PHILADELPHIA -- Two games into their first-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Toronto Raptors look like a team lacking answers. After being thoroughly outplayed by the Sixers and ultimately losing by 20 points, 131-111, in Game 1, the main question heading into Game 2 was how would the Raptors respond? Did they have a bounce-back performance in them in order to even up the series?
Spoiler alert: they did not.
Despite a solid start (Toronto outscored Philadelphia 33-32 in the first quarter) and a late run, the Raptors were again outclassed by what simply appears to be a deeper, more talented and more physical Sixers team. Just like they did in the first game, the Sixers used their size and physicality to wear Toronto down over the course of the contest in Game 2, and by the time the final horn sounded, the Sixers had hung another double-digit win on Toronto. This time, the final score was 112-97.
OG Anunoby (26 points, three assists), Pascal Siakam (20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) and Fred VanVleet (20 points, seven assists) all had their moments on Monday night, but ultimately their production paled in comparison to that of Philadelphia's key contributors. Tyrese Maxey followed up his 38-point explosion in Game 1 with a 23-point, nine rebound and eight assist performance in Game 2, while Joel Embiid dropped 31 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. All five of Philadelphia's starters scored in double figures -- a stat that is indicative of the balanced effort put forth by the Sixers on Monday night.
Embiid set the tone for the Sixers early by consistently using his size to draw fouls and get to the line. He shot 12 free throws in the first quarter alone and finished with 14 total attempts from the line. As a team, Philadelphia shot 30 free throws -- compared to just 12 for Toronto. It appears as though Nick Nurse's plan of publicly criticizing the officials after Game 1 didn't have the effect he was hoping it would.
"I don't care if you're 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, if you beat him to the spot and he runs you over, it's a foul," Nurse said of Embiid on Saturday night. "I thought he threw three or four elbows to the face. He got called for one. We're going to stand in there... If we're legal defensively, then we gotta have them call it 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. We're gonna stand in there and we'll see."
You can't blame Nurse for trying, because it became evident early on in this series that his team is overmatched. On paper, the Raptors don't have anyone that can match up with Embiid. The thought heading into the series was that perhaps Toronto's schemes would work to frustrate the MVP finalist and in turn limit the Sixers' success, but that hasn't been the case, thanks largely to Embiid's supporting cast.
All of the attention being paid to Embiid has allowed other guys to thrive. Maxey has scored 61 points over the first two games of the series, and Tobias Harris (46 points over the two games) has been a big-time contributor on both ends of the floor. James Harden has been relatively quiet (36 points, 20 assists in the series so far), but he still demands ample defensive attention.
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Over the first 96 minutes of the series, it has basically been a "pick your poison"-type scenario for Toronto. Pay too much attention to Embiid, and the other guys will beat you. Focus more attention on Maxey, et al. and Embiid will have added freedom to do what he's done all season.
So, where do the Raptors turn now? They're down 2-0 heading into two straight games in Toronto, and their first two performances have provided few reasons for optimism. They weren't an especially deep team to begin with, and the injury to rookie stud Scottie Barnes has depleted their depth even more. There's no secret weapon at the end of Toronto's bench that Nurse can turn to. No one on the roster is suddenly going to grow to Embiid's size overnight, and Maxey is going to continue to be quicker than whoever is put in front of him.
Perhaps the Raptors will find some solace in the fact that Philadelphia will be without its' best perimeter defender, Matisse Thybulle, in Toronto due to his COVID-19 vaccination status. However, Thybulle has largely been a non-factor in the series so far. He played just a total of 29 minutes -- and scored eight points -- in the first two games after Philadelphia preemptively replaced him in the starting lineup with Danny Green for continuity's sake.
Nurse has long been lauded for his ability to adapt and adjust on the fly, so maybe he'll come up with a different approach that will turn the series around in Toronto. With the way the first two games went, though, that certainly seems like a tall task.