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Sixers-Raptors Preview: Eastern Conference elite gauntlet continues

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Philadelphia travels north of the border Monday to square off against the formidable Toronto Raptors.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

After a lopsided defeat to the Chicago Bulls Friday and a close, tough loss to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers Sunday, the Philadelphia 76ers (4-13) match up against another Eastern Conference heavyweight in the Toronto Raptors (10-6) Monday night. Don’t expect Toronto to underwhelm immediately: Cleveland’s unsightly 0-for-14 shooting start Sunday was likely an anomaly the Sixers will experience this season.

Against an offensive juggernaut like Toronto, who’s fifth in the league in scoring (108.3 PPG), it’s a necessity for the Sixers to establish fluidity on that end early. Keeping pace with the home team will be a challenge as high usage option Joel Embiid will not travel for Monday’s game.

Embiid, in 25 promising minutes Sunday, dropped 22 points on Tristan Thompson and the Cavaliers with drive-by attempts, pick-and-pops and natural hustle plays. With his offensive gifts unavailable Monday, Brett Brown will have to emphasize Jahlil Okafor (10.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG) more on the block. Pick-and-roll half court plays have become ineffective due to Okafor’s inability to lock onto the ball handler’s man and hold prolonged screens.

This is a play type that comes down to effort and willingness to create an advantage for your teammate. Okafor’s P&R inefficiencies have been harped upon and it’s necessary to acknowledge it. The lacking effort renders the usually prolific play type useless if not performed correctly or ideally. It’s not the only area Okafor has evidently failed to exert maximum energy in.

Okafor reels in boards under the basket and without interference, but when the shot is errant and leaks to outside the paint, the second-year center is regularly losing the 50-50 battles. Whether it’s Kevin Love or Denzel Valentine, Okafor gets timid when there’s a chance for a scrum and it’s costing Philadelphia possessions. He’ll have to up the toughness against Toronto’s cadre of bigs.

Jonas Valanciunas is in the midst of a breakthrough season, averaging a career-high 14.3 PPG and 10.1 RPG. Effective, physical and an adept roll man in the P&R, Valanciunas is a legitimate challenge for Okafor on both ends of the floor. It’s another showcase game for the former first-round pick, with Embiid not absorbing minutes at the 5. It’s also necessary to note that Toronto’s backup big Lucas Nogueira is shooting an absurd 71.4 percent in 18.3 MPG through 10 games. Pack the paint.

At the other frontcourt position, the Ersan Ilyasova-Pascal Siakam matchup has more intrigue than ever. Adding his unique flair, latching onto driving bigs and instigating/drawing contact, Ilyasova has made a serious impression. We knew his strengths before arriving via the Jerami Grant deal, but the aforementioned traits in his game have become illuminated. It’s refreshing to see his talents outside of stretching the floor at the 4. He’s also averaging 13.2 PPG while shooting 46.6 percent from the floor and 40.7 percent from deep: essentially becoming a revelation.

Siakam also is making an imprint with his team up north. The first-round pick out of New Mexico State has started all 16 games for Toronto, albeit in a minimal role. In just 18.8 MPG, Siakam is efficiently averaging 5.3 PPG due to an exceptional clip from the floor (54.1 percent). DeMar DeRozan also is taking quality looks in his wheelhouse. Averaging a robust 30.2 PPG, third in the league, the former All-Star is taking a bevy of shots in the paint and around the basket.

Unlike Kyle Lowry, who’s shooting just 35.1 percent on arguably an excessive 6.9 3PFGA, DeRozan is maximizing his value offensively as a scorer. He provides another tough cover for the Sixers wings who’ve struggled with containment recently and rotation on defense.

On the other side of the ball, the guards have been scalding from the floor. Gerald Henderson’s affinity for baseline jumpers and shot attempts has tied into his 47.9 percent shooting clip this season. In the second unit, Nik Stauskas (51.7 FG%) and Hollis Thompson (46.2) are providing a necessary punch off the bench that was absent last season.

The Sixers have placed heavy reliance on the reserves this season and they’ve delivered. Stauskas, Thompson and Dario Saric (9.2 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.9 APG) might heavily impact tonight’s game if the starters falter early.

Sergio Rodriguez got the start yesterday for an injured Jerryd Bayless and it has not been announced whether Bayless will return to the rotation for tonight’s 7:30 p.m. EST game.