TORONTO – The Raptors were still coming to terms with their unenviable reality the morning after that heartbreaking Game 3 loss to Philadelphia last week.
They had been in control for most of the night, trailing for the first time early in the overtime period. When Joel Embiid’s turnaround jumper went down, they knew that they had let the game, and maybe the series, slip away.
“It actually sticks to you,” Chris Boucher said.
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” Precious Achiuwa, who missed two key free throws at the end of regulation, recently told TSN’s Kayla Grey.
Instead of leaving Scotiabank Arena with what would have been a momentum-shifting win, the Raptors fell behind 3-0 in their first-round playoff series, a deficit from which no team in the history of the NBA has ever overcome.
When Nick Nurse met with his players the following day, Toronto’s head coach delivered a speech that should have resonated with everybody in the room.
His message: “If somebody could do it, it’d be us.”
A week later, their valiant comeback bid finally came to an end, with the Sixers closing out the series and eliminating them in six games. But even after coming up short, the sentiment still rings true. In a series that would ultimately epitomize their remarkable season, the Raptors showed their character.
“I mean, listen, they’re disappointed, for sure,” Nurse said after Thursday’s 132-97 loss. “Pretty heavy air in there. My message was that, as a whole, I thought we went through a tremendous amount this year with a number of things and we just kept fighting and kept playing and kept getting better and kept figuring things out… I give them a lot of credit for that, hanging in there.”
Expectations were modest, at best, when this group first came together in the fall. They had one of the league’s youngest and most uniquely constructed rosters and, for the first time in a decade, they were opening training camp without Kyle Lowry. Vegas set their pre-season win total at 36.5.
Despite some early-season growing pains, a mid-season COVID outbreak, and a myriad of injuries to key players, they sailed past that mark in early March and finished with 48 victories. Most people figured they would be in the mix for the play-in tournament. Instead, they were in contention for home-court advantage until the penultimate day of the campaign. They ended up in the fifth seed and, following a one-year blip, they returned to the playoffs.
So, when their first-round series called for them to overcome injuries and illness or defy the odds and expectations, they didn’t flinch. In most cases, when a team finds itself in a seemingly insurmountable 0-3 hole, they know the end is near and human nature kicks in. Usually, they take their foot off the gas and start looking ahead to their vacation or planning for the off-season. Very rarely do they find the mental fortitude to push harder. Somehow, Toronto did.
Led by Pascal Siakam, who followed a scoreless second half in Game 3 with a playoff career-high 34-point performance, the Raptors avoided the sweep with a convincing Game 4 win. Then, they went on the road, led for all but 21 seconds in the opening quarter, and stole Game 5 without their all-star point guard Fred VanVleet. They never lacked for belief, but with Philly’s own crowd turning on them, the Sixers looked like they were starting to believe it was possible too. Of the 146 teams to trail 3-0 in a best-of-seven, Toronto was just the 14th to force a Game 6.
They went toe-to-toe with the Sixers during a competitive first half on Thursday, with Philadelphia leading by one point at the break, before running out of steam in a nightmare third quarter. Toronto shot 5-for-19 from the field and 2-for-11 from three-point range, and was outscored 37-17 over a 12-minute stretch that essentially sealed its fate.
In the span of just two or three games, we saw both the pros and the cons of this season’s great experiment – building a position-less roster around versatile and athletic players, most of them of similar size and skill set. At its best, it looks like it did in Games 4 and 5, with all of its length and quickness flying around and wreaking havoc on defence. But when they’re not locked in or they’re exposed for their lack of shooting and scoring in the half court, it can look like it did in the second half of Game 6.
Playing without VanVleet, one of their three legitimate shooting threats, and with another, OG Anunoby, in foul trouble, the Sixers trapped Siakam and Toronto didn’t have an answer offensively. The Raptors were never going to have the talent advantage in this series, not against a team led by an MVP frontrunner and a former MVP, and while they made up for that by simply outplaying Philly at various points, Embiid and James Harden were too much in the end.
“Obviously it hurts, so its kinda hard to think about how far we came,” said Boucher, one of the bright spots of Game 6, who scored 19 of his playoff career-high 25 points in the first half. “It's a great group of guys and I feel like we learned so much. The fact that we made it to the playoffs and were down 3-0 and fought all the way back, I think it showed the character and the fight that we have. It’s a special group of guys and I wouldn’t want to a fight with anybody else.”
It’s not hard to imagine a universe in which the series plays out very differently.
What if Embiid had never stepped on the foot of Scottie Barnes in Game 1? What if Thaddeus Young never hurt his thumb or Trent didn’t come down with a viral illness that limited him through the first half of the series?
What if VanVleet was closer to full strength coming into the series, or healthy enough to finish it? But mostly, what if the Raptors had been able to close out Game 3?
These are questions that might weigh on the minds of Toronto’s players and staff over the next few days, or maybe even weeks. Fortunately, that sting of disappointment shouldn’t stick with them very long.
Back in training camp, if you would have asked Nurse, Masai Ujiri or Bobby Webster what a successful season might look like at the time, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have even mentioned wins or losses or used the word playoffs.
They would have talked about the importance of developing their young players, particularly Barnes – their prized fourth-overall pick and the fruit of last year’s lost season in Tampa. They would’ve talked about getting Siakam back on the path he was on before the pandemic derailed his ascension. And they would’ve talked about ensuring that the transition from Lowry to VanVleet goes as smoothly as possible.
Seven months later, they can check off all those boxes. VanVleet turned out to be a natural fit in his new role as the club’s undisputed on and off-court leader. He embraced it, thrived in it, and blossomed into a first time all-star. Siakam didn’t just rediscover his pre-pandemic form; he exceeded it, putting together a remarkable season worthy of All-NBA honours.
But for all of their accomplishments and success stories, none of them would feel quite as satisfying if not for Barnes, the NBA’s newly minted Rookie of the Year. It’s impossible to overstate his importance to this franchise and its future. Simply put, he’s their biggest win of the season.
Win or lose, what the Raptors wanted and needed out of this series was to get their young guys as much experience as possible in a competitive playoff environment. At one point, it looked like that may not happen.
The start of the series was anything but competitive, with the Sixers winning a pair of lopsided contests at home. And when Barnes went down, the fear was that his incredible rookie season might have ended with an encouraging 31-minute playoff debut in Game 1.
In extending the series, they gave Barnes’ ankle a chance to heal and get stronger, allowing him to log 133 valuable postseason minutes over four games. Trent, who had only played sparingly in the postseason with Portland as a sophomore a couple years ago, was able to shake his illness, get healthy, and play a meaningful part in the team’s run before stumbling defensively in the Game 6 loss. The 22-year-old Achiuwa struggled to begin the series – his first in a prominent role – and then again to close it, but had some impressive moments in between.
Nurse wanted his young team to experience the highs and lows of playoff basketball. In the end, they saw plenty of both but they’ll learn from it all and they’ll be better for it. So, that’s a win.
“It may take a few days or a couple of weeks [to get over], but we’ve got to get ready to get back to work,” Nurse said. “And this is where we expect to be this time of year is in these games. We’ve all individually got to get better so that we can collectively get better and get in the hunt.”
“I think we took a lot of steps,” said Siakam. “We got a lot better over the season. It was obviously up and down, but we did get better. Knowing this team and our front office and the people that we have in the organization, I know that the goal is to continue to get better and improve and be a way better team next year.”