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 tough performance in Game 4. They built on the positive signs they showed in Game 3, showing no signs of a demoralizing finish in overtime and defending themselves in a way that felt true to who they have been all season. Their defensive effort was excellent once again, despite continued torrid shooting from the Sixers, who have shot 40 percent or better in every game, and were able to close out strong after taking an early lead. The Raptors have played well enough that this series is tied at 2-2, but at least they have a proof of concept on how to beat the Sixers.
2. Pascal Siakam answered every question he was asked about his lackluster performance in Game 3. Siakam’s focus was clear from the jump as he was determined to score no matter who got in front of him. Siakam had the first six points for the Raptors, which included a mid-range jumper over Joel Embiid, a driving layup over undersized Tyrese Maxey, and got to the free throw 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 in one point to extend their lead over the Sixers. Siakam finished with a playoff-high 34 points, which included 15 trips to the free throw line, and drew MVP chants for his effort. This was night and day compared to Game 3, where he didn’t make a field goal in the second half and overtime. Siakam is the best player on the Raptors and the team will follow him.
3. Siakam responded to the Sixers’ physical and returned it, prompting a frustrated response. Joel Embiid and Siakam have shared a quiet series of tensions, and their annoyance with each other was clearer in this game. When Siakam gestured for a timeout with three minutes remaining, Embiid attacked him with a cheeky tackle after the whistle, which was deemed technical after review. He credits Siakam for staying in check, because he could have easily been frustrated by the constant grabs and reaches of James Harden and Tobias Harris, which have gone largely unpunished, while any marginal infractions at the other end are rewarded with faults. Siakam may have received 15 free throws, but they weren’t unwarranted. For example, on Harris’ fifth foul, he grabbed and slapped Siakam twice with both hands before finally getting called on his third foul. It’s not that the Sixers aren’t allowed to physically play, it’s that Siakam is playing and coming back for more.
4. The Sixers’ most likely counterattack in Game 5 will be relying more on zone coverage to slow Siakam’s ability to attack his defenders. Philly was very effective in zone coverage for parts of Games 2 and 3, and while it was used sparingly here, the Raptors haven’t shown consistent zone-breaking ability. The Raptors shot just 8-for-34 from deep, which should encourage the Sixers to keep packing up the paint. As determined as Siakam is, he won’t be able to beat the entire defense on his own if others aren’t hitting from three. The key will be for the Raptors’ support players to stay on the move, be ready to shoot against the lockout and keep sending cuts to the middle of the zone to switch up the defense.
5. The Raptors are finally doing what makes them special with the all-forward 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 ultimately went the opposite way. VanVleet’s injury forced the Raptors to lean more heavily on Siakam as the primary playmaker, and allowed him to reduce the rotation to six trade forwards with the 6-foot-5 Trent Jr. as the lone guard, creating 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 can’t go down as easily in pick-and-roll setups. In previous games, the Raptors were very hesitant to rotate Embiid for fear of a mismatch or him going down in open space. But what really is the difference if the Raptors can now trade Precious Achiuwa, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Thad Young or Siakam while someone else covers a guard? Harden was 5-of-17 from the field and didn’t show enough skill to score one-on-one.
6. VanVleet’s night ended early in the first half due to a hip injury. He was using the massage gun during the timeout and was then forced out after going lame on a close. He tore his shirt getting up from the court and did not return for the second half. Injuries have been a major disappointment for VanVleet, who is also hampered by a nagging knee problem. However, the Raptors have shown the ability to win without VanVleet and have plenty of examples to fall back on since 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 has his ups and downs, but VanVleet’s condition had also left him inconsistent. Regardless of whether VanVleet is in or out, the Raptors should continue to attack through Siakam and try to keep as much size on the floor as possible.
7. Young was the Raptors’ second-best player and a huge benefit off the bench. The easiest way to describe Young is that he makes the right play every time, which becomes invaluable under the bright lights of the playoffs. He’s not refusing open shots despite battling a sprained thumb, he’s a willing passer who does it with intent to create and doesn’t make mistakes on defense. His pass from the post gives the Raptors another dimension to run their offense, giving Siakam a break while allowing cutters like Boucher to collect easy baskets with his movement. Young also ran the fast break a couple of times, even leaving Embiid on the deck with a wicked cross before sending the jump shot. The only downside is that the Sixers are determined to attack the 15-year veteran, who is a slow half-step at times. Harden chased down Young at the changeup, and Embiid covered Young easily when he tried to hit the post. It’s not a devastating mismatch because Young is still struggling, but the Raptors should try to hide it when they can.
8. Barnes delivered an emotional boost in his return. The news broke shortly before the announcement that Barnes had been named Rookie of the Year, beating Evan Mobley by a slim margin. The star rookie received his trophy from Masai Ujiri to a roaring response from the crowd, which 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 in doubt, but he was clearly capable in the warm-ups. The Raptors took Barnes for additional tests beyond his usual shooting routine, including the use of a stepladder and exercise bands to assess his mobility in a series of drills. Barnes was rusty and had tripped at one point, leading to a scary moment during the timeout, but he was able to complete the game, which should be a positive sign for his progress in the rest of the series.
9. – Barnes was far from his prime and will have a bigger impact in Game 5. In stark contrast to Game 1, where he almost had a triple-double before Embiid shattered his ankle, Barnes was unopportunistic in his scoring and fluid in his attack. Instead, he threw off-tempo shots and limited himself to making a single cut. That said, he still added value with his length on defense 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 defend all of the Sixers’ players. His ability to cover for Harden now excludes Anunoby from that role and gives them security against foul trouble.
10. Embiid began to lose his composure when he couldn’t get his way. There is an underlying tension between Embiid and Siakam, and the two became entangled in a series of skirmishes that culminated in Embiid taking a low shot by bringing down Siakam when he called a timeout late in the fourth quarter. A few plays earlier, Embiid threw two body checks to Siakam, who returned it by taking Embiid out on a rebound, which ended with Embiid hitting the ground for the umpteenth time. After the final whistle, Embiid put on a sarcastic clapping display on the referees’ faces and proceeded to push 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 minute he loses, the double standards come out. The Raptors should move on with Embiid, who was noticeably annoyed by his sprained right thumb, which inevitably messes with how physically he plays at both ends. If Embiid is hurt and distracted, the Sixers are very average.