A week ago the Toronto Raptors looked like they were teetering on the edge of obscurity. They were 12-15, coming off an embarrassing loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves and entering a five-game stretch that included four games against the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. If things had gone poorly, the Raptors might have folded, packed up shop, and begun the process of selling off assets ahead of the March NBA Trade Deadline.
Four games into that five-game stretch and the Raptors have run off four straight victories, are one game over .500 for the first time all season, and just knocked off the Eastern Conference-leading 76ers 110-103 on Sunday night. They've gone from the NBA's middle class to a team that appears to be Eastern Conference playoff contenders.
"Tonight was a real big game. They're obviously number one in the East. Super talented," DeAndre' Bembry said. "We beat a couple good teams recently, and we still think we can do a lot more. That's just what we're doing so far. We're a confident team. Collectively, we still think that we can get a lot better."
It's been a very strange start to the season. A 2-8 start to the year masked what appears to be a very talented team. The Raptors haven't just strung together 14-7 stretch since that woeful start, they've done it with some legitimate statement wins.
Over the past four games alone, they've done their best to hold the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and 2021 MVP contender Joel Embiid in check. On Sunday, a lot of that success had to do with Aron Baynes. The Raptors' centre came off the bench and held his own against Embiid, allowing the 76ers' star to score just 25 points on 31.6% shooting.
"We kind of had to have him in there," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Baynes. "I thought he battled [Embiid] hard and I thought he put his body on him just enough, he got called for some [fouls], but it's okay, he got his money's worth on a few of them."
Things weren't so pretty when Baynes was off the floor to start the game. Toronto fell into a nine-point hole before Baynes checked in and were trailing by 12 late into the quarter. That was until Fred VanVleet stepped into the phone booth and came out superman. In the span of one minute, the Raptors' 6-foot guard nailed three straight 3-pointers, helping to spur the Raptors on a 16-0 run to end the quarter. He even threw up a fadeaway desperation 3-pointer that banked in as the shot clock expired.
"I do practice dumb shots like that all the time," he said. "As bad as I shot the other night, I think the basketball gods owed me a couple tonight."
When the fourth quarter rolled around the Raptors took advantage of some Embiid-less minutes by using Chris Boucher as the lone big. The 76ers had no answer for Toronto's stretch big. Boucher just crept out behind the 3-point line and completely threw off Dwight Howard's dropback defence.
Instead of attacking inside, Boucher nailed three of his season-high five 3-pointers in the quarter. He scored a team-high 11 of his 17 points in the final frame alone.
Up Next: Philadelphia 76ers
The Raptors will see the 76ers again on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET.