The Toronto Raptors were so hot down the stretch of the regular season that it’s easy to forget how little expectation there was last October.
Toronto were a projected play-in tournament team for a majority of the season, but their form in the last few months propelled them to a five seed, and they were a trendy upset pick heading into this first round duel with Philadelphia.
But the NBA playoffs can teach cruel lessons and humble young teams that believe they’re moving ahead of schedule. The Raptors season was a success regardless of this series results, but Wednesday night’s overtime loss served a sharp reality: this team just isn’t ready yet.
There’s nothing wrong with that truth though. They aren’t supposed to be in their contending years for quite a while yet – although Masai Ujiri can always put things on the fast-track – and injuries have also played a part, with Scottie Barnes missing time and Gary Trent Jr. playing through illness.
Toronto now trail the series 3-0, after a 104-101 OT loss, all but eliminating them even though they have a chance for redemption on Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena. NBA teams are 0-143 all time when trailing a series 3-0, and so it’s safe to say the odds aren’t exactly in the Raptors favour.
The first two losses on the road were domination, and although it may seem nonsensical, you actually learn less from a loss like that than you do in one such as Game 3. Games 1 and 2 were so poor that there wasn’t much you could actually take from them, other than Philadelphia heard the slander being spoken on them and made a statement on their home floor.
Wednesday night’s Game 3 however told a different story, as it provided a crystal-clear outline on where this team still has to improve. The Raptors led for a majority of the game, and only lost due to self-inflicted wounds that can often happen to inexperienced teams in the postseason.
Perhaps the most glaring issue of the night was free throw shooting. Especially in a series where you know the opposing team is going to shoot more free throws, you have little margin for error at the charity stripe. Unfortunately for the Raptors not only did they shoot 66% from the line which isn’t good enough, they missed three key ones down the stretch including back-to-back misses from Precious Achiuwa, where even one make would’ve likely given Toronto the win in regulation.
It may seem like a small part of the game, but free throws can often decide the winner and they definitely did last night. It was a sign of immaturity from the Raptors, who complained about the whistle repeatedly in the first two games but were unable to make it count in Game 3 when the calls began to even out.
The other major issue with this young group is that they don’t have a real closer. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet may be all-star calibre, but neither of them are capable of being the man down the stretch in close games and they’ve unfortunately proven that time and time again this season. The 76ers on the other hand showed that they do have a closer in Joel Embiid, and that made all the difference.
Embiid almost single-handedly won the game for Philly, while the Raptors haven’t had a player of that magnitude since Kawhi Leonard. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as the 76ers are in win-now mode while the Raptors are building for the future, and they have a young star in Barnes that could eventually become that guy.
Wednesday night provided a reminder that Siakam isn’t ready to be that guy, and VanVleet certainly isn’t either. It’s understood that VanVleet is playing through a bit of an injury, but that doesn’t excuse the shot selection. FVV shot 2/10 from long range Wednesday night including some late-game desperation heaves that decimated the flow of the offence. Siakam was playing at an All-NBA level for the last few months of the season, but has been unable to show any of that through the first three games in the series.
Both players are young and it’s not an extreme cause for concern past this season, but to use the same word, it’s a reminder that the Raptors are still developing. They don’t have a superstar yet, they don’t have a completed identity yet and they aren’t ready to compete with the biggest dogs in the Eastern Conference.
The good news is that with Ujiri at the helm things can change quickly, and the Raptors are still very much on the right track heading into next year and beyond.
There’s no need to panic in Raptorland, but it does seem as if fans will have to wait a while longer for this new core to win its first playoff series