A series doesn’t start until you lose a game on your homecourt, the old saw goes, but the Toronto Raptors were giving up a little ‘backs against the wall’ energy in the lead up to the second game of their first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse had the gamesmanship cranked to 11 before Game 2, just in case.
Nurse ditched his folksy, friendly, ‘ol ball coach routine that he sticks to through most regular-season situations and got right to the point before the ball went up.
“We’ve got to survive some of the physicality out there,” said Nurse, answering an only tangentially related question with a clear statement for his own purposes. “You heard me saying it after the game: we got ran over a bunch when we were legal, which was true. There were several shots to the face, which I don’t understand [why they] were not reviewed. There were three: one was called and reviewed; there were two others, one to the back of the head, there was a slap to the face. I hope they’ve got enough guts to at least stop the game and look at that stuff tonight. I don’t mind physicality and we expect it to get physical. We’ve got to be able to handle it.”
And a moment later:
“I just want to reiterate: To me, it’s the playoffs, and it’s gonna be physical. There are ways within the rules of the game to be able to play physical basketball. We’ve got to be able to do those and be on par or exceed, match their physicality. That part I think we can do. We may need some help with the other parts that aren’t within the confines of the game.”
Who did Nurse hope was listening?
His own team, surely, it’s unlikely he wouldn’t have made the same comments to them about the need to keep their nose stuck in even given the very realistic possibility that massive Sixers centre Joel Embiid might whack it, even by accident.
The referees? Obviously. The Raptors are underdogs against the Sixers, and massively bigger ones if Embiid gets to roam around like Goliath among the Davids.
And hey, maybe the league office too.
But the bigger takeaway was Nurse wasn’t letting the game unfold at its leisure or taking what the defence was giving him. He was on offence 90 minutes before the game started.
It will be recorded as a valiant attempt to somehow even the playing field for his undersized, short-handed team against a top-heavy Sixers club with championship expectations and some apparent momentum.
But it didn’t work. The Raptors took Nurse’s cue and showed plenty of early spark and early fight and in the end didn’t have a thing to show for it as for the second time in as many starts, Toronto was blown out, this time 112-97 in a game that was mostly over by the end of the third quarter as the Raptors were trailing by 24 to start the fourth and had trailed by as much as 29 in the third quarter.
Toronto can hope that they found something with a 13-0 run midway through the fourth that was built on eight consecutive stops – by far their most promising defensive flurry in the series so far – that cut the Sixers’ lead to 11 with 6:48 to play, but a turnover after a slip by Precious Achiuwa and transition three by Sixers breakout star Tyrese Maxey sparked an 8-0 run punctuated by a fast-break dunk by former Raptor Danny Green, of all people, and it was a wrap.
The Raptors were led by OG Anunoby with 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting while Chris Boucher added 17 points off the bench, but Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam combined to shoot 14-of-43 and the Raptors attack stalled with them.
Toronto did win the turnover battle 14-9 and had a 13-7 edge in offensive rebounds – two important keys for them – but that wasn’t enough to make up for the Sixers 30-12 edge in free throw attempts and connecting on 14 threes on 30 attempts to 11-of-32 for Toronto.
The Sixers got another big game from Maxey who followed up his 38 points in Game 1 with 23 points, nine rebounds and eight assists on Monday night. Embiid finished with 31 points and 11 rebounds as all five Sixers starters finished in double figures.
Scottie Barnes (ankle) didn’t play for the Raptors and while Gary Trent Jr. (non-COVID illness) and Thad Young (thumb) did try and go, they had no impact and Trent Jr. eventually left the bench after going scoreless in 10 minutes.
They now get to test that old playoff adage about series not getting real until someone loses at home. But the flipside is also true: if the Raptors don’t win in Game 3 on Wednesday night, they aren’t going to win the series either.
Nurse was trying to coach as much as he could and he started early.
The gamesmanship continued with Trent Jr., Young and Barnes all being described as doubtful for Game 2. Anyone with eyes could guess that Barnes would be out after badly spraining his ankle, and probably for a lot more than a single game.
But Trent Jr. and Young missing time with an undefined illness and a sprained thumb seemed like a little bit of a ruse, and sure enough, it was, as both were deemed ready to go at the last possible minute.
As well, for one of the few times this season when Khem Birch has been available, Nurse opted to start Precious Achiuwa over the veteran Montrealer in place of Barnes.
Nurse spelling it out in big block letters: this game is important.
To the Raptors’ credit, their coach’s pre-game energy translated. The game was 90 seconds old when Embiid tried to manhandle Anunoby on a dead ball situation. Anunoby shoved right back and shoved again. The referees handed out double technical but it was well worth it, from the Raptors’ point of view. On Embiid’s first touch Anunoby and Achiuwa combined on a hard double team, and a moment after that Siakam took a hard foul on Embiid, putting the Philly big man on the floor. Throw in three quick threes and an aggressive drive by Achiuwa and the Raptors were up 11-2 early.
But there was a price, and it came in the form of two quick fouls on both Siakam and Anunoby, and a fired-up Embiid and early trips to the foul line – the Sixers were in bonus with 5:38 gone in the first quarter before the Sixers had been called for their first foul. The Sixers answered the Raptors quick start with a 16-2 run to calm the waters. But the Raptors kept pushing. VanVleet was seeking out Embiid on switches and firing threes from deep every chance he got. He finished the quarter with 15 points and four triples. Siakam had three assists and Achiuwa, Anunoby and Chris Boucher all made their presence felt. The Raptors led 33-32, even though Embiid had 19 points and was 11-of-12 from the line in his first 12 minutes.
But all the good mojo sputtered out – strangely enough – when Embiid when to the bench to start the second quarter.
That’s always been the time for Sixers opponents to shine, the Raptors know it better than anyone. When the Raptors defeated Philadelphia in the second round in 2019, Toronto won the non-Embiid minutes by 108 points in seven games.
The Raptors didn’t take advantage in Game 1 – they lost the Sixers 11 non-Embiid minutes by four points – but with so many other things happening it didn’t feel like the critical difference in the game.
But in Game 2 the Sixers went on a 15-4 run early in the second quarter with Embiid out, sparked by former Green knocking in a pair of threes. Once again Sixers guard and Game 1 hero Maxey turned on the gas and added eight quick ones. But the time Embiid checked back in midway through the second period, the Sixers were up 11 after winning the minutes their big centre was on the bench 23-11.
According to Sixers writer Derek Bodner, the +12 mark at half would be the largest margin Philadelphia has ever had in the minutes Embiid has sat during his playoff career.
By the time halftime rolled around Toronto was trailing 67-52, but it felt like more. VanVleet played the entire first half, but after his first-quarter explosion, shot just 1-of-9 in the second quarter and 0-of-6 from deep as Toronto shot 8-of-23 for period. Siakam and Achiuwa’s minutes were over 21 minutes played too.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia was shooting 55 per cent from the floor, had a 23-7 edge in free throw attempts, getting secondary scoring outside their two superstars and controlling the offensive rebounding and turnover battle.
It was hard not to feel like Nurse was running out of buttons to push. He’ll need to find some new ones for Game 3. It won’t be easy.