Lowry at the helm for a decade to now having VanVleet grow into the role. The one quality most similar between the two players is their fearlessness. VanVleet sliced through the trees on offence while gnawing away at bigs below the basket with his heavy hands, just in the same way that Lowry would always fight to keep the Raptors in games.
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Four — OG Anunoby threw two perfect passes to ensure the victory. Both times he drove into the paint, drawing multiple defenders with him, before kicking it to the opposite corner. On the first play with the Raptors down two, Anunoby used a screen from Precious Achiuwa and got all the way under the basket before throwing it to the corner trusting that Gary Trent Jr. would duck down to the corner and be open for the shot which he was.
The next trip down, Anunoby grabbed the rebound and was initially planning to walk it up slowly, except he realized that Andre Drummond was tracking him in transition and so Anunoby quickened his pace to ensure the mismatch, before getting past Drummond easily off the dribble and getting the crosscourt feed to VanVleet.
Five — The Raptors are successful playing through VanVleet and Anunoby as the two pillars of their offence and should keep it that way. There is the question of how Pascal Siakam slots in, but right now the answer should be clear he’s third behind the other two.
The offence lost its rhythm in losses to the Nets and Celtics when the Raptors tried to clear out for Siakam. While a large part of that is rust from his injury, there’s also not as much of a need to feature him in that way as the Raptors did in previous seasons. VanVleet and Anunoby are routinely seeing extra defenders, and it’s up to the rest of the team to slot in around them, which includes Siakam.
Six — This was the Chris Boucher that everyone was waiting for. Boucher carried the Raptors’ scoring off the bench, pouring in 17 points in 24 minutes, which was more than he contributed in the last six games combined. Boucher started slowly, but was pivotal in the Raptors’ third quarter run which saw them reverse a nine-point deficit and create a lead that lasted until late in the fourth.
Boucher was running hard on the break, which accounted for five of his seven baskets, and he mixed in a three to beat the buzzer and two impressive blocks to boot. Nurse went to Boucher early in the first quarter and played him at centre for the first time this season, which was a return to his role last season before he was reassigned as a wing player. That seemed to get Boucher settled in the flow, as he was able to use his speed advantage against centres that wouldn’t otherwise exist when he’s matched up with wings.
Seven — Nick Nurse managed this game perfectly. He went to Boucher off the bench after the first timeout in the first quarter, and showed trust in a struggling player and was promptly rewarded. Nurse then shifted to a zone for much of the third quarter which cut the Sixers’ dribble penetration while also allowing them to stack extra bodies on Drummond in the paint. In the fourth quarter, Nurse rode Boucher as long as he could before replacing him with Mykhailiuk, and he contributed with a three off an incisive pass from VanVleet, created two turnovers, and won a crucial offensive rebound that resulted in a three for the Raptors.
Many of the decisions looked to be on the flow, but that’s what makes Nurse such a successful coach because he’s able to make in-game adjustments to affect the outcome.
Eight — Another key adjustment was Nurse prioritizing defence over offence in the second unit. The Raptors are short on outside shooting, and Nurse’s compromise has been to keep at least two shooters on at once, which can sometimes become difficult when he goes to the second unit since three of his four best shooters are in the starting five.
To compensate, Nurse has gone to Malachi Flynn for short stretches in recent weeks, but the better option is simply to double down on size and defence instead. Nurse went with a lineup with VanVleet as the only shooter with Dalano Banton as the other guard, Barnes as the three, and with Boucher and Achiuwa in the frontcourt. Naturally, that lineup struggled to score, but the Sixers had just as hard of a time scoring against them, and that allowed the Raptors to hold the lead while also buying the starters a breather.
Nine — Barnes’ instincts are so sharp for a player of his experience. There was a gorgeous give-and-go sequence with VanVleet where Barnes worked for early post position in transition, caught the feed from VanVleet, instantly touch passed it back to VanVleet cutting through, who then kicked it out to Achiuwa wide open at the top of the floor. Unfortunately, the shot was nowhere close to falling in, but Barnes smartly got to the baseline and anticipated the miss before finishing the putback.
Ten — Trent Jr. had a quietly excellent game with 20 points and four assists. That included a promising stretch in the fourth quarter where Trent Jr. was briefly entrusted as the de facto point guard, and he got two great shots out of the pick and roll.
First, he circled downhill off a screen from Boucher, baited the help defender towards him, before serving up a perfect lob for Boucher to finish. The next trip down when Trent Jr. called for another Boucher screen, the Sixers were more conscious of the pass to the roller so they sagged back, and Trent Jr. promptly pulled up for three.
The next step in Trent Jr.’s blossoming game is to add in the playmaking aspect to complement his scoring.