The Toronto Raptors are not going down without a fight.
The Raps survived a second elimination game with the Philadelphia 76ers Monday night, earning a dominant 103-88 victory on the road to force a Game 6 back in Canada. And they did it without their all-star point guard, Fred VanVleet.
Pascal Siakam was hot for Toronto again, scoring 23 points with to go with 10 rebounds and seven assists – another big performance after being criticized for his lack of aggressiveness earlier in the series. Precious Achiuwa had 17 points and seven boards off the bench in one of his finest games yet. OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. each had 16 points. Scottie Barnes contributed 12 points with eight rebounds, three steals and four assists.
Philly’s seven-foot superstar Joel Embiid posted 20 points and 11 rebounds, playing with a torn ligament in his thumb that will require surgery after the season. Tobias Harris had 16 points, and James Harden was held to 15.
Now this is a series.
Philadelphia’s fans sensed early that Toronto would make the series 3-2. They headed to the exits early.
This first-round NBA playoff series has taken an astonishing turn in recent days. The 76ers crushed the Raps big in Games 1 and 2. Then last Wednesday, they beat them just narrowly in Game 3, by three points in overtime. The Raps appeared ripe to be swept, but they survived Saturday’s Game 4, despite VanVleet leaving the game injured. They did it again on Monday, this time on the road.
Game 6 will take place Thursday at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena. A possible Game 7 would swing back to Philadelphia on Saturday. Only 14 teams in NBA history have been able to force a Game 6 after falling into 3-0 hole. No NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven playoff series.
VanVleet missed the game with a strained left hip flexor. He had limped off the court in the second quarter of Game 4. VanVleet said the hip had been bothering him periodically this season, but he felt a pop during Saturday’s game. He spent Monday’s game on the Raptors bench in street clothes.
“Hopefully we can extend this thing and I would feel great about maybe playing in the next round,” VanVleet told reporters in Philadelphia Monday morning. “Nobody believes we can do it, but I think we can. I’m going to stay positive and get as much rehab as I can.”
Barnes, the NBA’s rookie of the year, started in place of VanVleet, with regular starters Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Trent Jr. Khem Birch got the start at the five spot – the position where Barnes usually starts.
Trent Jr. had a nine-point first quarter to lead the Raps to a 29-27 lead going into the second.
The visitors quickly stretched that lead to 12 points inside the second quarter, taking advantage of Philly’s misses. The 76ers didn’t even make a field goal for the first five minutes of that quarter.
The Raptors were without VanVleet – their floor leader, their best play-maker, one of the few guys with NBA championship experience. They were challenged depth-wise because of his absence, but it didn’t show in their play. Barnes had a big eight-point second quarter. Toronto made use of its big lineup off the bench, bringing in Precious Achiuwa, Thad Young, and Chris Boucher, and they provided big energy – including blocks, scoring and rebounds.
“We play as hard as we can, we listen to each other and no one man is bigger than the team,” said Young, who had three, points, three boards, three assists and a steal. “That’s why we’re able to go out there and win basketball games, why we’re able to get ourselves back in this series.”
The Raps looked completely in control in that stretch. They were swarming on defence, and creating turnovers. They were limiting Harden. The 76ers made just five of their 22 second-quarter shots from the field. Toronto built a confident-looking 13-point lead by halftime.
They kept Embiid off the free-throw line, and the big man from Cameroon didn’t look his usual explosive self for Philly. Nor did Harden, Tyrese Maxey, nor Matisse Thybulle.
Meanwhile fellow Cameroon native Siakam had a third-quarter scoring burst for the Raps. Toronto’s 6-foot-9 Achiuwa went off for eight fast points, some of them earned going straight at Embiid. The Raps took an eight-point lead into the final quarter.
“It’s kind of been like the regular season for us -- we had a lot of guys in and out of the lineups and we always kind of like figured it out,” said Siakam. “We have a good solid game plan, guys coming off the bench executing the game plan, and everyone is kind of like stepping up their level a little bit.”
Barnes, who had missed two games with a sprained ankle, looked another game stronger. Trent Jr., who was sick earlier, is fully back to health. Young, who injured a thumb, has healed and emerged in the series. This gives Nurse more flexibility in the rotation.
Back home in Toronto, a raucous crowd gathered outside the Raptors’ home arena, watching on the video board and hoping and cheering, despite the rain.
The 76ers brought some fight in the fourth quarter. They chipped Toronto’s lead to single digits at one point. But the Raps dug in their heels. They kept creating turnovers and building that lead back up.
Soon Philadelphia head coach Doc Rivers called his stars off the floor, signaled way down the bench and called in his reserves to finish out the game.
Toronto Coach Nick Nurse explained that in the first two games of the series all four of their core defensive principles were lacking: transition, ball pressure, shot contesting and rebounding. Nurse says improving in those areas has made a world of difference for the Raps since.
“That’s our four foundational principles, and we’ve just gotten so much better at all four of those,” said Nurse. “Then it allows us to get our defense set and then we can get to, some of the schemes and things.”
The Raptors and 76ers will square off at 7 p.m. ET at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday.