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TORONTO, ON – The city was different, but the challenge remained the same. In the finale of a two-game road trip, the 76ers again found themselves facing the task of trying to knock off a team loading up for a legitimate Eastern Conference title run.
Their roster slightly more reinforced than it was Friday in Cleveland, the Sixers received another encouraging late-season performance from one of their two first-round picks from last year’s draft. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot’s career-high 23 points, however, weren’t enough, as the Toronto Raptors toppled the Sixers, 113-105, in front of a sellout crowd of 19,800 at Air Canada Centre.
With the front line tandem of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas flexing its muscle, and DeMar DeRozan doing just enough scoring in a key facilitating role, the Raptors, tied for third in the East, won for the ninth time in 10 games.
The Sixers trailed by as many as 17 points Sunday evening, but didn’t back down. They closed the gap to a possession in third quarter, and summoned up a late surge in the fourth as well.
“It’s just we are all committed to ending the season the way that we have been playing,” Brett Brown said afterwards. “None of us intend on just rolling over. We’re playing with a spirit, which I’ve said many times, I hope the city of Philadelphia is proud of.”
Ibaka paced all players with 24 points, stuffing the stat sheet with six rebounds and a season-best six blocked shots as well. He delivered four swats in the first quarter alone.
“He really is an elite, modern day four man,” said Brown, who had to scheme against Ibaka plenty during his stint as a San Antonio assistant, and while Ibaka was with Oklahoma City. “I think that Serge Ibaka is an unbelievable pick-up for this organization as they start gearing up for the playoffs.”
Valanciunas, meanwhile, used an assortment of dunks to crank out 14 points and eight rebounds. DeRozan, content to spread the ball around for most of Sunday’s affair, posted 17 points and nine assists.
With the Sixers down 14 points early in the third quarter, Luwawu-Cabarrot gave his club a spark by throwing down a vicious baseline dunk. Dario Saric swiftly picked up the offensive baton from there, ripping off a string of of seven consecutive points to whittle the Sixers’ deficit to four, 65-61.
The Sixers trudged even closer with five minutes to go in the third, when Luwawu-Cabarrot re-emerged with a timely steal. He subsequently zoomed down the floor for a lay-up, and the score stood at 71-68.
Passing up scoring opportunities with what seemed like deliberate intent for most of Sunday’s game, DeRozan quickly changed his approach. The three-time All-Star, fifth in the NBA in points per game, knew what had to be done. He tallied nine of the Raptors’ next 13 points, fueling a spurt that put the hosts in the driver’s seat of the Atlantic Division duel.
“He is such a gifted scorer,” Brown said. DeRozan was an efficient 6 for 11 from the field, and five for five from the free throw line.
”He can play like he did in the first half, where he had eight assists and was more of a facilitator, and then he jumped into the game more offensively from a scoring perspective in the second half. He’s an All-Star for a reason – he’s one of the best scorers in the league, and we felt every bit of that in the second half.”
Two minutes into the fourth frame, the Sixers managed to charge back to within seven points on a Shawn Long 3-pointer, but, with its reserves leading the way, Toronto maintained control. The Raptors, division champions the last three seasons, rested Ibaka, Valanciunas, DeRozan, and DeMarre Carroll in the final quarter.
For the second straight game, Luwawu-Cabarrot established a new personal-high in points. He scored 19 on Friday against the Cavaliers.
“He’s just growing,” said Brown. “We can all see it. He jumps into the thing in a big way.”
From Sunday’s opening jump, Luwawu-Cabarrot was dialed in. He connected on each of his three 3-point attempts in the first quarter, and unfurled a driving lay-up as well, to end the period with 11 points. Throughout the night, his athleticism, speed, shooting touch, and willingness to take the ball inside brought an energetic presence to the court.
“What everyone would see is he’s making shots,” Brown said. “What we see is his preparation into his shot. We study his feet, we study his hands, we talk about his footwork into his spacing, and how he navigates the 3-point line. From a fundamental perspective, he’s growing the technique of an NBA shot. Then, he’s taken his game defensively I think to higher levels.”
In outings this weekend versus Cleveland and Toronto, two clubs considered to be among the East’s elite, Luwawu-Cabarrot’s growth and potential were on display. For the trip, he totaled 42 points, and nailed 14 of 30 shots from the field.
“He’s really had an excellent final third, that post All-Star break period,” Brown assessed. “He’s taken this opportunity and ran with it.”
As was the case Friday against the Cavaliers, the Sixers enjoyed a promising start. Different from their visit to Quicken Loans Arena, though, was that through one quarter Sunday in Toronto, the Sixers held the lead, 29-28.
Bidding for their first triumph north of the border since November of 2012, the Sixers hung tough with the Raptors through the middle stages of the second quarter. A stepback three from Nik Stauskas, who grew up about a half hour west of Toronto, made it a 44-43 game, in favor of the Raptors, with under five minutes to go in the half. Toronto then dialed up a 15-2 blitz to carry a 59-49 advantage into the locker room.
After falling behind by 17 late in the fourth, the Sixers pieced together 11 straight points to scrap back, 111-105, but rookie big man Jakob Poeltl threw down a slam to effectively put the tilt out of reach.
”We just couldn’t get over the hump,” said Stauskas. “We were trying to put on a press, we were trying to slow them down a little bit, trying to get some turnovers, and they showed why they are one of the best teams in the league. They were poised throughout the entire fourth quarter, and we just couldn’t get over the hump.”
The Raptors converted 54.1 percent of their shots Sunday, while manufacturing 29 points off the Sixers’ 21 turnovers, and muscling out 58 points in the paint.
Prior to Sunday’s tip-off, the Sixers announced that, as a result of a sore left heel, Saric would be placed on a guideline of 24 minutes worth of playing time. He ended up logging that exact amount, finishing with 16 points, 14 of which were generated in the second half.
“We played a good game,” Saric said. “We were solid on both sides of the court, and just think if I was without this minutes restriction, and if we have one more player, maybe we win this game.”
In lieu of the Sixers’ recent rash of injuries, the organization was granted a medical hardship exception, and used it to sign forward Alex Poythress. An undrafted rookie free agent this past June, the Kentucky product had spent the entire season with Fort Wayne of the NBA Development League before the Sixers called.
Sporting the Sixers’ no. 5 jersey, he checked into Sunday’s contest at the 4 minute, 28 second mark of the first quarter. Moments later, he threw down a slam dunk for his first career field goal. Poythress accounted for 11 points (4-8 fg) and three rebounds in 24 minutes.
”Alex had a great game,” said Stauskas. “He wasn’t shy, he took his opportunities when they were there, and that’s all we can ask from him.”
The road trip was a productive one to say the least for Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who has held down a starting spot on the wing for the last three weeks. He scored in a variety of ways against the veteran Raptors, but none of his baskets Sunday night – or this entire season, perhaps – were as emphatic as this deposit, which came in the third quarter.
Timothé Luwawu-CabaWOAH. pic.twitter.com/OxUe3v47zR
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 2, 2017
After logging plenty of miles on the road the previous three weeks, the Sixers will open up a welcomed four-game homestand Tuesday, hosting the Brooklyn Nets. Including last Tuesday’s 106-101 victory at Barclays Center, the Sixers have beaten Brooklyn in all three meetings between the Atlantic Division rivals this season. With a victory Tuesday, the Sixers would earn a series sweep of the Nets for the first time since 2010-2011.
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