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Sixers Playoff Primer Part Two: A comprehensive look at the upcoming series against the Toronto Raptors

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Previewing the team’s round two matchup

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

When it was determined that the Sixers would face the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, I put together this primer of sorts, covering every angle and point of interest within the series. And now... part two!

Rotation Questions

Many of the mysteries surrounding the rotation were clarified against Brooklyn. Jimmy Butler will be the backup point guard at most times. T.J. McConnell will see very little playing time. Zhaire Smith isn’t going to play. But now, a few questions emerge. The first player worth addressing is Mike Scott, who is listed as day-to-day with a right heel contusion. Brett Brown said he doesn't expect Scott to play in Game 1, but it doesn't sound like it is an injury that would force him to miss more than a few games.

When Scott is out of the lineup, the Sixers will have a noteworthy amount of minutes to fill — Scott averaged 23.6 minutes per game against Brooklyn, and that amount was only going to go up as the playoffs continued. Part of the solution is likely slight minute increases for Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and possibly Butler. As mentioned in part one, lineups with Jonah Bolden playing the four next to Joel Embiid excelled (+14.5 points per 100 possessions), but as I will get to later, Bolden’s brief run of meaningful minutes against Brooklyn was all the Sixers needed to see in order to confirm their suspicions that he isn't playable in the postseason yet.

In the second half of the series finale against Brooklyn with Scott out, Brett may have tipped his hand in regards to who the primary replacement for the stretch four will be: T.J. McConnell. McConnell assumed most of Scott’s minutes in the second half, and in order to free up the room for him, Ben Simmons became a more traditional power forward as T.J. ran the offense. In essence, Simmons will take the majority of Scott’s minutes at the four, then T.J. will take a bunch of Ben’s minutes as the team’s point guard. And, yes, this does mean that until Scott returns, be emotionally prepared to see some of the dreaded Simmons-McConnell lineups.

However, T.J. may not be the only player getting consideration. Brett Brown said that in the event Scott misses time, there is a chance rookie Zhaire Smith sees the floor. I have been a proponent of Zhaire getting playing time, even if it may be a culture shock of sorts for him to go from meaningless NBA minutes in a small handful of games to playing in the postseason against a team that almost won 60 games. He’s basically a zero on offense, but is already one of the Sixers’ better options on the perimeter defensively. He may prove to be simply not experienced enough for high-stakes minutes, but I have no issue with giving him a shot.

When it comes to their center rotation, the Sixers got lucky with their round one opponent, being matched up with a Brooklyn team lacking a stretch big who was capable of exploiting Boban Marjanovic’s severe lack of lateral quickness. Those are the types who force Boban to the bench: the big men who will take advantage of his inability to leave the paint by simply knocking down the wide open jumpers that Marjanovic inherently must concede due to his sluggishness on his feet.

But now the Sixers face a problem — not only do the Raptors play bigs who can shoot, they only play bigs who can shoot. Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will log the minutes at center for Toronto, and they are both more than capable of shooting a jumper from the perimeter. I expect Brown to give Boban the first look at backup center, because of a mostly strong performance in round one, as well as a lack of trust in the other bigs. But if Boban proves to be unplayable against the Raptors, as many suspect, where Brown will turn is a mystery.

Jonah Bolden is a nice option in theory, but not in reality. His overall lack of awareness, as well as his tendency to foul early and often, make him unfit to see the floor during any meaningful juncture of the series against a methodical Toronto team. Amir Johnson has the smarts that Bolden lacks, but doesn’t have anything close to the necessary level of athleticism to play in this series. When Joel Embiid was out, Greg Monroe got the start, which seemed to be Brown establishing his pick of the team’s stockpile of backup bigs. Monroe doesn’t have the physical limitations of Marjanovic, or even Johnson. But he is just bad. If the Sixers are relying on him for any sort of production, they’re in pretty bad shape. He’s a poor rim protector who isn’t light on his feet and can’t defend smaller players on switches.

Those are all of the actual bigs left on the roster. But don’t think that Brett will hesitate when it comes to going small. Brown has developed a decent amount of confidence in having Simmons and Scott tag-team at center during some of the time that Embiid is off the floor. Typically, Scott defends centers to allow Ben to play his excellent brand of perimeter defense, but if Scott is down, there’s no reason the Sixers shouldn't at least attempt to go with Simmons in a point-center type of role surrounded by wings and guards. There will be obvious weaknesses to this theoretical lineup, but with Embiid off the floor, they might as well embrace running up and down the floor, giving Simmons space to create for others as he did so well at the end of his rookie year.

The Battle in Transition

One of Toronto’s biggest strengths offensively is their ability to leak out in transition and wreak havoc. Not only did the Raptors get into transition offense more than all but two teams this season, but they scored the most points per possession once they got there, according to NBA.com. The two players to fear most are Kawhi Leonard, Toronto’s superstar who will be discussed in this piece much more moving forward, and Pascal Siakam, the third-year forward who is the frontrunner for Most Improved Player.

