Back in another series against 76ers, Raptors find themselves ahead of schedule
Led by Siakam and VanVleet, Toronto set to face old foe in 1st round
Before Kawhi Leonard's four-bounce buzzer-beater, there was stress.
The 2019 second-round series saw the 76ers leading the Raptors 2-1 before Leonard rescued Toronto in Game 4. Philadelphia was gigantic and tough throughout — so much so that Fred VanVleet was essentially played off the court as he averaged a meagre two points per game.
"It was a wild series," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said on Wednesday. "I think both teams were pronounced dead about three times in the series and it went down to the last second."
In the big picture, president Masai Ujiri's big bet to trade franchise stalwart DeMar DeRozan for free-agent-to-be Leonard was at stake. A second-round loss would be abject failure, while at least a conference finals appearance would be something.
But Leonard's Game 7 shot bounced in, and the Raptors seemed to become the proverbial Team of Destiny. They beat Milwaukee in six games as VanVleet caught fire, and they won the title over a Golden State squad missing Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson for parts of the series.
WATCH | Leonard's buzzer-beater lifts Raptors over 76ers in 2019:
Three years and a pandemic later, the Raptors and 76ers are once again set to square off in a playoff series — this time in the first round. Game 1 goes Saturday at 6 p.m. ET in Philadelphia. Game 2 is Monday before the series shifts to Toronto for Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday and Saturday.
But for the Raptors, the 2022 series shouldn't be quite as stressful as 2019 was. These playoffs are more of a beginning than an end.
There are no major looming free-agency decisions. Only two key Raptors — Chris Boucher and Thaddeus Young — are set to hit the market, but Toronto has the salary flexibility to offer each a competitive deal to stay.
VanVleet and shooting guard Gary Trent Jr., could both reach free agency following next season, but for now the Raptors' core is locked in.
WATCH | North Courts panel breaks down Raptors-76ers series:
VanVleet, Siakam form core of Raptors
It's a group that features just two players, VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, who earned significant minutes in the championship run.
Now, they're the two most important players on a team that posted a 48-34 record this season, including 33-17 in 2022.
"I think they've formed some kind of identity. It's a little quirky and a little different but it's a hard-playing, competitive identity and they found a way to grind out enough wins to get 'em in this situation," Nurse said after the team clinched a playoff spot earlier this month.
It's a testament to both the all-NBA candidate Siakam, who lifted the team's ceiling in the second half, and the all-star VanVleet, who kept the Raptors afloat in the first half, that they're in this position in the first place.
WATCH | Siakam picks apart 76ers in recent win:
Siakam, in particular, emerged as a force in the new year as he added point-guard-level passing skills and a reliable mid-range jumper to his already diverse offensive arsenal, giving him a wider array of tools to dissect the defence.
The 28-year-old Cameroonian averaged 23.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 49 games since Jan. 1.
"For me, my feeling has always been that I can attack anybody," Siakam told reporters on Wednesday.
VanVleet, meanwhile, tailed off some as he dealt with a knee injury after the all-star break. But the six-foot guard should play an outsized defensive role against the 76ers, where he'll be expected to bring double-teams against Embiid and dig in for steals.
VanVleet's shot-making ability on offence, where he can pull up from anywhere, is another important element for a team that can sometimes struggle in the halfcourt and that may have trouble scoring in the paint against Embiid.
Massive strides forward from 1 year ago
Still, even if Siakam and VanVleet can't carry the Raptors past Embiid, Harden and the 76ers, the season would not be a failure.
Consider where the franchise was a year ago: stuck in Tampa, toiling away in a lost season and banking on lottery balls to land a high pick in the draft.
Despite that stroke of luck, there weren't many external expectations on the Raptors. Their return home was nice, and in general things couldn't have gone much worse than last season, but even the most optimistic projections didn't have Toronto climbing to fifth in the conference.
The Raptors were supposed to be a young, pesky team — one with promise that could be realized in a few years.
Instead, they're back in a playoff series against the 76ers, which Nurse said he expects to be a "slugfest" — just like the last time.
They're not just happy to be here, either. The Raptors have a legitimate shot at taking down the 76ers once again. If they're successful, they're likely to meet Kyle Lowry's Miami Heat in the second round.
It may not be all gravy — a sweep could colour the entire season differently — but the Raptors are ahead of schedule.
WATCH | North Courts - Raptors vs. 76ers playoff preview: