Seconds after the final buzzer sounded, the television camera caught Raptors coach Nick Nurse and Sixers big man Joel Embiid having a cordial sideline conversation.
Philadelphia had just beaten Toronto 112-97 to take a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series and Embiid had run roughshod over the Raptors, scoring 12 of his 31 points on free throws, and hauling down 11 rebounds.
“(Embiid) was saying to me, ‘I’m going to keep making all the free throws, if you keep following,’ and I said, ‘Well, you might have to,'” Nurse said of the post-game chat that largely summed up the night.
“But (he’s) a good player, man. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He’s certainly playing great here.”
OG Anunoby had 26 points for the Raptors, who were playing without Scottie Barnes. Toronto’s prized rookie suffered a left ankle sprain in Game 1 and sat courtside in a walking boot. An ailing Gary Trent Jr., started the game but played only nine minutes.
Pascal Siakam had 20 points and 10 rebounds for Toronto. Fred VanVleet scored 20 points and Chris Boucher finished with 17 points and eight rebounds.
The best-of-seven series now heads to Toronto for Game 3 on Wednesday, the first time Scotiabank Arena has hosted playoff basketball since Game 5 of the NBA Finals in 2019.
Despite a pair of ugly losses in Philadelphia, the Raptors managed to claw back from a 27-point deficit to pull within 11 points on Monday, some positive momentum they say they can build on.
“One thing about this team all season, we never quit, we’re pretty good at facing adversity, we’ve responded to challenges throughout the year and you’ve got to love the fight and effort from guys,” VanVleet said. “As long as there’s time on the clock, we’re going to continue to fight and scrap.
“You saw that there, OG got hot, Chris had a good showing there late, so we’re trying to build on that going forward as we get ready to go home.”
Nurse said winning one game in Philadelphia, even if they’d been completely healthy, would have been considered an upset.
“And the way we finished the game, I don’t see (that) our guys are discouraged at all,” the coach said. “I think they’ll rise up and they’ll play better. We need to get one and we get ourselves back in the series.”
Toronto got off to a strong start and led by a point at the end of the first quarter.
“They wanted to muck the game up and play physical,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. ”I just told our guys to just play through it.”
But the Raptors then went ice cold, missing 14 consecutive field goals in a dry spell that straddled the second and third quarters. When Embiid knocked down a three-pointer late in the third, the Sixers led by 27 points to the delight of the noisy Wells Fargo Arena.
Philadelphia took a 95-71 advantage into the fourth quarter.
The Raptors finally showed some life, slicing the difference to 11 with a 15-0 run punctuated by an Anunoby three-pointer. The Sixers hit back though and when former Raptor Danny Green drove to the hoop for a dunk, Philadelphia was back up by 19 with 4:18 to play.
VanVleet knocked down a three-pointer with 1:12 to play that made it a 12-point game, but Toronto couldn’t get the deficit to single digits.
The Raptors are no strangers to trailing a series 0-2.
They dropped the first two games of the 2019 conference final in Milwaukee, prompting a hilarious line from former star Kawhi Leonard. When asked: “Where do you go from here?” a straight-faced Leonard said, “To Toronto for Game 3.”
The Raptors, of course, went on to win that series in six games before beating Golden State in the NBA Finals.
“Nobody is sad or defeated,” VanVleet said. “It’s the first to four and I’ve seen it plenty of times, so we’ve got a chance … go back home, get some home cooking, get in front of our fans, see if we can get a little bit momentum on our side there.
“One win at a time, get one and it’s a completely different look.”
Being short-handed has been a tough blow. Trent averaged 18 points against Philadelphia in the regular season, but struggled mightily on Monday.
He was held without a point and committed four fouls before calling it a night and heading to the locker-room early in the third quarter.
“Give him credit but he had nothing. Probably should have held him out,” Nurse said of the ill guard.
Barnes, meanwhile, put on a brave face at shootaround Monday. The finalist for NBA rookie of the year, who was two assists shy of a triple-double in his playoff debut Saturday, said his ankle was “feeling better, each and every day, for sure.”
After Toronto’s 131-111 loss in Game 1, Nurse challenged the officials before tipoff on Monday, saying “I hope they’ve got enough guts to at least stop the game and look at that stuff tonight.”
Less than two minutes into the game, Anunoby shoved Embiid, Embiid shoved back and both teams had to be separated as the crowd erupted. Anunoby and Embiid were both whistled for technical fouls.
Nurse wasn’t thrilled with the officiating in Game 2.
“There was another open-handed slap to the face. I don’t understand – why not call them?” he said. “At least there wasn’t as many elbows thrown to the face tonight that we had to endure.”
Embiid’s 19 first-quarter points – 11 of them from the free-throw line – matched his entire Game 1 total. But the Raptors got off to a hot start, taking an early nine-point lead.
VanVleet had four three-pointers and 15 points in the frame, and the Raptors led 33-32 to start the second. It was the first time Toronto had led Philadelphia after the first quarter all season.
The Raptors went cold in the second quarter, shooting 1-for-8 from long distance, and 34.8 per cent from the field. On the defensive end, they allowed the Sixers to shoot 57.9 per cent.
James Harden’s finger roll midway through the frame capped a 27-13 Sixers run that had them up by 13. They took a 67-52 advantage into the halftime break.
Game 4 is Saturday in Toronto. The series would head back to Philadelphia for Game 5 if necessary.
feature image: The Canadian Press/AP