Nearly six months removed from their first-round playoff battle, the Philadelphia 76ers (1-3) and Toronto Raptors (2-2) will meet for the first time in 2022-23 twice this week, with both games coming north of the border. Prior to the Sixers’ 4-2 series win, Toronto won the regular-season bout, 3-1.
Scottie Barnes (right ankle sprain) is questionable. Otto Porter Jr. (left hamstring strain) is out. De’Anthony Melton (right adductor tightness) is questionable. Anyone else unavailable for either side is on a G League assignment with their respective clubs.
Toronto continues its challenging slate to open the year, having faced the Miami Heat (x2), Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets through their first four games. Meanwhile, Philadelphia, after a brief stretch against rebuilding squads, which it split, returns back to its own rigorous first week and half of 2022-23.
Much like they were a season ago, the Raptors are led by Pascal Siakam, who has maintained and built upon his All-NBA form of last year. The rangy 28-year-old is averaging 26.5 points (54.9 percent true shooting), 10 rebounds, 6.8 assists (3.3 turnovers) and 1.5 steals. He’s crushing mismatches in the midrange, wiggling his way into paint touches and dicing up defenses when they send help. His 34.2 percent assist rate is easily a career-high, topping his 23 percent clip of 2021-22.
Tobias Harris posed some problems for Siakam in last season’s playoff matchup, but Toronto eventually recognized his woes navigating screens and exploited it to Siakam’s advantage. I’d imagine P.J. Tucker gets the first crack at him, though it shouldn’t be a surprise for Fred VanVleet, presumably being chased around by 6-foot-2 Tyrese Maxey, to set lots of screens for his star teammate.
The two have considerable chemistry together, particularly on inverted pick-and-pops, and can likely fluster the Sixers’ already struggling defense. The switches must be crisp, which they’ve rarely been through four games. Ideally, the Sixers are limiting Maxey’s chances to wrangle with Siakam by being precise with pre-switches, but that’s not been a hallmark of their defense under head coach Doc Rivers.
Although he’s yet to start, Precious Achiuwa has played over 67 minutes in the two games since Barnes first suffered his injury. If he’s garnering the bulk of minutes at center, Joel Embiid would likely handle that assignment. Last season, Achiuwa’s blend of explosiveness, floor-spacing and adroit ball-handling gave Embiid issues, determining whether to closeout or stay at home against a possible drive. How Embiid deals with that dynamic Wednesday, especially given his own underwhelming start defensively, is another angle to monitor.
Both Embiid and James Harden were generally excellent in this past spring’s playoff duel against Toronto offensively. Harden looks improved as a scorer and holistic offensive engine to begin the season. Embiid’s not been in MVP form, but has bounced back over the last two outings (33 points, nine rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.5 blocks, one steal, 68 percent true shooting).
It’ll be interesting to gauge how the Raptors approach defending that duo. They love to double Embiid’s post touches, and toggled between aggressive help and one-on-one coverage against Harden in the playoffs. At the time, his scoring prowess probably didn’t warrant such respect, hence their mid-series adjustment to a conservative treatment. These days, it seemingly does, which could spell profits for any combination of Embiid, Harris and Maxey.
Toronto’s also played more drop coverage in ball-screens this season. Given their length and mobility, as well as Harden’s newfound appreciation for the midrange, I wonder if the plan is to play near the free-throw line and aim to limit his pull-up opportunities there, either inviting him downhill, where he’s been more timid, or trying to force a reset. Harden’s counter could be to draw out the switch, get them to pounce on the threat of a stepback triple and attack, a gambit he’s applied to success thus far this year.
In the Raptors’ three victories, their penchant for offensive rebounds and transition volume overwhelmed Philadelphia. While they rank only 18th in offensive rebounding rate (second in 2021-22), they are once again top five in transition frequency, per Cleaning The Glass. Similarly, the Sixers are bottom five in opposing transition frequency, just like last year. That push-pull dynamic could loom large.
The majority of Sixers-Raptors games over the past few seasons seem to be entertaining, for one reason or another. With both teams having tinkered some parts of the rotation or schemes, this first feeling-out contest of 2022-23 will probably follow that broad script.
When: 7:30 pm ET, Wednesday, October 26
Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto, ON
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic