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For one afternoon, at least, these were the Toronto Raptors as Masai Ujiri intended.

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Pascal Siakam, after a couple of mediocre games and one poor one, was excellent, pouring in 34 points and, more importantly, playing offense with confidence and aggression.

Scottie Barnes, newly returned to the lineup after a sprained ankle, was named NBA Rookie of the Year just before typoff and then went out and did many of the things that won him the award: hustling, rebounding, defending and just being a bundle of energy, the basketball version of a puppy whose owner has just returned home.

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The whole of the Raptors roster was, meanwhile, flying all over the place, employing the Everyone, Everywhere All at Once defense to hold the Philadelphia 76ers at bay in a 110-102 victory that avoided a series sweep and sent it back to Pennsylvania, where the Raptors will again try to keep themselves alive.

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Head coach Nick Nurse, who had earlier called for a need for “Toronto Raptors defense,” was pleased to see a version of that return, with his team forcing 16 turnovers and making the Sixers work for their shots.

The Raptors won the rebounding battle, particularly on the offensive end, and took more free throws than the Sixers, reversing trends from earlier in the series.

Toronto played well enough in most aspects that they survived another dreadful game from beyond the three-point line, hitting just eight of 34 attempts — a cover-your-eyes 24 per cent — as the Scotiabank Arena was repeatedly denied the opportunity to burst out of its seats in glee.

In terms of what that result means for this particular series, the likelihood remains that it does not mean that much at all. NBA teams are 0-143 in series in which they drop the first three games, and the Raptors still need to win three in a row, with two of them coming at Wells Fargo Arena.

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Fred VanVleet, the all-star point guard who has labored with a knee injury for much the past month, did something to his hip late in the first half, ripping his jersey in frustration as he left the court and headed to the locker room. It was the action of an athlete who knew he wasn’t coming back soon. Further testing will determine the extent of the injury, but if VanVleet is unable to go for Game 5 that will only make Toronto’s task more difficult.

The Raptors single biggest strength in this series is that they have better depth than a Philadelphia team that leans heavily on Joel Embiid and James Harden; without one of their key pieces that advantage disappears.

But that is a worry for later. The reality of what this series became after Siakam and VanVleet struggled down the stretch in Game 3, and then the team collectively blew a gasket while defending an inbounds play at the end of overtime that allowed Embiid to hit the game-winner, is that the Raptors’ best — and only — hope was to acquire themselves game by game and not think about winning four in a row.
And, so, Job 1 is done. But if they cannot repeat that act three more times, regardless of how much solace Raptors fans might take in Sixers coach Doc Rivers’ history of blown 3-1 series leads, they managed to demonstrate that this combination of players could, in fact, be the annoying opponent that they were expected to be against Philadelphia.

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With VanVleet out of the picture, Siakam played almost 22 minutes in the second half, and he had 15 points in the fourth quarter, most of them coming from the free-throw line, where he had 15 attempts for the game.

That’s the Siakam that the Raptors need, one who takes the ball in among the large bodies and draws contact if his outside shots aren’t falling.

Barnes, meanwhile, was evidently rusty and tentative, both of which are understandable on a tender ankle. He made only one basket, but his size and athleticism from him are extraordinarily effective on the defensive end, where he could switch from guarding Embiid to Harden on the same play. At just 20 years old, he has plenty of time to improve his offensive game and become either the first option or the 1A to Siakam.

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And it says a lot about this particular team that two of their biggest shots in the closing minutes came from guys who had struggled on offense all game.

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OG Anunoby was 0-for-6 on three-point attempts until he took — and made — his seventh with just under four minutes to play. That basket pushed the Raptor lead up to 12 after the Sixers had trimmed it down a couple of times in the final frame. And with two minutes left, the ball came out to Precious Achiuwa beyond the arc, who quickly stepped past a defend, continued to the hoop and dropped in a pretty left-handed finish. It was only his second made basket of him on the night.

This was the Raptors in their ideal state. They come at you in long, rangy waves, and on the other end they have no one obvious scoring threat, but a bunch of guys who don’t seem to mind taking big shots. When it works, it is great fun.

Will it work three more times? They will see on Monday, and go from there.

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