When the Toronto Raptors had a hefty second-half lead in Philadelphia during Monday’s Game 5, many 76ers fans packed up early and began heading for the exits. The Raptors were about to avoid elimination for a second straight game and Philly’s arena was turning from raucous to empty.
“I was asking them where they were going,” said Raptors forward Chris Boucher after Wednesday’s practice, with a chuckle.
“A lot of the fans were in the back of the bench and they were talking reckless to be honest with you. If they had won the game, I bet they would [have] said a lot of stuff. Fortunately they didn’t, and fortunately for us, we did. So me and Precious [Achiuwa] had a good time talking back to them.”
During the first two games of this playoff series – both dominant wins by the 76ers in Philadelphia – few would have imagined the Raptors were capable of bouncing back to earn such a satisfying moment. When the Raptors left Philly the first time, beat down and trailing 2-0, it looked like they were doomed for a sweep. Yet their next trip to Philadelphia saw them stretch the series to six games and heckle back at Philly fans.
After swinging the momentum of their best-of-seven series dramatically, the Raptors trail 3-2 and host Game 6 on Thursday, subjecting Joel Embiid and his 76ers to jeering Toronto fans yet again. The rivalry is swelling.
In Games 1 and 2, the Raptors looked flat. In Game 3, they looked far better but lost on a buzzer-beater in overtime. They won Games 4 and 5.
“I feel like we always get a couple slaps in the face before we start playing well,” Boucher said. “Game 3, I think it really helped us realize what we need to do, and losing like that really opens your eyes.”
When Raptors head coach Nick Nurse analyses the series so far, he says his team was “discombobulated” in the first two games, hit hard by the ankle injury to Scottie Barnes, the thumb injury to Thaddeus Young and Gary Trent Jr.’s illness. They were failing at all four of their defensive basics: transition, ball pressure, shot contesting and rebounding. Since Game 3, the Raptors have reversed all of those factors. That game was a turning point.
“We came out on the wrong side of [Game 3], but I think we certainly knew that now we were capable,” Nurse said. “A good amount of courage I think our guys have shown here in these last three games.”
Players getting their first substantial NBA playoff minutes – including Barnes and Achiuwa – have grown more comfortable. The young team is growing up in this postseason. It has adapted as the series wears on, and is still adding new wrinkles.
The blossoming on-court connectivity between Boucher and NBA veteran Thaddeus Young is an example. Young set him up repeatedly for scoring opportunities in Game 5, hitting Boucher with perfect passes as he cut to the hoop.
The Raptors’ average age is just 24.6 years old.
“Everybody was like, ‘Okay, they’re young and how long it’s gonna take for them to figure it out?’” Boucher said. “You can tell that when the pieces are put together, we can be a really good team, and especially when our backs are against the wall.”
No NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit and won a best-of-seven playoff series. The Raptors’ attitude, as Nurse put it, is “What do we have to lose?”
Playing hobbled or short-handed isn’t new to this team.
“It’s everything we’ve been through all year – whether it’s injuries, whether it’s COVID protocols,” Trent Jr. said. “We weathered the storm every time.”
The Raptors are still playing without all-star point guard Fred VanVleet (injured hip), but leaning on other players to fill his many roles. Pascal Siakam and Barnes are bringing the ball up the floor more frequently in his absence. Barnes has been able to step in as point guard since he was a high schooler.
“It’s not really different for me. I’ve always been doing it,” said Barnes, the NBA rookie of the year. “Really just trying to get everybody involved.”
Without the vocal VanVleet on the floor, Siakam has stepped up even more in that category. Boucher said it’s “beautiful” to witness Siakam’s growth on the court and as a person this year, particularly in the way he leads other teammates.
“I think he’s figuring out so many ways of how to approach them, and when to approach them,” Boucher said. “When we won a championship he was doing [it] on the court but he was not quite ready to be a leader when it came to approaching players. But now I feel like he has a combination of both and it’s really amazing to see.”
Nurse says the Raptors aren’t thinking too much about the possibility of making history. He says they’re not an overly emotional team, maybe because they’ve flown under the radar.
“The expectations were not super low, but they’re pretty low, right? And we just weren’t sure who we were. We were kind of a funky roster, playing a funky style of basketball,” said Nurse, noting the win streaks they’ve been able to put together this season. “We’ve been trying to get better and better, to get to this time of year.”