The Toronto Raptors fought to the bitter end. And despite losing Game 6 to the Philadelphia 76ers, 132-97, and being eliminated from the first round of the NBA playoffs, the 2021-22 Raptors will be remembered for that fight for years to come.
Of course, it’s not often that you begin a season-ending eulogy by talking about a team’s silver linings, but in a season where nobody expected the Raptors to do anything meaningful, they were one of the best and most fun stories in the NBA, largely because of their ability to fight through adversity — which has become a big part of the franchise’s identity.
This is a team that no one expected to be in the playoffs, that fought their way to a No. 5 seed in a competitive Eastern Conference despite consistently losing their best players to injuries and COVID-related absences. It’s a team that nobody expected to fight out of a 3-0 hole once Joel Embiid hit a buzzer-beater in overtime of Game 3, that fought back in the series, becoming just the 14th out of 143 teams in NBA history to rally back and force a Game 6.
The Raptors lost Game 6, but they fought all game long and left it all on the floor. That’s cliche to say, but as a fan of a sports team, what else can you ask for? Especially coming off a two-year relocation due to a global pandemic, the Raptors returned to Toronto and gave their basketball-deprived fans something to cheer for. It wasn’t always easy, but they fought nonetheless.
“My message [after the game] was that, as a whole, I thought we went through a tremendous amount this year with a number of things and we just kept fighting and kept playing and kept getting better and kept figuring things out,” Nick Nurse said about his message to the locker room following the loss.
“And it was never really smooth, right? There was always a big ol’ bump in the road. We’d win six and three guys would get hurt and we'd have to reassemble and lose three and win six and lose three and, you know, it was continually picking ourselves back up all year long. And I give ‘em a lot of credit for that, [for] hanging in there.”
When I asked franchise icon Kyle Lowry if this year’s team reminds him of the best teams that he played for as a member of the Raptors, this is how he responded:
“Yeah. They play hard every night. They're all over the place. They scramble. They're athletic, they help each other very well. They don't give up much.”
“They remind me a lot of just the team that, when we were down 15 in the fourth quarter, we [used to] find ways to win games, scrap and claw and find a way, and fight to win a game. That's what these guys do. There's never a moment where they just don't feel like they can't win the game.”
The same can be said for the Raptors' ability to bounce back after a loss. In fact, the team never lost more than three games in a row this season and they made this series competitive after it looked like the Sixers might sweep them following Game 3. Becoming one of just eight teams to force a Game 6 in that situation is telling, and it says a lot about this roster’s belief in themselves and their ability to band together as a group instead of turning on each other when their chips were down.
“I think the piece that we have is just the togetherness. Like, we all understand what we have to do, we understand the job, we understand the task at hand. And that togetherness is what brings us into the building each and every day. And it brings us and makes us work. It gets us the wins that we need. And it puts us in the mode of knowing that we can trust each other,” Thad Young said about the Raptors.
“We go out there and we play as hard as we can, everybody listens to each other, no one man is bigger than the team, and that’s why we’re able to go out there and win basketball games.”
Considering the makeup of the Raptors’ team, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they are a group of fighters. After all, these are mostly players who were overlooked throughout their careers and to an extent still are as the only team North of the border, especially considering that Game 6 was played on NBA TV rather than TNT or ESPN in the United States. The highest draft pick on the Raptors outside of rookie Scottie Barnes is deadline acquisition Thad Young at No. 12, while their opponent is famous for accruing multiple top-3 picks in a row during their “process era.” They are players who have defied the odds their entire careers, so it’s no wonder so many of them have a chip on their shoulder.
There are multiple ways to build a basketball team, of course, but what the Raptors have done is admirable because they are in many cases less concerned about natural skill and more concerned about character. Namely, are you willing to outwork your opponents, not just during the games, but also in the gym when nobody is watching? Are you willing to leave it all out there, despite the toll it takes on your body and mind over the course of an 82-game season? And are you willing to do it all in the service of the team rather than the individual?
When you look at the fight the Raptors have shown and the development of their players over the course of the season, it seems obvious that the answers to all those questions are a residing: yes. And again, as a fan of a sports team, what else can you ask for?
Breaking it down
Ultimately, the Raptors were undone by their inability to space the floor and hit three-pointers against the Sixers, not just in the deciding Game 6, but throughout the course of the series, putting too much pressure on Pascal Siakam to create without any room to do it.
In fact, the Raptors shot 23, 25, and 20 percent from three over the last three games of the series, while the Sixers shot 40 percent in the deciding game, outscoring them 48-21 from three in Game 6.
While both teams had similar game plans to take away the paint — where each team’s star player best operates — and to force the role players to beat them from the outside, it was the Sixers’ role players who won the battle, with Danny Green hitting as many threes (5) as all of the Raptors starters in Game 6.
“We have to develop in a lot of areas, and that’s definitely one of them,” Pascal Siakam told me after the game. “I think we took a lot of steps, we got a lot better. You can see that in the season. It was obviously up and down, but we did get better. Knowing this team and our front office and the people that we have in the organization, I know that the goal is to continue to get better and we’re going to look at all those areas and improve and be a way better team next year.”
The Raptors will have the full mid-level exception to spend in free agency, and they should target a shooter to help the trio of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. — their only reliable high-volume three-point shooters this season. However, as Siakam alludes to, the Raptors will need internal development from beyond the arc as well. They shot the three-ball at the 10th-lowest percentage in the league this season, and that will have to improve for this team to take some pressure off of their stars and to ultimately take the next step towards contention.
Chris Boucher scored a playoff career-high 19 points… in the first half. The 28-year-old forward from Montreal was everywhere in this one, finishing with 25 points and 10 rebounds. He immediately provided the Raptors with an energy boost off the bench, bouncing back from a slow start of the season to become one of their most important players in the deciding game.
Boucher — with the help of facilitator-extraordinaire Thad Young, or Thagic Johnson — broke the Sixers’ zone defence in the second quarter of this game after he constantly cut behind the Sixers backline of defence and finished at the rim, forcing them to adjust.
Thad Young: Zone buster pic.twitter.com/SDdXE7Yiv9
— Raptors Republic 🇺🇦 (@raptorsrepublic) April 28, 2022
After scoring just 29 points in the first quarter due in large part to that zone defence, the Raptors exploded for 34 points in Q2, because after Boucher busted the zone with his hustle and cutting, Pascal Siakam started to carve apart the man-defence the Sixers went to. In fact, those two combined to score the Raptors' first 15 points of the second quarter, but it was all because Boucher provided the unlikely spark off the bench to force the Sixers to change their defence, which allowed Siakam to start cooking.
“Yeah, I mean, listen, when he gives that relentless energy like that, he can make a lot of good things happen,” Nurse said about Boucher. “He was cutting and flying around and rebounding… We really needed him because I thought we didn't get much from some other areas tonight. So at least we got a huge night from him off the bench.”
Boucher will be an unrestricted free agent this summer but the Raptors hold his bird rights, giving them the ability to go over the salary cap to re-sign him. He developed a really nice chemistry with Young off the bench and the Raptors could theoretically bring those two back in order to have a similar dynamic next year, should they choose to. Either way, after a slow start to the season, Boucher bounced back in a big way. And when he gets paid this summer, he will deserve every dollar that he makes.
News and notes
Be on the lookout for more end-of-season coverage from me in the coming days on this website. You can also follow me on Twitter (@OrenWeisfeld) for more coverage.
Thank you all so much for reading along and making this season so great. Appreciate you all!
More from Yahoo Sports