In enemy territory, and on the biggest stage for many of them, the young Toronto Raptors could have withered without their all-star point guard in Philadelphia on Monday night.
But in a season rife with injuries, the Raptors have learned to win with — and without — the guiding hand of Fred VanVleet.
Hours after VanVleet announced he was out for Game 5 with a strained left hip flexor, the Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers 103-88, holding off elimination for the second time in as many games. Now the Raptors head back home for Game 6, with the chance of sending the series to seven games and pulling off a comeback that’s never been done in NBA history.
“I think we did a pretty good job,” said Pascal Siakam, who had 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, and did an admirable job quarterbacking the team. “For me just sometimes trying to take that pressure, make sure everyone is calm, bringing the ball up and calling something or even seeing coach out there on the sideline racing and making sure he gets us into something. I think as long as we do that and with them making shots . . . I think we will be OK.”
VanVleet missed 13 games in the regular season starting late January with a bruised knee, and the Raptors won nine of them.
Coach Nick Nurse pointed out the team also practised without him for much of that stretch. VanVleet is questionable for Thursday’s Game 6 with the hip flexor, an injury that’s bothered him on and off all season.
The Raptors also won on Philly’s home turf Monday in front of a notoriously rowdy crowd. They were still rowdy — but the anger was directed toward their own team.
“Before the game I told all the guys it was going to be loud in here,” Siakam said. “But we have to listen to our voices — the guys on the floor, the guys on the bench. Communication is not just telling a teammate he has messed up a play. We have to stay together. They are going to make runs. They are going to score.
“The crowd is going to get loud but as long as we’re locked in and I’m looking my teammate in the eye and we know that like ‘I got you’ or ‘We made a mistake,’ talk it out and just continue to move on.”
While no NBA team has come back from trailing 3-0 to win a best-of-seven series, the magnitude of the task hasn’t seemed to ruffle the Raptors. Nurse called it a “heckuva challenge.”
Sixers coach Doc Rivers has been on the wrong side of history. He’s the only NBA coach to cough up three 3-1 series leads. Rivers has lost seven of his last eight chances to close out a series. His 31 losses in those games are already the most by a coach in NBA history.
The Raptors have some momentum on their side. With VanVleet out, Barnes was excellent in his second game after missing two with a sprained ankle, and Precious Achiuwa, like time-lapse photography, is growing before everyone’s eyes. He played just 12 total minutes with Miami in last season’s playoffs.
And the Raptors are settling into the defence that had been their calling card in the regular season.
“I talked about it after the first two games and you guys were asked me ‘What the hell’s wrong with your defence?’ And I said ‘Everything,'” said Nurse.
VanVleet, who was the first off the bench in his mint green track suit to meet players heading to the bench for timeouts Monday, would love to see the Raptors extend their post-season run to another series.
“I would feel great about maybe playing in the next round,” he said. “Nobody believes we can do it, but I think we can, so I would feel good about that. I’m going to stay positive and get as much rehab as I can, and take it a day at a time.”
In the meantime, Siakam and Barnes will continue to bring the ball up the floor as de facto point guards.
“Those guys gotta handle the ball a lot, that’s not easy to do, to bring the ball up the court the whole game,” Nurse said. “It’s good that they can do it a little bit in tandem. That’s the main thing.”
The Sixers have suffered the sting of a playoff loss to Toronto, losing in seven games in the 2019 conference semifinals on Kawhi Leonard’s famous buzzer-beater. Sixers perennial all-star Joel Embiid left the court crying. Leonard and the Raptors went on to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The Sixers will leave Matisse Thybulle home when they travel to Toronto. He can’t enter Canada since he’s not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Game 7, if needed, would be in Philly on Saturday.