Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 110-102 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 4.
1. The Raptors avoided elimination with a resilient showing in Game 4. They built on the positive signs they showed in Game 3, showed no signs of the demoralizing ending in overtime, and stood up for themselves in a way that felt true to who they have been all season. Their defensive effort was excellent yet again, despite continued torrid shooting from the Sixers who have hit 40 percent or better in each game, and were able to close out strong after taking an early lead. The Raptors have played well enough for this series to be knotted at 2-2, but at least they have a proof of concept on how to beat the Sixers.
2. Pascal Siakam answered all the questions that were asked of his lacklustre showing in Game 3. Siakam’s approach was clear from the jump, as he was determined to score no matter who was put in front of him. Siakam had the first six points for the Raptors, which included a midrange jumper over Joel Embiid, a driving layup over the smaller Tyrese Maxey, and got himself to the foul line by beating Danny Green in transition. His assertiveness only grew over the course of the game, peaking in the fourth quarter where he scored 11 of 13 points for the Raptors at one point to extend their lead over the Sixers. Siakam finished with a playoff-high 34 points which included 15 trips to the foul line, and heard MVP chants for his effort. This was night and day as compared to Game 3, where he didn’t make a field goal in the second half and overtime. Siakam is the Raptors’ best player and the team will follow as he goes.
3. Siakam answered the physicality of the Sixers and gave it right back to them, which drew a frustrated response. Joel Embiid and Siakam have shared a quiet detente series, and their annoyance for one another was most clear in this game. As Siakam gestured for a timeout with three minutes left, Embiid charged at him with a blatant tackle after the whistle, which was deemed as a technical after review. Give Siakam credit for staying under control, because he could have easily grown frustrated with the constant grabbing and reaching from James Harden and Tobias Harris, which have largely gone uncalled while any marginal infractions on the other end are rewarded with foul calls. Siakam might have gotten 15 foul shots, but they were not unwarranted. For example, on Harris’s fifth foul, he grabbed and slapped Siakam twice with both hands before finally being whistled on his third infraction. It’s not as if the Sixers aren’t being allowed to play physical, it’s that Siakam is playing through it and coming back for more.
4. The most likely counter from the Sixers in Game 5 will be to rely more on zone coverage to slow Siakam’s ability to drive at their defenders. Philadelphia was very effective in zone coverage during parts of Games 2 and 3, and even though it was sparingly used here, the Raptors have not shown a consistent ability to break the zone. The Raptors shot just 8-for-34 from deep, which should embolden the Sixers to keep packing the paint. As determined as Siakam is, he won’t be able to beat the entire defence by himself if others aren’t hitting from three. The key will be for the Raptors’ supporting players to keep moving, being ready to shoot off the lockout, and to keep sending cutters into the middle of the zone to shift the defence.
5. The Raptors are finally doing what makes them special with the all-forwards lineup. Nick Nurse has actually downsized at times in this series with two point guard looks, while also leaning on a heavy dose of Khem Birch in a traditional center role, but he finally went the opposite way. VanVleet’s injury forced the Raptors to lean more on Siakam as the main playmaker, and it allowed him to trim the rotation down to six interchange forwards with the 6-foot-5 Trent Jr. as the lone guard which created several problems for the Sixers. The ability to switch across the board is making life difficult for Tyrese Maxey and James Harden in particular, as they cannot get downhill nearly as easily in pick-and-roll settings. In previous games, the Raptors were extremely hesitant in rotating off Embiid for fear of a mismatch or him rolling into open space. But what really is the difference if the Raptors can now switch Precious Achiuwa, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Thad Young, or Siakam on him while someone else covers a guard? Harden was 5-for-17 from the field and did not show enough of an ability to score one-on-one.
6. VanVleet’s night came to an early end in the first half due to an injured hip. He was using the massage gun during timeout, and was later forced to exit after pulling up lame on a closeout. He ripped his jersey on his way off the floor and did not return for the second half. Injuries have been a huge disappointment for VanVleet, who is also hampered with a lingering knee issue. However, the Raptors have shown an ability to win without VanVleet, and have plenty of examples to lean on from the end of the regular season, including two wins over the Sixers. Replacing VanVleet with another 6-foot-9 athlete gives the Sixers one less matchup to attack, and improves their overall rebounding. The downside is the lack of perimeter creation, which falls squarely on Trent Jr. who is up and down, but VanVleet’s condition had left him inconsistent as well. Regardless of whether VanVleet is in or out, the Raptors should keep attacking through Siakam and try to keep as much size on the floor as possible.
7. Young was the Raptors’ second-best player and a massive benefit off the bench. The plainest way to describe Young is that he makes the right play each time, which becomes invaluable under the bright lights of the playoffs. He isn’t turning down open jumpers despite battling a thumb sprain, he is a willing passer who does so with an intent to create, and is mistake-free on defence. His passing out of the post gives the Raptors another dimension to run their offence, giving Siakam a break while also allowing cutters like Boucher to collect easy baskets off their movement. Young also ran the break a few times, and even left Embiid on the deck with a wicked crossover before mailing the jumper. The only drawback is that the Sixers are determined to attack the 15-year veteran, who is sometimes a half-step slow. Harden hunted Young on the switch, and Embiid pinned Young easily when he tried to front the post. It’s not a devastating mismatch because Young still battles, but the Raptors should try to hide him when they can.
8. Barnes delivered an emotional boost in his return. News broke shortly before tip-off that Barnes had been named Rookie of the Year, beating out Evan Mobley by the slightest margins. The star rookie received his trophy from Masai Ujiri to a roaring response from the crowd, who broke into impromptu chants. His return wasn’t even clear at the start of the day, as Nurse’s prediction was that Barnes would be doubtful, but he was clearly capable in warmups. The Raptors took Barnes through additional tests beyond his usual shooting routine, including using a step ladder and exercise bands to test his mobility across a number of exercises. Barnes was rusty and at one point had gotten tripped up which made for a scary moment during the timeout, but was able to complete the game which has to be a positive sign for his progress in the rest of the series.
9. – Barnes was far from his best and will deliver a bigger impact in Game 5. In stark contrast to Game 1, where he almost scored a triple-double before Embiid mangled his ankle, Barnes was not opportunistic in his scoring and fluid in his attack. Instead, he tossed up shots out of rhythm and was limited to just one make off a cut. That being said, he still brought value with his length on defence, and his support on the defensive glass. Barnes has a big role to play in this series as a defensively versatile piece who can reasonably guard all of the Sixers’ players. His ability to cover Harden now spells Anunoby from that role, and gives them insurance against foul trouble.
10. Embiid started to lose his composure when he couldn’t get his way. There is an underlying détente between Embiid and Siakam, and the two got tangled up in a series of skirmishes which culminated in Embiid taking a cheap shot by tackling Siakam as he called a timeout late in the fourth quarter. A few plays prior, Embiid threw two body checks into Siakam, who gave it right back in boxing out Embiid on a rebound, which ended in Embiid hitting the deck for the umpteenth time. After the final whistle, Embiid made a show of sarcastically clapping in the faces of the officials, and proceeded to lobby for the whistle in the post-game interview. The ironic part is that Embiid had told Nurse earlier in the series to stop complaining, and yet the moment he loses the double standard comes out. The Raptors should keep going at Embiid, who was noticeably bothered by his sprained right thumb, which inevitably gets tangled up with how physical he plays on both ends. If Embiid is hurt and distracted, the Sixers are very average.