PHILADELPHIA – Belief is a powerful thing, and the Raptors believe they can do something that’s never been done before.
They believe they can make history, and the scary thing for Philadelphia and its tortured fan base is that the Sixers may be starting to believe it as well.
In the history of the NBA, 146 teams have fallen behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series. To this point, none of them have come back to win the series, but after its improbable Game 5 victory, undermanned and in hostile territory on the road, Toronto is halfway there.
You could feel the nervous energy in the building as the crowd at Wells Fargo Center watched the Raptors scrap and claw their way back into a series that seemed all but over a few short days ago.
The last time they were in Philly, they were embarrassed in a pair of blowout losses to open the series. Game 3 was theirs to lose; they led wire-to-wire through regulation before falling apart in overtime and giving up the dagger to Joel Embiid. That was supposed to be it for this plucky Raptors team and its fun, feel-good season.
But why would they start playing down to the odds now? They’ve spent the last seven months or so defying them and proving people wrong. If nothing else, we should’ve known better than to think they would go out quietly.
“I’m not surprised at all,” the newest Raptor, trade deadline acquisition and 15-year veteran Thaddeus Young said after his team’s 103-88 win cut Philadelphia’s series lead to 3-2 on Monday. “These guys from Day 1 when I got here seemed like a great group of guys who are very poised… We go out there and we play as hard as we can, everybody listens to each other, no one man is bigger than the team and that’s why we’re able to go out there and win basketball games. That’s why we’re able to get ourselves back into this series and continue to fight each and every night.”
James Harden opened the scoring less than 20 seconds into the game to give Philadelphia the first lead of the night. It was also their last. Once OG Anunoby evened the score a few seconds later and Pascal Siakam put Toronto on top with a three-pointer one minute in, the Raptors remained in control for the duration.
It was fitting, given all the adversity they’ve faced this year, and with all the talk of their funky and unconventional roster, that they did it all without their all-star and starting point guard on the floor. With Fred VanVleet nursing a hip strain and forced to watch from the bench, the Raptors fully embraced position-less basketball.
Already without a traditional centre on the team, they also played without a traditional point guard, as Nick Nurse used a tight eight-man rotation of similarly proportioned players. Outside of the 6-foot-5 Gary Trent Jr., the other seven guys were all between the listed height of 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9.
What could have been a huge disadvantage, playing without an experienced floor general, turned into a strength. The Raptors used all of their length, quickness and versatility to wreak havoc defensively.
After a dominant start for Embiid, they were able to neutralize the Sixers centre and MVP candidate by sending multiple defenders his way and forcing him to be a playmaker, rather than a scorer. Unlike earlier in the series, the help came immediately on the catch, but also recovered and rotated out to shooters quickly. And unlike earlier in the series, none of Embiid’s teammates could bail him out.
Former Raptor Danny Green kept Philly in the game, hitting three of his four threes during a second quarter in which the Sixers scored just 14 points. Other than that, nobody could hit a shot. Subtracting Green’s 4-for-9, they shot 6-for-28 as a team. Harden and Tyrese Maxey had their worst games of the series, and they got 11 points from the bench.
Rather than turning to sparingly used sophomore point guard Malachi Flynn, Nurse opted to put the ball in the hands of his two hybrid bigs: Siakam and Scottie Barnes, who logged 41 minutes in his second game back from an ankle sprain. The newly minted Rookie of the Year looked to be moving better than in his return over the weekend, and he was more assertive early on, looking to attack Harden in the post. By the second half, he was walking with a bit of a limp, something that Nurse said they will have to monitor, but he did a good job initiating the offence.
Coming off a playoff career-high 34-point performance on Saturday, Siakam was brilliant again while carrying an even bigger workload in the absence of VanVleet. In 44 minutes, he scored 23 points to go along with 10 rebounds and seven assists. His much-maligned second half of Game 3 – in which he was held scoreless on just five shot attempts – feels like eons ago now.
