3 silver linings from Raptors' early playoff exit

The Toronto Raptors' season ended in blowout fashion on Thursday night, losing Game 6 of their first-round matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers, 132-97. It was a disappointing end for the Raptors, and while the natural tendency is to get caught up in the roster deficiencies that were exploited in the series — including their lack of depth and shooting, and what they can do this offseason to improve — it would be silly to not take a moment to celebrate the incredibly fun season that was.

After all, the Raptors were one of the best stories in the entire NBA this season. They won 48 games after Vegas pinned their over/under at 36.5 and clinched the No. 5 seed in one of the most competitive Eastern Conferences in recent memory. They returned to Toronto and showed out in front of their fans, finishing the season on an impressive 14-4 run and rallied back from a 3-0 hole in the playoffs to become just the eighth team ever to force a Game 6 after going down 3-0.

Fred VanVleet was named an All-Star for the first time in his career. Scottie Barnes won Rookie of the Year, becoming the first Raptor to win the award since Vince Carter did it in 1999. And Pascal Siakam is likely going to be named to one of the All-NBA teams as one of the 15 best players in the league.

But those are just the individual accolades. Here are three big, bright silver linings from the Raptors season and short but sweet playoff run, including why they matter going forward:

Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam were impressive in the Raptors' series against the 76ers. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam were impressive in the Raptors' series against the 76ers. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

1. Siakam is a playoff stud

Without his starting point guard and best floor-spacer beside him for most of the series, and really without any space to work with, Siakam still thrived against the 76ers, bouncing back from a poor performance in the second half of Game 3 to dominate the next three games of the series and give Toronto a chance at making history.

Siakam averaged 23/7/6 on 48/24/86 shooting splits as the clear-cut No. 1 option against the Sixers, with a usage rating of 24.3 percent that was second to only Joel Embiid in the series. He scored when the Raptors needed a bucket despite the Sixers clogging the paint, where he does his best work, putting up mid-range shots and getting to the rim despite all the attention.

And perhaps most impressively, Siakam became the Raptors' defacto point guard and primary ball-handler with VanVleet out, assisting on 23 percent of his teammates’ buckets while turning the ball over less often than Embiid, James Harden, and Tobias Harris. Oh, and he did it all while being the Raptors' best defender during the series, racking up more than a block and a steal per game as he switched 1-through-5 and covered for his teammates’ mistakes.

“Coming into this season, obviously I had a lot of ambitions and goals and things that I wanted to accomplish," Siakam said about the season, which he came into with uncertainty due to an offseason shoulder surgery. "For me personally, I’m grateful. I think that’s the most important thing, just being grateful. After going through everything I went through, I was standing up and I worked really hard. My game has evolved a lot and I do feel confident with the offence running through me and being able to make decisions, which I think I got awfully better at.”

After a disappointing performance in the bubble due to COVID and a subpar season in Tampa Bay, there were fair questions about whether or not Siakam could be the No. 1 option, especially in the playoffs, where he had never proved that before. The answer was a resounding yes, because despite losing in six games and not shooting well from three, Siakam made the most out of what he had to work with, which was a supporting cast that couldn’t shoot and a Philadelphia defence that was tailored to limit him at all costs. Still, they couldn’t, and that only goes to show that with the right pieces around him, Siakam could not just be a good first option in the playoffs, but a great one.

2. Barnes’ game is taylor-made for the playoffs

Speaking of guys who proved that they could thrive on the big stage, Barnes was well on his way to what would have been the first triple-double in franchise history in his first-ever playoff game when Embiid stepped on his ankle in Game 1, sidelining him for the next two-and-a-half games. Fortunately for the Raptors, Barnes returned in Game 4 and looked like he belonged.

For a rookie without a reliable jump shot and who was prone to defensive mistakes during the season, it was fair to wonder how Barnes would fare in his first playoffs. But Barnes was great, averaging 13/9/4 while shooting 42.9 percent from the field and locking in on the defensive end as a crucial cog in the Raptors’ switchable machine, which happened to improve drastically when he returned. Coincidence? Maybe. But Barnes was another big body to throw at Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Embiid and his mere presence just added a level of size and physicality to the Raptors' defence.

