Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 125-121 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the seventh of eight seeding games ahead of the 2020 NBA playoffs.
One — Eventful: Life is about finding joy in the little things, especially when a global pandemic confines the entire scope of life to inside a small slice of Disneyland. This game was supposed to be another meaningless scrimmage as the Raptors rested OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka, and even head coach Nick Nurse took a night off. The Sixers held Joel Embiid out of the second half. The entire fourth quarter was played out by the reserves, and yet, judging by the scenes of jubilation at the end, you would have thought Kawhi Leonard hit the dagger all over again.
Two — Redemption: To say this was a disaster season for Stanley Johnson would be an understatement. Nurse called him out in preseason. He couldn’t sniff the rotation. In the scant minutes he did get, Johnson played with the despair of someone that knew he wouldn’t get another chance. The former No. 8 pick sat for so long on the bench that he volunteered for the G-League multiple times just to stay engaged, and months later, his moment finally came. Johnson keyed the comeback, assisting on two threes, recording a chasedown block, getting to the foul line, tying it up on a drive, and finally, the game-winning putback. The Raptors celebrated as if they had just repeated, and it was a deserving moment for a player who took more lumps than anyone this year. You thought this game didn’t matter? Tell that to Johnson and his teammates.
HOW CAN YOU NOT LOVE THIS TEAM pic.twitter.com/mBHW1caW6x— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) August 13, 2020
Three — Clutch: Johnson was the central figure, but the glory of the comeback should be shared with the rest of the third-stringers. Dewan Hernandez saw his first NBA minutes since December, and showed out with a graceful drive to the basket, a fake leading to a score, and a three from the top. Paul Watson Jr. took it in strong for a driving layup. Matt Thomas finally got one to drop at the end with a three to tie.
Four — Chemistry: The comeback wouldn’t have happened without the Raptors’ starters being so engaged. Veteran leaders like Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet formed the most expensive cheerleading troop ever, as they willed the third stringers every step of the way. The Sixers bench were up, too, with Embiid and Al Horford barking back and forth, and it made for an electric atmosphere inside an otherwise empty auditorium. To quote Raptors broadcaster Jack Armstrong, “they must be really bored inside that bubble.”
Five — Milestone: In making the comeback, the Raptors secured the first NBA win for assistant coach Adrian Griffin. Nurse approached Griffin before the game with the idea to coach, saying that he wanted to give him some valuable experience, and Griffin accepted the challenge. It’s hard to take anything away from just one game, but Griffin looked natural at the wheels. He even got a chance to draw up the game-winning play, although Brett Brown gave him a gift by sending a hard double team at half-court, which Johnson easily dribbled out of before setting up his go-ahead move. The only regret is that the Raptors failed to secure the game ball for Griffin, but there will be more chances in the future. Griffin is as experienced as they come in the NBA, having played and coached for over 20 years, and judging by their effort tonight, it’s clear that his players adore him.
Six — Repeat: It’s the same old story with Embiid and Marc Gasol. With Ben Simmons sidelined, Embiid got his wish to be the go-to scorer, and he got a hefty diet of post-ups against Gasol. Embiid normally has his way down there, but Gasol matches him for brute strength, and it’s always fun to see the sumo matches that take place on the left block. Embiid overpowered Gasol once on a hook shot, but Gasol had bested him earlier with a soft pirouette jumper. It was a fun battle with a clear winner — Embiid shot 1-of-4 with five turnovers.
Seven — Lively: For Gasol’s part, it was promising effort on offense. Embiid shut down driving lanes by sagging back, and dared Gasol to make him pay. Gasol did just that with two threes, a turnaround jumper, and a midrange look off a pick-and-roll. Gasol will need more games like this, especially because teams increasingly ignore the future Hall-of-Famer on defense due to his selflessness. For his part, even though the scoring remains rare, Gasol does look more capable and willing to attack since shedding the weight.
Eight — Encouraging: Chris Boucher continues to make a case for why Nurse and Griffin should include him in the rotation when the playoffs start. Boucher followed up his career-high of 25 points with 19 points and five blocks in tonight’s win. Boucher was lights out from deep, hitting four threes and a baseline jumper to boot, in addition to his standard highlight rejections. If that three drops with consistency (he’s near 30 percent on the year) there is a path to Boucher finding minutes at backup power forward in lineups with two bigs. If Ibaka and Gasol can share time together, Boucher should also fit.
WELCOME TO THE BOUCHER BLOCK PARTY pic.twitter.com/gcLcjryEP3— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) August 13, 2020
Nine — Strange: It’s mildly concerning to see Siakam continue to struggle — he scored 15 points on 4-of-15 shooting with just 3-of-7 from the free-throw line — but he’s mostly just in a shooting slump. Siakam’s aggression was good today, but he just missed so many makeable shots. His touch inside the paint is not there, while he’s actually still hitting a respectable amount of threes. The most important thing for him right now is confidence. He needs to stick it, because the shots will eventually drop.
Ten — Mystery: Given how this game went, there’s a decent chance that most of the rotation gets the night off against the Denver Nuggets on Friday in the last seeding game. The Raptors have proved their point — they won six games and secured the two seed despite playing one of the hardest schedules in the bubble — and have mostly remained healthy. Let’s hope Stanley Johnson has more in the tank.
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