Leonard should be feared in transition for no other reason than that he should be feared at all times — one of the most well-rounded players in all of basketball, he has very few holes in his game. As for Siakam, he is a big and strong player who has the athleticism of a guard and ball-handling abilities that make him dangerous in the open floor. Players with his size can often be finishers in transition, but Siakam doesn’t just take in passes and slam home easy baskets. He can also be an initiator or a middle-man on the break.

However, the Sixers will not be easily defeated in that facet of the game. Transition defense was one of the team’s strong suits, as they allowed the third least points per possession to opponents in transition. The key to containing Toronto’s quick advances is communication — there will be much fluidity to how the Sixers match up with the Raptors defensively, which is a positive testament to their flexibility — but without concrete defensive assignments, teams can have lapses in communication when trying to defend a fast break. As soon as the Raptors begin pushing the pace, Sixers defenders need to be talking in order to prevent these types of blunders from occurring.

Concerns about JJ Redick

In part one, I wrote about why fans should be concerned about Tobias Harris — an elongated slump he ended the season on — and Redick — his track record of coming up short in the playoffs. And both of them exceeded the expectations of most against Brooklyn. Harris completely extinguished my concerns with his strong showing on both ends. But while Redick shot the ball well from beyond the arc and put in an impressive defensive showing, I am still worried about his viability.

First, let me make it a point to acknowledge this: Redick’s defense against Joe Harris was good by a normal NBA player’s standards, and great relative to his usual production. He did an excellent job of fronting Harris and limiting the amount of clean looks at jumpers he got for almost the entire series.

But now the Sixers turn the page to Toronto, who I earlier described as somewhat of a methodical team. Part of that is their inclination to seek out and attack mismatches much more frequently than Brooklyn does. Redick will likely spend most of his time defending Danny Green, attempting to prevent Green from getting open off of screens the way he did to Harris. But don’t be shocked if you see Green start to become a guy who sets screens for others, most notably Kawhi Leonard. Toronto will look to go at Redick, and test him in a way that Brooklyn just never did.

As for offense, it’s not nearly as big of a concern for Redick as defense is, but it’s worth mentioning. Redick shot a praise-worthy 42.4 percent from 3-point range, though he still only made 41.8 percent of his field goal attempts. Redick’s 57.2 true shooting percentage is a considerable drop from his typical regular season production, but is still a respectable number nonetheless.

Evaluating the Benches

I probably don’t need to tell you much about Philadelphia’s bench. It is made up of a bunch of players who are playing 50 percent more than they probably should on a great team. Mike Scott is the only one who is an above-average reserve. Boban Marjanovic is very effective when he can play, but can't always play. James Ennis is a serviceable member of a wing rotation. And after that... there’s nothing. But this isn't news to you.

But if you haven't gotten around to watching the Raptors much this year, this may be news to you: their bench, once one of their biggest strengths, just isn't good. Serge Ibaka is a great big to have coming off the bench, but after that it’s mostly weak — Fred VanVleet took somewhat of a step backwards this season after his breakout campaign last year. Delon Wright, a personal favorite of mine, was shipped to Memphis along with wing C.J. Miles as complementary pieces in order to upgrade from Jonas Valanciunas into Marc Gasol. Jodie Meeks played in each of Toronto’s round one games, averaging just over six minutes per contest. Yes, that Jodie Meeks. Norman Powell is their only wing coming off the bench and providing real contributions right now, as second-year player OG Anunoby is likely going to miss the entire series after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. So as poor as the depth of this Sixers team may be, it’s not as if the Raptors have a stacked roster either. Even if Toronto’s bench outplays that of the Sixers, a reasonable expectation, it won’t be by a significant margin, and it won't decide the outcome of the series.

Evaluating the Starting Lineups

During the final few months of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, two lineups dominated opponents at a level unmatched by others: the starting lineup for the Sixers, and the starting lineup for the Raptors.

Comparing the starting lineups of the Sixers and Raptors

Team Point Guard Shooting Guard Small Forward Power Forward Center Regular Season Net Rating
Team Point Guard Shooting Guard Small Forward Power Forward Center Regular Season Net Rating
Sixers Ben Simmons JJ Redick Jimmy Butler Tobias Harris Joel Embiid 22.4
Raptors Kyle Lowry Danny Green Kawhi Leonard Pascal Siakam Marc Gasol 15.1
Net Ratings via cleaningtheglass.com

Simply, these two units blew everybody that they played out of the water. And while Philly’s unit posted better numbers during the regular season, Toronto’s seems more viable in a playoff series. I say this because they have five starters — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol — who will never become a liability on either end of the floor. And for the Sixers, I can’t say the same. JJ Redick had a surprisingly fine defensive series against Brooklyn, but is brutal when tasked with the assignment of facing a ball-handler. Tobias Harris is far from a massive negative defensively, but he is also isn’t anywhere close being a plus, and there’s no good matchup for him in this series.

