Game Preview | Division Foes Share Mutual Respect

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

Scene Setter:

TORONTO, ONT - The 76ers and Toronto Raptors don’t need to play each other twice in the span of three short days to be plenty familiar with each other.

The clubs, after all, share affiliation in the Atlantic Division, a dynamic that requires them to square off four times every season, which they’ve done dating back to 1995, Toronto’s first year of existence.

In the two decades-plus that have since passed, the Sixers’ rivalry with the Raptors has experienced plenty of twists and turns. The Sixers had control early on, pretty much up through the epic Iverson-Carter era Eastern Conference Playoff showdown in 2001 that went seven games.

Then, there was a period of generally even play that followed, before Toronto, while ascending to the status perennial division title contender, seized its current stranglehold on the series, with 17 wins in the clubs’ last 18 match-ups.

Amidst their battles, however, it seems as if an underlying respect has been built between the Sixers and Raps’ players and coaches alike, as comments surrounding Thursday’s meeting at The Center revealed. Brett Brown, for instance, expressed the opinion that Dwane Casey’s squad should be getting more recognition for recently shooting up the rungs of the Eastern Conference standings, instead of having done so in relatively quiet fashion.

“We’re playing against a team that is so underappreciated to me,” Brown said Thursday, during his pre-game media availability. “They don’t really get talked about much.”

The performance that the Raptors proceeded to turn in in the hours that followed showed just why they should be.

Trailing by 22 points in the third quarter, the potent backcourt combo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry led an impressive comeback surge that ended in Toronto sneaking out a 114-109 win, its fifth straight, and 11th in 12 games.

“The’ve got a few All-Stars, repetitively go to the playoffs, and often times deep,” said Brown, who admires how the Raptors, save for last year’s Serge Ibaka splash at the trade deadline, have evolved using a mostly organic, homegrown approach.

Arguably no player on Toronto’s roster has personified the franchise’s rise as much as DeRozan, whom Bryan Colangelo, then in charge of the Raptors, drafted ninth overall in 2009. The shooting guard has since blossomed into one of the most dangerous scorers in the league, not only an All-Star, but an Olympian as well.

He was particularly fantastic Thursday, erupting for a career-high 45 points thanks to a potent, efficient 3-point shooting display. It’s an area not generally viewed as the biggest strength of DeRozan’s offensive game.

Afterwards, DeRozan remarked that Toronto’s victory over the Sixers said “a lot,” considering the nature of the opponent. 

“Playing against a hard-playing young team like the Sixers, they’re extremely talented,” DeRozan said. “We had to man up and battle, because they were playing extremely aggressive versus us, and made everything hard. We fought back.”

Kyle Lowry, who assumed a central role in keying the first wave of the Raptors’ comeback push, posted 23 points against his hometown team. He scored 14 in the second half. 

“Give the Philadelphia 76ers credit,” said Lowry, the Cardinal Dougherty and Villanova product. “They came out, and were aggressive. They played extremely well, really hard, and they took the game to us.”

Ben Simmons helped vault the Sixers in front by seven points, 65-58, at the break, and was also involved as his team widened the margin to 76-54 early in the third period. Casey, the Toronto coach, was full of praise for Simmons Thursday, and marveled at how the Aussie has managed to blend his natural physical gifts - like size and strength - with prodigious basketball skill.

“His game and future are so bright, just because of one thing,” Casey said. “He sees things that other players don’t see.”

The way Simmons carries himself on the court is different, too, Casey noted.  

“He has an air about him that exudes confidence. He walks like he’s been in this league for 15 years, and that’s a rare thing for a young player to have.”

So, as the Sixers and their northern nemesis prepare to duke it out Saturday in the second and final round of their home-and-home set (5:00 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network), a healthful amount of mutual appreciation figures to be found on both sidelines. 

“They’ve built it up quite well over the years,” said Brown, referring to Toronto, a team whose timeline the Sixers are trying to catch up to. “They’re one of the mainstays, repetitively, in the East, so we’ve got our hands full with this team.” 

Opponent Outlook:

In the Eastern Conference, there may not be a team hotter right now than the Toronto Raptors. They’ve rattled off five consecutive victories, currently the longest active streak in the East. The Raps have been especially successful this season at Air Canada Centre, site of Saturday’s game. They’ve earned nine straight wins in the building following a November 5th setback to the Washington Wizards, which remains Toronto’s lone loss in 12 home outings.

Follow Along:

Video: NBC Sports Philadelphia+ / NBC Sports app

Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network