The Raptors are heading home to Toronto, hoping to save their season.
Joel Embiid troubled the short-handed Raptors for 31 points and 11 rebounds as the 76ers won 112-97 on Monday in Philadelphia, taking an imposing 2-0 lead in their first-round best-of-seven NBA playoff series. The Raps will need to change the tone of the series at home.
OG Anunoby had 26 points to lead the Raptors, while Pascal Siakam added 20 with 10 rebounds. Fred VanVleet had 20 points with seven assists. Chris Boucher was a bright spot, providing 17 points and eight boards off the bench.
“I’m always gonna take responsibility for our team’s performance, and we didn’t get the win, so just put the blame on me,” said VanVleet, who had a hot first quarter before cooling off. “I’ll speak for myself -- I didn’t answer that call tonight…it’s probably gonna take a little bit better performances out of myself to get us over the hump.”
For a second straight game, Tyrese Maxey was big for the 76ers, scoring 23 points. Tobias Harris got loose for 20 points and 10 rebounds, while James Harden had 14 points, with six assists.
Embiid went to the free throw line 14 times and made 12 of those shots. He quipped to Toronto Coach Nick Nurse in the closing seconds of Monday’s game that if the Raps keep fouling him, he’ll keep making the free throws.
Nurse’s response to the NBA’s MVP finalist: “You might have to.”
This is the seventh time since 2015 that the Raptors have lost the first two games of a playoff series. The club came back to win just one of those series – the 2019 Eastern Conference Finls against the Milwaukee Bucks, which they sewed up 4-2.
Game 3 is scheduled for Wednesday night at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, and Game 4 will take place there Saturday. The health of a few of its players remains in question.
Toronto’s Scottie Barnes missed Monday’s game with a sprained left ankle, suffered in Game 1 when Embiid came down on his foot. He sat on the bench with his injured foot in a medical boot. The star rookie’s return remains up in the air.
Without Barnes, the Raptors started Precious Achiuwa (seven points, six rebounds) at centre, alongside VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby. It was nothing new to Achiuwa, who started 28 games during the regular season.
It seemed the Raps might be missing three rotational players, but only Barnes sat out.
Thaddeus Young, who left Game 1 after spraining his thumb in Game 1, was back on the court Monday, playing through the injury. He contributed two points and two rebounds.
Trent Jr. played for a half through an illness that had sidelined him from Sunday’s practice (the team said it wasn’t COVID).
The Raptors had some pep early in the night, storming out to an 11-2 start right off the tip.
They seemed to be sending Embiid a message early: they wouldn’t be pushed around. Within the first few minutes of the first quarter, he and Anunoby were sharing pushes; and Siakam thrust his body into Philly’s 7-footer as he drove for the basket, sending the 76ers big man hurdling to the floor.
VanVleet came out hot – pouring in 15 first-quarter points, including four three-pointers. Embiid matched him at the other end though, putting in 19 in the opening quarter, often forcing his way to the free throw line.
The Raptors kept it close until mid-way through the second quarter, trading runs. But then the Raps began shooting cold – going through a costly 1-for-11 stretch. Even with Embiid off the floor taking a breather, the Raps couldn’t capitalize. Trent Jr. got into foul trouble.
Before the game, Nurse admitted his team needed to hold its ground much better defensively. But he also minced no words in criticizing the officiating in Game 1. He said the Raptors expect physical basketball in the playoffs, but there is a way to play physical within the rules if the game is being officiated correctly. He said “I hope that they’ve got enough guts to at least stop the game and look at that stuff tonight”, referring to two uncalled shots to the head of Raptors players in Game 1.
After Game 2, Nurse still wasn’t thrilled.
“There was another open handed slap to the face that again, I don’t understand why they will not call them,” said Nurse after Monday’s game. “But other than that, at least there wasn’t as many elbows thrown to the face tonight that that we had to endure.”
The 76ers outscored Toronto 35-19 in the quarter and held a commanding lead by half-time – 67-52.
As the game went on, the Raptors’ shooting grew ice cold. Even VanVleet who could barely miss early in the night couldn’t hit much of anything. Trent Jr. left the game due to the illness, scoreless on 0-for-3 shooting, not looking at all like himself.
“We probably should have held him out,” said Nurse after the game. “But he went out there and tried.”
The Raptors struggled to replace the many things Barnes does -- including handling the ball like another point guard at times, rebounding and scoring in the paint. Toronto called on Malachi Flynn to help with ball-handling and defending Tyrese Maxey. He was the only extra guy to be added to the rotation, which remained at nine players for a second game.
They fell into a 27 point hole. The Raptors didn’t slink away though. They didn’t pull their stars out of the game. They mounted a 15-0 run in the fourth quarter, hacking away at the ugly deficit. Boucher added a big spark of energy in a solid quarter, and so did Anunoby.
But it wasn’t enough. They will have to be much better to get a win off Philly.
“We brought a lot more fight tonight,” said VanVleet. “And that’s something that we can build on going forward.”