But for the Raptors’ defence, the key was in slowing down Embiid. With a little help from the officiating and his injured thumb, they may have stumbled onto something in Game 4. The superstar centre spent most of Saturday afternoon jawing at the refs – he was fined $15,000 for his post-game inference that they were trying to make sure Philly didn’t sweep the series. You could see the discomfort on his face each time he took a jumper, playing through a torn ligament in his shooting thumb, which will require surgery after the playoffs. He was also visibly annoyed with the way the Raptors were defending him, and perhaps that frustration carried over into Monday.
Credit Toronto’s defence for taking the ball out of his hands, but Embiid was way too passive, especially when it became clear that he would need to take over for Philly to have any chance at salvaging the night. The Raptors have tried to make him work on defence all series in an effort to tire him out, but by the third quarter they were actively going at him on almost every play, and it was working.
First, Precious Achiuwa got Embiid to bite on a pump fake and drew the foul. Then, Anunoby drove past him for a dunk. Achiuwa beat him off the dribble for a layup, followed by Siakam, who did the same. Finally, Siakam found Achiuwa, who had Embiid sealed under the rim, for an easy bucket. The Raptors scored on Embiid on five straight possessions, as the big man tugged at his shorts and laboured up and down the court.
Meanwhile, the Philly fans were growing increasingly restless. They’ve experienced playoff heartbreak before. Despite lofty expectations over the past few years, Embiid and the Sixers haven’t been able to get past the second round. Harden was brought in to help them get over the hump, but it’s not like he comes with an encouraging track record.
Then there’s Doc Rivers’ uninspiring playoff history. Rivers is the only coach in NBA history who has been on the wrong end of three 3-1 series comebacks. He’s now lost seven of his last eight chances to close out a series, dating back to his time with the Clippers.
Losing Game 5 at home, especially in the way they lost it, brings all of those things to the forefront. Suddenly, there’s cause for doubt. Could the Raptors actually pull this off? You couldn’t just feel the tension in the building, you could also hear it. Boos began to rain down from the stands late in the first half, and then again throughout the second until fans started making their way to the exits with five minutes left. If you didn’t know any better, you would’ve thought the home team was down 3-1 in the series.
The Sixers made their run, cutting the deficit to nine a couple of times in the fourth quarter. Each time, the crowd started to get into the game, but the Raptors responded every time, pushing the lead back into double digits, and took them out of it.
“It’s very important to keep this crowd out of the game,” said Young, who spent the first seven years of his career playing in Philadelphia. “They can get very loud, this building can get to rocking and you don’t want that. We’re a very resilient team and the crowd hasn’t really bothered us too much but it can get that way sometimes. We don’t want that to happen so we want to come out and make sure we give our best punch before they’re able to punch us, and control the game. I think we did a really good job, we controlled the game from start to finish.”
The series now shifts back to Toronto, where the Raptors will have a couple days to prepare for Thursday’s contest. Of the 146 teams that have been down 3-0, they’re only the 14th to force a Game 6 and the first since the Bucks did it in their 2015 series with the Bulls. Only three teams have ever forced a Game 7.
“Not exactly how we’d probably draw it up but we’re happy to still be playing,” Nurse said. “We need the games, that’s for sure. Our goal is to keep improving.”
VanVleet wouldn’t rule out the possibility of coming back later in the series, although he didn’t sound especially optimistic. He feared the worst when he felt a pop in his hip during the first quarter of Game 4, tearing his jersey in frustration before heading to the locker room, where he spent the entire second half. An MRI didn’t reveal anything major, but it’s an ailment he’s been dealing with on and off this season – one of many – and will require some time and a lot of treatment to heal.
“There's something gratifying about just laying it on the line for your teammates, for your brothers in the locker room, knowing you’re not 100,” VanVleet said ahead of Monday’s game. “My body finally just tapped out, so here we are.
“To be in this situation with this team, being hobbled already, you know it’s coming at some point. You’re just trying to until you can’t run no more.”
Like the rest of his team, though, VanVleet isn’t giving up hope.
“I’m always going to leave that window open,” he said. “Hopefully we can extend this thing and I would feel great about maybe playing in the next round. Nobody believes we can do it but I think we can.”