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Back in another series against 76ers, Raptors find themselves ahead of schedule

Before Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce buzzer-beater, there was stress.

The 2019 second-round series saw the 76ers leading the Raptors 2-1 before Leonard rescued Toronto in Game 4. Philadelphia was gigantic and tough throughout — so much so that Fred VanVleet was essentially played off the court as he averaged a meagre two points per match.

“It was a wild series,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said on Wednesday. “I think both teams were pronounced dead about three times in the series and it went down to the last second.”

In the big picture, president Masai Ujiri’s big bet to trade franchise stalwart DeMar DeRozan for free-agent-to-be Leonard was at stake. A second-round loss would be abject failure, while at least a conference finals appearance would be something. 

But Leonard’s Game 7 shot bounced in, and the Raptors seemed to become the proverbial Team of Destiny. They defeated Milwaukee in six games as VanVleet caught fire, and they won the title over a Golden State squad missing Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson for parts of the series.

Three years and a pandemic later, the Raptors and 76ers are once again set to square off in a playoff series — this time in the first round.

Game 1 goes Saturday at 6 p.m. ET in Philadelphia. Game 2 is Monday before the series shifts to Toronto for Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday and Saturday.

For the 76ers, the stakes remain high after the team swapped Ben Simmons for James Harden at the trade deadline, gambling on the 32-year-old guard to mesh with MVP candidate Joel Embiid in time to make a run at the title.

But for the Raptors, the 2022 series shouldn’t be quite as stressful as 2019 was. These playoffs are more of a beginning than an end.

There are no major looming free-agency decisions. Only two key Raptors — Chris Boucher and Thaddeus Young — are set to hit the market, but Toronto has the salary flexibility to offer each a competitive deal to stay. VanVleet and shooting guard Gary Trent Jr., could both reach free agency following next season, but for now the Raptors’ core is locked in.

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