The Raptors are as confident as they’ve ever been

TORONTO — Five minutes into the Toronto Raptors‘ 108-95 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series, the crowd at Scotiabank Arena roared in anticipation.

The player with possession wasn’t Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry or Pascal Siakam, because Toronto was defending in half court. Sixers center Joel Embiid worked off the lane on the right side one-on-one against Marc Gasol, his Toronto counterpart. Embiid unleashed his full repertoire of footwork, but Gasol absorbed every jab, drop step and pivot, affording Embiid not a modicum of space. Embiid was ultimately forced to kick the ball out for the Sixers to reset.

NBA arenas rarely offer rousing applause mid-possession, but Raptors fans understand the value of neutralizing Embiid in this series. And they also recognize quality bodychecking when they see it.

“They like hockey,” Gasol said after the game in appreciation of their defensive appreciation.

The Raptors dominated the Sixers on both ends of the court Saturday night, and while it wasn’t a perfect outing, Toronto largely executed the big-ticket items on its Game 1 agenda.

With 45 points, Leonard matched his career high, regular season or playoffs. Siakam was a paragon of efficiency while scoring 29 points on 80 percent shooting, slicing through the Philadelphia defense to the rim at ease; that was the highest field goal percentage by a Raptors player in a 25-point playoff game, per ESPN Stats & Information. Gasol and Serge Ibaka — once he found his footing in the second half — led a team-wide defensive effort that challenged Embiid with aggressive but selective help. Lowry managed a poised and hyper-intelligent game, and Toronto’s transition defense stifled Philadelphia’s break.

“We came out, just played our type of game, our brand of basketball,” Lowry said.

In the two weeks since they dropped their postseason opener to Orlando, the Raptors have cultivated a steely confidence. NBA playoff basketball is essentially advanced problem-solving, and with each successive victory, the Raptors look, sound and behave like a team that feels it can crack any code presented to it over a seven-game series.

Any apprehension that a starting unit that played together for only 161 minutes over 14 games might not share the kind of 5-man telepathy needed to play championship-caliber basketball has been extinguished. Toronto’s current rotation has too much experience, basketball IQ and collective character to fall victim to common postseason pressures. On those criteria, the Raptors believe they match up with any team left in the playoff field.

After missing all but nine regular-season games in 2017-18, Leonard is a physical marvel. The combination of strength, precision, handle, footwork, and vision are indomitable, especially when he converts 11 out of 17 of his contested field goal attempts, as he did in Game 1. The Sixers never fully committed to sending additional bodies at Leonard, and he punished them for that miscalculation, one Sixers coach Brett Brown conceded afterward.

“A big-time performance at both ends,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I just like the force he’s playing with at both ends, but especially when he’s getting the ball. He’s pushing it up the floor. He’s punching the gaps with force. He’s determined to get to spaces.”

Then there was Siakam, all arms and legs, dribble-drives, and leaners off the glass while suspending himself above and between defenders. Nothing about his game is conventional or refined, but its effectiveness is unquestionable against NBA defenses that seem as if they still haven’t figured out with what they’re actually contending.

“It’s unbelievable,” Lowry said. “He’s just growing, man. The talent is there. He’s fantastically just understanding how to play and his confidence level just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

The starting backcourt of Lowry and Danny Green scored only 16 points, but does it matter when Green provides top-flight transition defense and gravity on offense? When Lowry steps in for two charges and draws a third offensive foul off the ball, while greasing the wheels for Leonard and Siakam? When Philadelphia’s perimeter platoon had to work tirelessly against them to find shots within their scripted offense?

It’s rare that an NBA conference semifinals series carries so much weight for both opponents, but no two NBA teams assumed more risk over the past year to accelerate their timetables than Toronto and Philadelphia.

The Raptors shipped out a beloved franchise player and overhauled their starting unit, which is nearly unrecognizable from the core that propelled their previous postseason runs. The Raptors received no guarantee that Leonard would remain in Toronto long term, but opportunities to acquire an exceptional two-way talent with championship pedigree are rare. As Toronto president Masai Ujiri conveyed last fall, the definition of insanity is performing the same event repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. After an interminable string of premature playoff exits during the DeRozan-Lowry era, the Raptors were all out of crazy.

Whereas the Raptors were compelled to push all-in after plateauing in the East, the Sixers were built on patience. Philadelphia ownership afforded its front office a lengthy runway to build a team gradually, piece by piece. After winning fewer than a quarter of their games over a four-year span, the Sixers popped last season, jumping from 28 to 52 wins in a single season and reaching the conference semis last spring. But after a dispiriting series loss to Boston and watching Milwaukee and Toronto improve dramatically last summer and fall, the Sixers traded present and future assets for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. As recently as last month, Sixers owner Joshua Harris said an early playoff exit would be “problematic” and “now the pressure is on to deliver.”

This matchup between the Raptors and Sixers is one of the most fateful series in recent memory, because when two teams with legitimate title aspirations meet in April, there’s a mathematical certainty that one of them will regard the season as an unmitigated disaster. Both teams raised the stakes, and one will have to live with the consequences.

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