TORONTO — Things started to get interesting after the Raptors lost the first three games of their playoff series in the opening round with Philadelphia last spring.
With two convincing wins under their belt, they seemed poised to do something very few teams in their position have ever done: force a winner-take-all Game 7.
Then Game 6 happened. The Raptors were embarrassed on their home court and were blown out by 35 points as Joel Embiid celebrated and sent them into the offseason with a sour taste in their mouth.
Although head coach Nick Nurse came to camp with virtually the same roster, he hasn’t revisited that game or spent much time talking about the series as a whole. However, it was in the back of my mind; informing some of the things he has been emphasizing in the new season.
“I don’t think we played very well in that last game of the series,” Nurse said ahead of Wednesday’s competition, the first of two back-to-back games against the rival 76ers. “If you lose one like that as a coach, you have to think about it all summer. Our whole thing is that we have to play D hard and we have to carry out our plans. If we don’t do one or the other, we probably won’t be good at D. If we do both, we will be very, very good.”
After that six-game crash course in defense of one of the league’s most dynamic attacking duos, Embiid and James Harden, they were better prepared to execute their game plan Wednesday night.
The numbers don’t necessarily reflect it. Philadelphia shot 51 percent, including 16 to 36 from three-point range. Embiid scored 31 on 12 out of 17, although at times it seemed like an altruistic 31. He, Harden and third-year star Tyrese Maxey combined for 80 points. But the Raptors set out to make them uncomfortable, and they succeeded for most of the night.
“I was super happy with the defence,” said Nurse after his club’s impressive 119-109 victory, which improved their tally to 3-2.
Without a big man to match Embiid’s sheer size or strength, Toronto sent multiple defenders his way whenever and wherever he caught the ball. Last but not least, it put pressure on him to read faster, and unlike most of last year’s playoff series, the Raptors did a good job of flying around and recovering from shooters.
Coming from a time-out early in the fourth quarter — giving up at least 50 pounds in the matchup — Christian Koloko confronted Embiid with the post and deflected an entry pass, resulting in a fast-break dunk for the Raptors’ rookie. A few minutes later, OG Anunoby headed off a Sixers pass also intended for Embiid and turned the switch into a couple of free throws. When Embiid was off the court, they showed Harden the same defensive pressure, doubling it up at the top of the arc and giving off difficult looks in the corner.
The Raptors only forced 13 turnovers, which was low by their standards, but they converted it to 21 points. Part of that can be attributed to Philadelphia’s shaky transition defense, but that’s how Nurse wants to play.
“We certainly still have work to do, but the effort is there,” said Fred VanVleet, who scored ten of his 15 points in the fourth quarter. “We’ll probably never play a perfect game, but I thought we had mostly executed the game plan.”
Of course, having shots fall the way they were helps open up the campaign. On Wednesday, Toronto hit 16 of its 37 three-point attempts. When PJ Tucker went under the screens and played the red hot Pascal Siakam to drive, the Raptors forward made him pay and knocked down his first four threes. As the defense adjusted in the second half, Siakam became the playmaker, assisting on some of Gary Trent Jr.’s four three-pointers in the third quarter.
A year ago, the Raptors shot 35 percent from beyond the arc, good for 20th in the league. In the preseason they shot 24 percent. In five games this season, they are the third-best in the NBA at 41 percent. While the sample size is small and some regression is due, that opens things up for offense as guys like Siakam and Scottie Barnes continue to show improvements in their jumpers.
Say what you will about the Sixers, who have lost four of their first five games and don’t look quite right to start the year, but this was the Raptors’ most complete performance of the young season. They never blow things up, but they were also in control all the time.
“We feel like one of the best teams and [have the] best players wherever we go,” said Trent, who had a team-high 27 points and was one of six Raptors to score in double digits. “We put our five against anyone’s five, we should be good.”
“We’re going to win, but at the same time we’re not satisfied,” said Siakam after his night of 20 points and 13 assists. “We know a team like that will come back and make adjustments next game. We have to be prepared for that.”
Midway through the first quarter, Koloko checked in for the Raptors and joined compatriots Siakam and Embiid on the floor. It was a special moment because it was the first time in league history that three Cameroon-born players had appeared in the same NBA game.
“It’s a pretty big deal, I’d like to think,” Siakam said earlier on Wednesday. “It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. And to think we still have a long way to go [away], but I think we are making good strides forward. It is great.”
Siakam and Koloko both grew up in Douala, Cameroon’s most populous city on the Atlantic coast. Embiid comes from Yaoundé, about 230 kilometers to the east. All three are Basketball Without Borders alumni, and Embiid was a coach at Camp 2017 in South Africa, which Koloko attended as a camper.
It’s not the size of their hometowns that makes their unlikely journey to the pros so remarkable — Douala has a population of about three million people, about the same as Toronto. Instead, it’s the infrastructure. Douala produced two NBA players, even though the school Koloko attended only had an indoor concrete-floored basketball court.
The talent is there and with the success these guys are having at the highest level of the sport, interest is rising across the country. Despite this, the playing conditions have not improved significantly. With the help of his foundation, Siakam wants to change this and expand the game at home.
“We’re working on a lot of things and we hope we can continue to draw attention to the game,” said the All-NBA forward. “This generation, we hope more people will come there, but I think the younger generation will probably benefit more.”
The hope is that their success stories and the joint appearance of all three on the pitch can help inspire the next generation.
“Hopefully it means something [to them]’ Saikam said. “Just having this representation that we don’t really have for ourselves most of the time. I haven’t watched basketball that much [growing up] but when I did I didn’t really see many people who were from where I was from. Just seeing that in one game, three people in one place, that’s huge. And hopefully younger kids want to dream of being in the NBA because it feels like something you can touch and feel because we do.
Wednesday night’s game between Toronto and Philadelphia began Thursday morning at 00:30 in Cameroon. Koloko recalls staying up all night as a teenager to watch live matches. The West Coast games wouldn’t end until after 5 a.m. local time, just before he had to go to school.
“You watch the game and get about 30 minutes of sleep,” Koloko said. “Sometimes you don’t even sleep because you know you don’t wake up when you sleep, so you just go to school and your eyes are red. It’s just for the love of the game, man. I have a feeling a lot of people will definitely do that tonight.”
Shortly before the tip, the NBA announced that Masai Ujiri, president and vice chairman of the Raptors, had been fined $35,000 for approaching the scorer table and during Toronto’s loss to the Heat in Miami on made inappropriate remarks to an official on Saturday.
That was of course an eventful night. Koloko was sent off and subsequently fined $15,000 for his role in a court altercation with Heat forward Caleb Martin. Upon review, it was clear that the rookie’s “role” in the slugfest was to stand up after Martin stood over him and taunted him, and then put his arm on Martin’s back for support as he pushed into the stands became.
The incident sparked a comeback from the Raptors, cutting a 24-point deficit to three in the final minute before falling short.
So, yes, you can see why Ujiri might have had a few things he needed to get rid of.
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