Philadelphia Sixers throw Toronto Raptors into funk as Kawhi Leonard return looms

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In a season that was always going to be figuring out just how good some of the young players on the roster can be, how good Kyle Lowry can be approaching the age of 34, Marc Gasol approaching 35, and just what the Toronto Raptors are stripped of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green’s services, there were bound to be stretches like this.

Frankly, that it hasn’t come sooner is a testament to just how good they’ve been to this point.

Toronto has now lost three straight, something that, believe it or not, actually happened last season — in mid-November against what wasn’t exactly murderer’s row in the New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics. Toronto then rattled off eight-straight wins and all was well with the world once again.

While a bounce-back in Chicago would be the odds-on result, a stretch that includes the L.A. Clippers, a Brooklyn Nets team that appears to have turned a corner in the absence of Kyrie Irving, the Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers and the Boston Celtics (twice) in six of the next nine games suggests an extended win streak may not be in the cards this time around.

In short, things could possibly get worse before they get better. So the question becomes, how bad are things right now, really?

To start, give credit where credit is due. After a slow start to Sunday’s 110-104 win over Toronto, the Philadelphia 76ers had a strong close to the first quarter in the absence of Marc Gasol, who got pinched with two fouls, then rode that momentum until the final few minutes of the fourth quarter. Like quality teams have done against the Raptors, the Sixers employed a heavy switching scheme that allowed them to consistently stay in front of Toronto’s ball handlers, taking away any sliver of space their actions looked to create. Win the half-court battle and limit Toronto’s transition game, and you’ve likely won the game.

Philadelphia limited Toronto to 78.8 points per-100 half-court possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, while scoring 101.1 points-per themselves, and that’s despite a 15-4 run by the Raptors with 3:16 remaining courtesy of an extremely aggressive full-court press.

The switching scheme Toronto has seen of late seems to correlate with opponents identifying that there isn’t a thoroughbred shot creator in 5-on-5 action outside of Pascal Siakam. To make matters worse on this night, Fred VanVleet exited the game in the first half with a right-knee contusion and did not return. Teams have been able to key in on the league’s Most Improved Player, and his hesitation seems to stem from wanting to keep the ball moving in anticipation of the double-team. They sit with soft-doubles, he waits, waits some more, and it’s disrupting both the rhythm of the team and his own flow.

Siakam spoke of the need to be aggressive night-in and night-out after the Heat game but the difficulty he’s had against tougher opposition suggest it’s not just an effort thing. He’s vaulted himself into a position where he has the utmost respect of the opposition, and with that comes the toughest test on a nightly basis: Being the focal point of the opposition’s scouting report. The days of, “Oh, he can do that?” have been replaced with, “Here’s everything in his arsenal and this is how we take them away.”

It appears he’s looking to get his jumper going early so as to open up the rest of his game, but when that’s not falling for him, it has forced him to create out of the post against defenders who are adept at holding their own inside. One of the biggest problems right now is that when he is drawing the extra attention and swinging the ball, his teammates aren’t making opponents pay. Over the last three games, the Raptors have shot just 34-for-115 (29.6%) from 3-point range compared to a 40.2% mark (tops in the league) entering last Tuesday’s contest against the Heat.

Toronto was bound to cool off at some point with players like OG Anunoby shooting over 50% from beyond the arc at one point, and whether there’s noise to it coming during this difficult stretch or there’s something more behind it is too soon to say. Thus far, there’s been a healthy mix of shots you’d normally expect the Raptors to make, some ill-advised shots early in the clock, as well as these teams defending well enough that the Raptors are working extremely hard to create these looks and having to go up against the shot clock.

Pascal Siakam has had a tough go against strong opposition. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Offence is about rhythm, and the returns of Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka during a particularly difficult stretch of the schedule is both a blessing and a curse. Both players are needed for the Raptors to be at their best against the best, but having to acclimate them to the new order of things after the bench found their identity has proven especially difficult with the ever-so-slight breathing room their formidable opponents have allowed.

The expectation was that since the Raptors went 9-2 in Lowry’s absence, things would only get better upon his return. That’s just not how it works. Re-integration comes with its own set of challenges, and the Raptors are learning that the hard way. Lowry and Ibaka were both key cogs of a team that started 6-2, and there was plenty of chemistry then. There is clearly a need to rediscover it, but the fact that it is still early December can’t be understated.

Toronto is in a funk and good teams have dared them to be better, and until further notice, it remains just that.

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