Toronto Raptors must rediscover defensive identity for Game 2

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - APRIL 16: Tyrese Maxey #0 of the Philadelphia 76ers shoots over Fred VanVleet #23 of the Toronto Raptors (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - APRIL 16: Tyrese Maxey #0 of the Philadelphia 76ers shoots over Fred VanVleet #23 of the Toronto Raptors (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Raptors began their 2022 playoff run with a disappointing 131-111 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday night. It was a strange start to the postseason for the Raptors, as they struggled in several areas where they normally have the advantage.

First, the Raptors made a name for themselves on the road, winning 24 times. Philly handled them easily. There is also the 3-1 regular-season record vs. Philadelphia, which doesn’t seem to matter now.

They entered the playoffs healthy but six minutes into Saturday night’s loss, Thad Young hurt his thumb. Later, Scottie Barnes (who was on his way to a triple-double) had Joel Embiid step on his ankle ending his playoff debut early. Both are doubtful tonight.

Perhaps the biggest reversal of trends was the Raptors’ aggressive intensity on the perimeter defensively was missing.  Whether it was nerves, lack of effort, concern about Joel Embiid, or Philly simply being better than their divisional rival, Toronto wasn’t their usual selves. They need to rediscover their defensive identity.

The Toronto Raptors were not defensively sound in Game 1

Statistically, the Raptors’ troubles were easy to track. During the regular season, Toronto held opponents to 46.2% shooting from the field. However, against Philadelphia, Toronto allowed the 76ers to shoot 51.2% for the game.

Even though Embiid and James Harden combined for just 41 points, it was Tyrese Maxey who broke out with a game-high 38 points on a 14/21 shooting night. Tobias Harris was also productive with 26 points on 9/14.

It is hard to stop the 76ers if Harden and Embiid produce points and almost impossible if the supporting cast is allowed to get easy points as well. With just three forced turnovers despite coming into this game as one of the best teams in the league in forcing turnovers, that shows an abandonment of their defensive principles.

It was also telling that Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Gary Trent were a combined -61 for the game.

Perhaps there was too much focus on keeping the ball out of Embiid’s hands?. According to VanVleet, trying to contain Embiid might have meant that players like Maxey and Harris were allowed to run free.

"“He’s turned into Kevin Durant, Michael Jordan, Kobe, Shaq all put together…He’s handling a little bit more, he’s playing on the perimeter a little bit more, he’s facing up at the nail, he’s playing at the elbows so he can see where the help comes. … We’ve got our work cut out for us for sure.”"

In breaking down the game, some may point to the free-throw disparity of 34-23, the unmatched physicality of Embiid, and the great shooting of Tyrese Maxey as the main reasons for Philadelphia’s victory.

None of those things is a serious factor if Toronto’s true identity, lunch pail hard work on defense, isn’t evident during the game. There is room for improvement as this series progresses.

With Barnes hurt and Young available despite a thumb ailment, the Raptors must find a way to befuddle the 76ers’ offensive sets to create easy opportunities for themselves.

This is despite any injury problems they may face now. If the Raptors return to their chaotic defensive identity for Game 2 Monday night, this series could be 1-1 when the series moves to Toronto.

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