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Sixers Science: How To Beat The Raptors

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A new series detailing how the Sixers should gameplan against the Raptors.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

What Makes The Toronto Raptors Good?

1. Elite Rim Defense

2. Corner Three Dominance

3. Deep Bench & Clever Rotations

4. Kawhi Leonard & Kyle Lowry

Elite Rim Defense

Serge Ibaka has returned to elite form. After Head Coach Nick Nurse decided he would move back to playing the 5, he’s experienced a resurgence on the defensive end.

Opponents are shooting approximately 20% worse than expected on shots inside the paint when he’s contesting them (42.1 DFG%). The previous two seasons he averaged around -3.0 DFG%. Albeit a small sample, Ibaka has put the tape together to show he’s on track for a dominant season.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Of note, Kyle Lowry and Danny Green have been exceptional when they’ve switched onto bigs or rotated to defend shots in the paint. This is no aberration as these two are savvy defenders who will battle bigger players down-low.

Green has always been a terrific perimeter defender, with a special talent in transition defense. This year he’s defended almost as many shots inside 6 feet as Ibaka, impressively ranking near the top of the league in effectiveness. Lowry is 4th on the team in shots defended inside 6 feet with a similar effectiveness.

Bottom line, the Raptors don’t give away many advantages on the defensive side of the floor — matchup hunting is ineffective.

Corner Three Dominance

Here’s a graph I made showing what percentage of a team’s three-point attempts are from the corner. We mostly see a normal distribution among the teams, except for one giant outlier — the Toronto Raptors.

The Raptors take 21.3% of their threes from the corner, the most in the NBA by a considerable margin.

The crazy part, this rate would’ve placed them 15th in the NBA last year. Teams are dedicated to taking away the corner-3 now, but the Raptors have figured out a way to generate a bunch of these high-value looks.

Last season, 20.8% of the NBA’s threes came from the corner. This season, that number has dwindled to 13.2%. Remember, this is a league-wide sample with almost 22,000 minutes of data, it is not likely to regress as much as individual teams.

The Sixers, despite signing Mike Muscala, have not increased their volume of corner 3-s, an inexplicable omission from the offense.

Last season, teams connected on 39.4% of corner-three attempts, the same as this season.

On average, corner threes are yielding 1.18 points per possession — a fantastic play! The Sixers should look to emphasize on creating these looks.

Deep bench With Clever Rotations

As you can see, the Sixers have the top-end talent to go toe-to-toe with the Raptors right now. The issue is that the Raptors’ bench packs a punch, while the Sixers has fallen flat, thus far.

Valanciunas has been a monster as the 1B to Ibaka, putting up 24 points and 15 rebounds per 36 minutes. He scores via post-ups and as Kyle Lowry’s Pick-and-Roll partner, vacuuming up all the defensive boards when he’s playing.

Fred VanVleet continues to be the best backup point guard in the NBA, which is particularly helpful in an 82-game season, in which you inevitably face-off against a lot of porous backup PGs.

Pascal Siakam is a tremendous defender, who can comfortably switch between small forward and centers — he also seems to handle the ball a decent amount on offense, initializing dribble hand-offs, passing from the high-post, and even dribbling around the perimeter. Let em’ shoot though!

Delon Wright is a heady backup combo guard who can switch 1-3 without too much trouble. Anunoby would be a helpful wing for the Sixers who is long, rangy & hits the occasional three.

Bottom line, the Raptors are loaded with versatility and depth — they can create situational lineups to switch 1-5, generate threes, run in transition, or rebound.

Kawhi Leonard & Kyle Lowry

There are just a handful of NBA players that are efficient, three-level scorers who play high-level defense — the Raptors have two of them.

Being surrounded by an elite rim-protector & rangy, switchable wings certainly helps the pairing, but they have been tremendous point-of-attack defenders for years.

Check out their respective shot charts:

Kawhi Leonard

When Leonard operates on the left side, watchout! He can hit a turnaround fadeaway over either shoulder with relative ease. He’s also very proficient around the free-throw line area and the right-wing. Leonard has exhibited similar hot spots throughout his career.

Kyle Lowry

The analytically-minded Lowry is keenly aware of opponents’ tendencies and the analytics of the game.

As seen above, he loves to take shots from the middle of the court, mostly deep three-pointers off-kick outs and the pick-and-roll, as well as attacking closeouts and finishing well at the rim.

Jerryd Bayless guarding Lowry for the most possessions last year, so anyone is an upgrade. I’d like to see Covington and Simmons on him primarily, with the other guarding Leonard.

How Can They Be Exploited?

1. Allow Pascal Siakam To Shoot Threes

He wants to become a perimeter threat by the time the playoffs roll around, but right now he’s not very good at shooting threes. Let him take them for now.

2. Make Serge Ibaka Pay For Careless Decisions With Ball

Ibaka has been lambasted in Toronto for reckless drives, coughing up the ball, and throwing erratic passes at time — akin to Embiid. When he’s handling the ball, get in his grill, pressure him to make a mistake with the ball.

3. Take Charges On Norman Powell Tunnel-Vision Drives

Norman Powell has been better this season with his drives, but that is coming from a player who had some of the most egregious straight-line, tunnel-vision drives ever seen on an NBA court.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

4. Stagger starters vs. Raptors Bench

The Raptors bench, as evidenced above, is among the best in the NBA. This is despite an awful shooting start from Fred VanVleet, CJ Miles, and Lorenzo Brown. The Sixers should look to get Simmons, Covington, and quasi-starter Redick a good amount of minutes vs. the Raptors bench.

What To Avoid

1. Letting the Raptors go small

If the Raptors can play major minutes with Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and Kawhi Leonard on the floor together, you are in trouble. This 3-man combo is +71 in 131 minutes together!

2. Putting a sub-par defender on Ibaka or Valanciunas

Every team who has done this has paid the price. Hopefully Amir Johnson and Mike Muscala can right the ship on early defensive struggles, they will be vital in guarding the pick-and-roll for about 30 minutes combined.

3. Letting Kawhi isolate against anyone other than Covington/Simmons

Leonard savors mismatches, routinely making teams who switch smaller defenders onto him pay. He will back them down and score easily from the midrange or wait for the weakside help & kick to an open corner-3.

4. Leave CJ Miles or Fred VanVleet open

They are both shooting below 30% from outside to start the year, but do not be deceived. If you leave these guys open, they will make you pay. Both have a good shooting pedigree, let them turnaround their slow start another night.

I detail more permanent changes the Sixers could make to better their team in my recent article:

GM For A Day.

Prediction:

Sixers — 111

Raptors — 117