Raptors, Siakam fight hard vs. 76ers, but result remains the same

Philadelphia – Not all losing streaks are created equally. Some of them are the product of circumstance – when injuries, the schedule and the opponents make for an impossible hill to climb. Sometimes teams just begin to let go of the rope – slowly at first – but then feel it ripping through their hands faster and faster until it’s beyond their ability to pull it back.

Sometimes one can lead to the other.

The Raptors’ recent woes have felt like more circumstance than a team beginning to fall in on itself, though it’s hard not to sense the pressure mounting. They’ve certainly had their own fingerprints on their recent slide, but they have played some good teams, as well as some not-so-good teams playing at their best, and have continued coming to come out on the wrong end of the score when they could have caught a break here or there.

It’s been frustrating.

On Monday night, on the road, playing on the second night of a back-to-back on the road against a team that has been rolling lately, the Raptors met perhaps their cruelest end yet as they fought against a long list of NBA standards excuses and balled out, only to be undone 104-101 in overtime.

The culprit was at least familiar: when it mattered most the Raptors couldn’t make a shot and they lost when their opponents did. Toronto made just three from behind the arc, and its opponent made just one more, but at the right time. The Raptors missed three wide-open looks in overtime and a contested one at the horn by Pascal Siakam that would have sent the game into a second overtime. Toronto shot 1-of-9 in the extra five minutes

Toronto brought it, no one more than Siakam whose disappointment was palpable after the Raptors’ poor showing at home Sunday against the Warriors. “We need a win,” was his mantra of him.

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The Raptors’ all-NBA forward wouldn’t be denied. He tied the game with a high, swooping finger roll off the top of the glass and in with 5.1 seconds to play that gave him his season-high 38 points for the game. Next, he chipped in to double Sixers center and fellow Cameroonian Joel Embiid to force the Sixers star into a well-contested, long two-pointer at the horn that fell short, leading to overtime. His line also featured 15 rebounds and six assists in a complete performance. But he had no help, offensively at least. Fred VanVleet was 3-of-15 from the floor and 2-of-11 from deep and had two of those open looks in overtime rim out. OG Anunoby’s defense returned after his three-game absence due to a hip problem but he could only manage 13 points in his 41 minutes. The only other Raptor in double figures was Chris Boucher who scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a spirited 30 minutes off the bench. Toronto shot 42 per cent from the floor and 27.5 per cent from three.

The Raptors held Joel Embiid to 28 points on 6-of-16 shooting, but Embiid was aided by 21 points from Tobias Harris and 14 from James Harden. It was just enough as Philadelphia shot just 40 percent for the game.

The Sixers improved to 17-12 with the win, their fifth straight. The Raptors fell to 13-18 with their sixth straight loss.

Win or lose, it was exactly the effort Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was looking for as he tried to make the case that no, the sky is not falling. Before the game, he worked to strike a positive note, even as his club was on the wrong end of a five-game losing streak, the longest in a decade other than during 2020-21 ‘Tampa Tank’, when losing was the plan .

“You gotta be careful not to over-react, and that goes for all us sitting in here,” Barnes said, referring to the media at his pre-game press availability. “You go down to Orlando and you lose two and you think it’s the end of the world – ‘they’re 6-20’, well they’re not 6-20 anymore and you see their team and their players and they’re good and they play hard, well-coached.

“Other than [a blowout loss to Golden State Sunday] in this slump, we had our chance to beat another team, Brooklyn, that is rolling with two superstar machines that are rolling, Sac game went to the buzzer, first Orlando game went to the buzzer.

“[Sunday] night wasn’t very good or very much fun, I admit it. The other games, we’re out there doing the best we can and, again, we’re a bit short-handed. I know that’s no excuse but that stuff sometimes’s gonna catch up to you. You gotta play through, create our own luck, play a bit tougher and a little bit more composed and things like that and see what happens.”

The problem is the flailing Raptors just happened to arrive in Philadelphia as the Sixers are rolling: 4-0 in the midst of a seven-game homestand and beginning to make their move in the East, even without Tyrese Maxey – their high-scoring third star — who expected to miss another month with a broken foot. The Sixers aren’t perfect, but Embiid is getting better and is poised to lead the NBA in scoring for the second consecutive year. He’s got a plethora of great shooters around him – the Sixers are third in the NBA in three-point percentage – and Embiid is figuring out how to leverage the attention he gets to benefit his teammates and vice-versa.

“He has great confidence now,” said Sixers head coach Doc Rivers. “You see it late in games, where you know, he’ll bait guys so he can make a pass. Joel never did that before, so that’s good for us … last year I thought he made big progress, and this year, the baiting and stuff, is this year, and that comes along with trust too.”

The Raptors were helped in their cause with the return of OG Anunoby who missed the last three games with a hip injury, though Gary Trent Jr. remained out with tightness in his left thigh.

Without the proper size to throw at the 7-1, 300-pound Embiid, Nurse opted to start four forwards and a guard, VanVleet, with Scottie Barnes tasked with being the first defender on Embiid. But Toronto sent help to Embiid quickly and aggressively and generally stuck to their long-held principles of showing him extra bodies every time he faced the basket, and for the most part, it worked.

Even with the size advantage going against Barnes or later, backup center Khem Birch, Embiid didn’t get rolling in the first half, though he still bullied his way to 12 points thanks to seven free throws. But his teammates benefitted from the attention. Tobias Harris had 10 points on just three shots and Harden counted five first half assists.

The Raptors’ defense was sound and fast-moving in the first quarter as Toronto managed to eke out a 23-22 lead while holding the Sixers to 31.6 per cent shooting, while forcing five turnovers.

But the Raptors’ problems came in the opening minutes of the second quarter when Nurse when to his increasingly problematic second unit that featured starters Anunoby, Barnes and Hernangomez, along with Malachi Flynn and Chris Boucher. With VanVleet and Siakam sitting – and Embiid also resting – the Sixers reserves opened the period on a 22-8 run in the first five-plus minutes that put Philadelphia up 13 by the time the starters filtered back in. The Raptors’ defense immediately improved when Siakam and VanVleet came in for Flynn and Hernangomez, but their offense continued to misfire. Philadelphia outscored Toronto 35-23 in the quarter and led 57-46 at the half.

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The Raptors were hoping for something special against Philadelphia, who knocked them out of the first round of the playoffs last April. But hope was a big part of the plan:

“Even nights like tonight, you’re not going to sit there and say we match up with them talent-wise, you’re not,” said Nurse. “So what are we going to do? You gotta go out and try to out-play them, you’ve got to work harder, we gotta cut that gap down and execute very well and play together. That’s what the game is.”

What the game turned out to be might have been predicted beforehand. A struggling Raptors team couldn’t get over the hump against an Eastern Conference rival that was playing well, had their best player and had enough support around him.

Toronto competed. In the final seconds of the third quarter Sixers forward got called for a technical foul and VanVleet made the free throw. Toronto kept possession and Nurse subbed Siakam back in with 7.8 seconds left where the Raptors forward nailed a three to give him 16 points for the quarter, 31 for three quarters, which sent the Raptors into the fourth tied 78-78 after the Sixers had led by 14 earlier in the period.

The Raptors couldn’t have played harder or fought more determinedly against their situation, but the end was the same.

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