The Philadelphia 76ers followed up their 2-0 start to the season with an embarrassing effort against the Cleveland Cavaliers, losing 118-94. It was a game full of disappointments, from Ben Simmons not displaying more aggressiveness as a scorer to the constant messy play in general and 21 turnovers. It’s time for the Sixers to move on now, and they’ll have the challenge of facing their toughest opponent of the early season so far: the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors haven’t got off to a great start, losing 113-99 to the New Orleans Pelicans and losing 119-114 to the San Antonio Spurs for a 0-2 start. Nevertheless, they’re a quality team led by an excellent head coach in Nick Nurse. This will be a good early test for the Sixers, who will likely have Joel Embiid back in action — he’s listed as probable to play after missing the Cavs game with back tightness.
After having Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol (Gasol guarded Embiid well in the past with his strength, size and sound fundamentals in the post), the Raptors overhauled their center rotation in the offseason by replacing them with Aron Baynes and Alex Len. Toronto also re-signed Chris Boucher, who’s served as their backup center through their first two games. Baynes and Embiid have had some good battles in the past, and Baynes has a super strong frame to try and deter Embiid in the post. Embiid will need to stay aggressive and continue to move the ball well to the new shooters around him, and make sure to punish Len when the backup gets on the floor (Nurse expects Len to get his first minutes of the season against the Sixers due to their size).
The Raptors have a host of challenging matchups for the Sixers on the perimeter. After his career year, Toronto re-signed Fred VanVleet on a four-year, $85 million deal in the offseason. He’s a shifty, crafty ball-handler and dangerous shooter, burying 39 percent of his three-pointers last season on 6.9 attempts per game. If Ben Simmons is going to spend more time guarding the Raptors’ bigger forwards like Pascal Siakam, Seth Curry and Danny Green will likely take on the duo of VanVleet and Kyle Lowry.
How the Sixers defend pick-and-rolls will be interesting to watch again. Both VanVleet and Lowry can fire effectively off the dribble, so bringing bigs higher up against ball screens — as the Sixers have done more this year — to reduce windows for pull-up jumpers can help. The Sixers’ defenders will also have to navigate Aron Baynes’ rock-solid screens, and be ready to keep him in check on a few pick-and-pops (he shot 35.1 percent from deep on 4 attempts per game last season).
The Sixers need to be alert with their transition defense, too. They’ve had some struggles in this department since preseason, which Rivers and multiple players have highlighted, and can’t afford to give up easy points against a Raptors team that can push the pace and tear down the floor with guys like Siakam.
OG Anunoby will be another handful for the Sixers. He’s an elite defender and continues to improve his ability to drive and create on offense. Tobias Harris will probably handle a lot of the Anunoby assignment.
Matisse Thybulle has been out of Doc Rivers’ main rotation to start the season. This isn’t too surprising, given Tyrese Maxey’s value as a ball-handler and Thybulle missing a lot of training camp with an ankle injury (Rivers said before the season that the team would take its time with Thybulle, but he’d still get minutes). Now that Furkan Korkmaz is out for two weeks after suffering a left adductor strain, Thybulle should be set to receive more minutes and get a shot to prove what he’s capable of. He’ll be able to show his value right away if he can be at his defensive best against the Raptors’ host of perimeter talent.
After such a rough offensive showing against the Cavs, the Sixers need to start getting back on the right track. Simmons has to be aggressive, Shake Milton needs to bounce back after his worst performance of the young season against the Cavs (6 points on 2-of-6 shooting and 2 assists), passes need to be sharper, and ideally their more pick-and-roll heavy attack will heat up. Unfortunately for the Sixers, the Raptors ranked 2nd in defensive rating last season with their impressive combination of talented and versatile personnel, coaching, and varied mixture of coverages.
It shouldn’t be a shock if the Sixers get off to a slow start this season. They have a bunch of new personnel, a new coaching staff and system to implement, and they’re coming off a short offseason and training camp with just two preseason games to help them prepare. They’ll need some time. But even still, they have the chance to make a far more encouraging statement about the direction they’re heading in if they can step up and get a win against this Raptors team.
Who: Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers
When: 7:00pm ET
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic