The Philadelphia 76ers’ starting lineup was built to overwhelm opponents. Their array of talent can score from all over the floor, with every player besides JJ Redick having the ability to attack mismatches in one way or another. Being able to create these mismatch nightmares for opponents is what gives Philly so much of their identity and upside. But that isn’t as easy against the Toronto Raptors.
Armed with strong defenders at every position, from point-of-attack pests (Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet), to bigs (Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol), to a fierce trio of wings/forwards in the middle in Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, their talented, versatile and cohesive defensive unit is a force. There are lots of matchups to focus on, especially the Kawhi-Ben Simmons battle, but how Joel Embiid will fare against Gasol is vital, too.
Embiid and Gasol haven’t faced off since the latter was dealt to Toronto. They only played against each other twice this season when Gasol was with the far lowlier Memphis Grizzlies, so there isn’t exactly a wealth of film to project this matchup.
That said, Gasol is clearly the kind of defender that can make Embiid work. Embiid has shot 10-of-29 with Gasol as his defender over the last two seasons. It’s a fairly small sample, but Gasol’s success is no accident either. Even though he isn’t his former Defensive Player of the Year self, Gasol is a highly intelligent, reliable defender who knows exactly where to be, and he provides a rock-solid presence around the rim and in the post.
The latest defensive showing on his resume? Owning Nikola Vucevic in the first round of the playoffs. Orlando’s worthy All-Star shot a mere 13-of-39 against Gasol.
Of course, as good as Vucevic is, he isn’t close to Embiid’s calibre. However, Gasol is going to be physical, he won’t keep biting on pump fakes, and he’s going to make Embiid work harder for good positioning and finishes from the low block. Embiid will need to use all the strength, touch and footwork in his arsenal. His moves to score or pass need to be decisive.
A key defensive wrinkle to look out for early on is how the Raptors help on Embiid in the post. Do they leave Gasol alone to try to hold his own and only throw double teams if he’s struggling, or do they aim to rattle Embiid early on with selective doubles? The Raptors have a host of long, athletic, smart defenders to make that happen. Kawhi has the option to turn into a havoc-wreaking free safety when helping off Simmons, too.
Another area to focus on is how far Gasol sags off Embiid at the arc in an attempt to wall off the paint and encourage jumpers. Embiid will need to keep shooting to an extent to both make Gasol pay for sitting back and keep the defense honest when he’s looking to pump fake and shift his way inside.
If Gasol drops far and often, Philly will need to counter. For instance, dribble hand-offs can work to great effect if Embiid’s man is sagging off (similarly to Ben Simmons). If his screen connects, the shooter has all the space they need to take the hand-off and step into a clear shot. If this gets shooters clicking, it can encourage Embiid’s man to press higher and give Embiid chances to either roll down the lane and capitalize off traps, or keep the ball and drive on Gasol with his speed advantage from the perimeter.
Here, with Ibaka sitting back, Embiid’s screen sends Green to the floor and Redick has a wide-open 3:
Alternatively, this play shows how Embiid can create space for others when he’s on the move. Jonas Valanciunas starts by pressing close to Embiid. VanVleet falls behind Redick, and with the threat of Embiid advancing down the lane, Valanciunas opts to drop and leaves Redick in space:
(An aside: the Sixers will also need Ben Simmons to be on top form as an active screener and rim roller this series, following on from what he showed he can do against Brooklyn. He's going to be hounded by Kawhi on the ball, so to keep the offense moving, utilizing Butler and Tobias Harris as ball handlers and pick-and-roll creators will be essential.)
There’s no way the Raptors’ defense won’t be problematic for the Sixers, but there are reasons to feel encouraged. Embiid’s passing has been better this season. His turnovers are down (a career-best 13.2 turnover percentage), his assists are up (also a career-best 18.4 assist percentage) and his decision-making has been sharper. Despite the tendencies to still have high-turnover games and miss optimal passing read here and there, there's no doubt he's improved.
Embiid is trending in the right direction, too. His passing against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round was particularly impressive, especially his seven assists in Game 4. He made a host of alert reads without hesitating, finding open shooters and cutters with prompt passes once double teams arrived:
Of course, the Raptors are on a different defensive planet than the Nets. There will be far tighter rotations to beat. But, nevertheless, Embiid will inevitably draw double teams sooner or later. Having the chance to create open looks for others this way can help Philly, as long as Embiid is as poised as ever to beat whatever Toronto throws at him.
At the other end of the floor, Gasol will be able to pull Embiid away from his comfort zone. The Nets were an ideal matchup for Embiid at both ends — they had no one to guard him inside, and no one to stretch the floor against him. Gasol is capable of both. Shooting centers, like Al Horford, have troubled Embiid before, forcing him to cover more ground and fly from picking up drivers one moment to closing out on a pick-and-pop the next.
Since coming to Toronto, Gasol has hardly been shooting. He’s been making an impact in all other areas of the game instead. He only averaged 7.2 field goal attempts per game with them in the regular season and that number has dipped to just 5.6 in the playoffs. Gasol is primarily making his mark from 3, with 46.4 percent of his field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc (making them at a 53.8 percent clip) through the first round.
The Raptors will set high screens and look to Gasol for pick-and-pops when guys like Lowry and Kawhi penetrate. While Embiid still needs to cover the paint, Brett Brown will likely need to employ more hedging, or at least have Embiid drop a little further up the lane, to ensuring that Embiid is in better position to help on ball handlers as they come off screens and close enough to Gasol to closeout at the arc.
As you can see on the first play in the clip below, it’s far too easy for Kawhi to pull Aaron Gordon inside and hit Gasol in 10 feet of space with Vucevic dropping into the paint:
Embiid has the agility to shift around the floor, but it’s a taller order against a top offense when he’s below 100 percent due to his knee. With all the other weapons the Raptors have at their disposal as well, it's going to be a challenging series for Embiid on defense. He'll need his teammates to be as locked in defensively as they were to close out the Nets series. And again, he'll need extra help from Butler and Harris as ball handlers to ease his offensive load and post-up usage against Gasol (the more energy he has for defense, the better), and to release some pressure on Simmons.
The good thing for Philly is that even at less than 100 percent, Embiid will be up for a challenge. He's the best player in the series and he won't be outperformed by Gasol. While the Nets had no one to guard Embiid, the fashion in which he dominated the first round — 24.8 points with a 60.1 True Shooting Percentage, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.8 blocks in only 24.3 minutes per game — is still seriously impressive. And at least when it comes to getting him a little extra rest, two days off between Games 2 and 3 and Games 3 and 4 is something.
Beyond upping Butler’s and Harris’s touches, they’ll need to be ready to play around 40 minutes a night while Mike Scott is day to day and potentially unavailable due to plantar fasciitis. This could also take small-ball Scott-Simmons frontcourts off the table, meaning Boban Marjanovic is going to be relied upon heavily at backup center. With his lack of mobility to closeout on stretch bigs like Gasol and Ibaka, or hang with Toronto’s guards, Boban could easily get burned. The Sixers will need far more than the 24.3 minutes Embiid averaged during the Brooklyn series to compete defensively in round two.
Ultimately, there are plenty of factors that will decide this series. The Raptors' superior depth and defense (which ranked fifth for the entire season and third in 26 games with Gasol), not to mention the Kawhi-Simmons battle, are more pressing concerns.
But the Sixers have no chance if Embiid can't thrive. How he can establish himself against Gasol at both ends of the floor is one of the most important matchups to watch.