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TSN Raptors Reporter

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PHILADELPHIA – Just when it looked like Saturday’s playoff opener couldn’t get any worse for the Raptors, it did.

It was early in the fourth quarter. Their all-star, Fred VanVleet had just fouled out. 76ers sophomore Tyrese Maxey, arguably the fourth option in a loaded Philadelphia starting lineup, went off for 21 of his 38 points in the third quarter. The 76ers’ lead hovered around 20 points, which was the case for most of the game.

Then the 280-pound Joel Embiid came down on the left foot of Scottie Barnes, Toronto’s prized rookie and one of the team’s lone bright spots on an otherwise disappointing evening.

Barnes stayed down for a few minutes and needed the help of his teammates to get off the court and into the locker room. The 20-year-old cleared his first hurdle when post-game X-rays on his ankle came back negative, but he’ll go for further imaging on Sunday.

There’s no way to sugar coat it. Toronto’s 131-111 Game 1 loss was bad, but if Barnes were to miss any time, or worse, if he’s out for the remainder of the series, that would be an unmitigated disaster.

“It's tough, man,” Pascal Siakam said afterwards. “Obviously, he works extremely hard and he's been playing awesome this season. I know he was super excited about the playoffs and wanting to be out there and play… It's definitely tough to see him go down, and I know that it's hard for him, because he wanted to be out there with us.”

“The kid was playing his heart out,” VanVleet added. “He actually was playing really well. He was keeping us steady there for a while with his playmaking. They're gonna try to take me away and load up on Pascal, and Scottie was the third guy there for a long time. So you feel for him, man. His first playoff experience, he's playing well, and he goes down with an injury. That's the part of the game that sucks. We'll see what the images say and what the doctors say and get him some rest and try to get him back out there.”

It was a rough night, even before Barnes went down. The Raptors never quite looked like themselves. They lost the possession battle, giving up 10 offensive rebounds, including eight in the opening half. They didn’t force their first turnover until early in the third quarter, and only forced four in the game. They were outscored 29-10 in transition. That’s not a formula that’s going to win them games in this series, and they know that.

“I wouldn’t say we lost ourselves, but I think we just weren’t ourselves in a lot of areas,” VanVleet said. “Whether that was jitters from some of the newer guys or the whistle or whatever the case may be, we were just a step slow and they won the physicality battle.”

The fifth-seeded Raptors came into their first-round series as the underdogs, but it almost didn’t feel that way. Between their hot finish to the season – winning 14 of their final 18 games, including a couple against Philly – and their history of success against Embiid and the Sixers, they became a popular upset pick, to the point where the fourth-place team probably wasn’t getting enough credit.

The Sixers are flawed and filled with question marks, but they’re loaded with talent. They’ve got an MVP frontrunner in Embiid, a former MVP in James Harden, a capable secondary scorer in Tobias Harris and, as Toronto learned on Saturday, a rising star in Maxey. They came out like a team wanting to remind people of that.

Embiid had just 19 points on 5-of-15 shooting, which the Raptors can live with. What they can’t live with is the way he set the tone with his physicality. He barrelled over defenders, threw bodies around in the paint and got to the free throw line 11 times, something that both VanVleet and Nick Nurse were sure to point out after the game.

“We had a couple times where we beat him to the spot and he bullied us right over and they just let him lay it in,” Nurse said. “I don’t care if you’re 5-foot-11, if you beat him to the spot and he runs you over, it’s a foul. If we’re legal defensively, then we’ve got to have them called or we don’t have a chance, period. Nobody can guard that guy if they’re just gonna let him run you over time and time again.”

Harden needed 17 shots to score his 22 points, but where he hurt Toronto was with his 14 assists, setting up guys like Harris and Maxey, who combined for 64 points on 23-for-35 shooting. The Raptors’ game plan is to neutralize Embiid and Harden, as much as players of that calibre can be neutralized, and dare the other guys to beat them. But they also can’t make it that easy for them.

Siakam (24 points on 9-of-18 shooting), VanVleet (18 points on 7-of-12) and OG Anunoby (20 points on 9-of-15) played well enough offensively, especially in the second half, but the physicality and defensive focus was lacking all around.

“We’ve got to learn some lessons from today,” Nurse said. “Not only tactically but also mentally and physically, and we’ve got to play a lot better, a lot tougher, being it to them a little bit more.”

Prior to his injury, Barnes was the best player on the floor for Toronto. He needed just six shots to score 15 points, a result of his nine free throw attempts. He finished just a couple assists shy of becoming the first player in franchise history to record a triple-double in the postseason. If there was any doubt about how he would react to the pressure of the bright lights in his playoff debut, he silenced them in a hurry. He looked more like a seasoned vet than a 20-year-old rookie.

“I thought he looked like he belonged out there,” said Nurse.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. He’s been doing it all season. Barnes never seems to be phased by big moments or tough matchups. He’s a sponge, who’s always learning on the fly. Even when he has a bad quarter or a rough half, he adjusts and responds quickly. There’s a learning curve in the playoffs and very few young players are able to escape it, we see it ever year. But given what we know about Barnes, it’s not hard to believe that he would be an outlier, an exception to the rule.

As Nurse likes to say, one of the most impressive things about what might end up being a Rookie of the Year-winning campaign, is that Barnes seemed to get stronger as the season went on. For a player that embraces and often initiates physicality, he takes plenty of hits but he always bounces back up, which is why it was so jarring to see him stay down.

The Raptors are no stranger to bad Game 1 losses; they’ve had plenty over the years. They also know what it takes to overcome them. As bad as this felt, it was one game in a long seven-game series. They knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but with everybody pumping their tires over the past week, a humbling defeat might not be the worst thing.

“I’m not surprised they were highly motivated and ready to go,” Nurse said. “There’s a lot of expectations on them. They were going to try to bully us right off the floor and deliver a blow to see if we’ll go away. Now we’re going to find out if we will or not.”

The real loss was Barnes. The most important thing for Toronto in this series, even more important than the result, is getting their budding star valuable playoff experience. So, they’ll cross their fingers and hope for good news on Sunday.