“I think he just got a whole crash course on what it’s like. Probably as good of a year as a guy in his position: He got a ton of minutes, ton of experience at every position, offensively and defensively. He had some injuries he had to come back from. He pretty much did it all,” VanVleet said about Barnes’ rookie season.

“I’m excited to see what he comes back with next year. He’s obviously a heck of a player. He really helped us in a lot of ways and he was able to have playoff success. He crossed every box, he checked every box. What that looks like for him next year, I don’t know. I’m not really into putting that pressure on guys for what they’re going to be. But if he comes back any percent better than he was this year, we’ll be all right.”

The most impressive part of Barnes’ playoff run was his fearlessness. The 20-year-old rookie relentlessly went at some of the game's biggest stars, sizing up Harden on defence and going at Embiid on offence the next trip down the floor, clearly taking pride in outplaying the best players in the league.

As Nurse said ahead of the playoffs, Barnes has so many tools, making it difficult for an opposing team to stop him because if they take one thing away, he can adjust by going to another. He can defend on and off ball, finish in transition, pass in transition, finish at the rim, shoot in the mid-range, and more. But Barnes does need to work on his three-point shot this offseason, because he shot just 2-of-12 in the series despite the Sixers giving him free reign to fire away. If he can become more of a three-level scorer by next season, all bets are off.

3. The 6-foot-9 vision works

All season long, people questioned whether or not the Raptors would need a traditional 7-foot center to have any success in the playoffs. And when their first-round opponent was announced, it was clear that the Raptors were going to get the ultimate test for their switchy 6-foot-9 system by going up against the biggest and baddest center in the conference.

Embiid was the best player in this series, no doubt, and the Raptors threw everything that they had at him in order to limit him to 26/11/2 on 52/19/83 shooting splits, along with a 10.9 assist percentage and 13.7 turnover percentage. But look a little deeper and the Raptors did have success guarding Embiid without a traditional center themselves, limiting the Sixers to 104, 102, and 88 points in Games 3 through 5, forcing an average of 18 turnovers in those games. At their best, the Raptors were able to beat Embiid down the floor, deny him deep post position, double-team him from different angles, and rotate out to shooters after the pass.

Unfortunately, the Raptors failed to execute on that scheme at the start of the series and in the deciding game, and it’s likely that fatigue and inexperience played a part in that failure to execute. But as Thad Young said, “I think this team is on the cusp of doing something that's very unique, but it's effective. You’ve seen we're able to win games with a bunch of 6-foot-8 guys, and the good thing about this group is there’s a lot of interchangeable pieces that can play a lot of different parts and a lot of different roles, and everybody can step in and fulfill any role that needs to be fulfilled. And that's the great part about having so many guys that are versatile.”

However, the Raptors ultimately failed to get the job done against Embiid, and even if they were healthier and more experienced, it’s fair to wonder if their one-dimensional roster construction would have done them in, if not against the 76ers, than at some point further along in the playoffs. After all, it helps to be able to play different ways, shapeshifting between a small team with lots of shooting to a medium one with lots of switchability to a big one with lots of rim protection, and the Raptors didn’t have those options this season.

As VanVleet said, “I think what we’ve been best at around here is having multiple tools in the tool box. Let that [6-foot-9 vision] be one thing, maybe not the only thing. We use those lineups for an extended period of time, and then we might go big, we might go small. You just have to have everything… Basketball is such a flexible sport that you’ve got to have different options. Different things call for different matchups. Different series, having options never hurts.”

Sometimes different options come in the form of adding players, but sometimes increased versatility can happen internally, through the growth of existing players. And if there is a reason to believe that the Raptors can become more versatile defensively without adding a traditional center this offseason, his name is Precious Achiuwa.

The sophomore big man developed rapidly on both sides of the ball over the course of the season and has shown a real propensity for switching 1-through-5 at the defensive end, staying in front of speedy guards like Maxey and plodding bigs like Embiid, which is an extremely rare feat. In fact, it was Achiuwa’s ability to defend Embiid 1-on-1 for long stretches until the Raptors sent double-teams that gave them a chance in this series. If Achiuwa continues to improve at this rate, he should be a more than capable starting center next season, which could change what the Raptors prioritize this offseason.

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