However, I do believe the Sixers have the edge offensively. A dominant big down low in Joel Embiid, a 6-foot-10 point guard in Ben Simmons, and an elite wing in Jimmy Butler, surrounded by two elite shooters in Redick and Harris, is a recipe to destroy defenses. And how the Raptors try to align their defensive matchups will be very interesting.

There are a couple obvious matchups that we’ll get to soon: Marc Gasol on Joel Embiid, and Kawhi Leonard on Ben Simmons. It would be stunning if Toronto didn't assign those matchups. That leaves Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and Pascal Siakam as players with uncertain assignments.

When the Sixers pulled off the Tobias Harris trade, they created an inherent advantage against any teams with a traditional point guard — unless you want them chasing JJ Redick around screens, which coaches don't like their point guards doing, you have to stick them on one of Simmons, Butler, or Harris. Toronto will have this predicament with Kyle Lowry, though not to as much of an extent as you may think. What Lowry lacks in height he makes up for in strength and IQ, making him capable of defending bigger players. According to Synergy, Lowry was in the 80th percentile as a post-up defender, further evidence that he won't be exploitable nearly as much as many point guards. But even so, Lowry being tasked with defending Jimmy Butler is decidedly an advantage for the Sixers.

Assuming Lowry is on Butler, that means Danny Green will fill the highly important role of tracking JJ Redick. Redick is either a core piece or an essential decoy for almost all of Philly’s best actions, so if he can be smothered and disrupted in his constant movement, it will force the Sixers to make considerable changes to how they operate offensively.

That leaves the exciting young stud Siakam to guard Harris, a matchup that I think benefits the Sixers a lot. One of Siakam’s specialties is playing a “safety” type of role on defense; he wreaks havoc with his off-ball defense, whether it be with timely double-teams, getting deflections, or intercepting passes. And if he’s on Tobias Harris, it’s a tough pill to swallow for the Raptors if they want to give Siakam the green light to cause chaos. If he strays away from Tobias Harris, that’s a borderline elite shooter being left wide open. So even if Harris may have trouble scoring one-on-one against a much bigger and longer Siakam, the gravity he provides on the floor is especially valuable here.

Now, back to the two matchups I mentioned earlier.

Joel Embiid is going to get his on Marc Gasol. He will have great games and put up excellent numbers, as he always does. But very few have defended him as well as Gasol. In 62 minutes this season that Embiid was guarded by Gasol, he scored just 17 points on 6-of-18 shooting from the field, only attempted eight free throws, and had seven turnovers to five assists. To be fair to Joel, some of this was bad luck or variance. Gasol is well-equipped to defend him, but he won't have that same level of success in this series. But after playing a Brooklyn team that had nobody who stood a chance of defending him, Embiid must now overcome a player who has guarded him better than almost anybody.

If you watched previous games between these two teams, you know how good Kawhi Leonard was when defending Ben Simmons. I’ve watched every game Simmons has played in the NBA, and nobody has defended him even close to as well as Kawhi. My colleague Matthew Del Rio wrote this great piece piece detailing the matchup, so I’ll leave it to him to evaluate. But let me leave you with a few numbers...

Ben Simmons’ per 36 minutes with Kawhi Leonard on the floor: 12.5 points on 8.3 field goal attempts and 4.2 free throw attempts, 7.6 turnovers.

7.6 turnovers per 36 minutes is staggering. Ben has his work cut out for him.

As for how the Sixers match up with Toronto, I see it being a much more fluid decision-making process, where assignments can change from game to game, and even be adjusted during a game. But here are a few quick points of emphasis I’d have on the defensive end:

  • Limit JJ Redick’s time defending ball-handlers, keeping him on off-ball spot-up shooters as much as possible. Be ready to counter when Toronto tries to get him switched onto their stars.
  • Dare Pascal Siakam to make corner 3s. Siakam has developed into a decent shooter, and he very well could get hot, but having him take lightly contested 3s is a much better option than allowing him to get downhill going towards the basket.
  • When Kawhi Leonard is in the game, it is very possible to hide a weak defender, perhaps Tobias Harris, on Kyle Lowry. When Lowry and Leonard share the floor, Lowry’s usage is significantly lower both as a facilitator and a shot-taker. When Lowry is in with Leonard on the bench, he should be defended by whoever is the best Sixers defender on the court.

Finally... Prediction Time

Before giving my pick, I’m going to provide the following disclaimer: I have always leaned more negatively than most in regards to this team. But here it goes...

I have the Raptors in five.

Believe me, I hope this is wrong. I would welcome with open arms the Sixers making me look foolish. But when I go through these rosters, I just don't see how the Sixers can be considered to have more than a minuscule chance of winning the series. What it comes down to for me is this: each of the Sixers’ weaknesses seem to play directly into the hands of Toronto’s strengths. It’s nerve-wracking and it’s frustrating. I wish I felt better about this team’s chances. And man, do I hope they prove me wrong. But this is how I honestly feel. So, let’s hope I don’t know what I’m talking about.