Ahead of most games, Liberty Ballers conducts a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Yasmin Duale, who covers the Toronto Raptors for Yahoo Sports Canada, Complex Canada and the Dishes & Dimes Podcast.
After starting 14-17, Toronto is 25-14 since then. What’s brought them back into range of hosting a playoff series?
There are a combination of factors, but I think it ultimately comes down to three main components; health, chemistry and the development of Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam and Precious Achiuwa.
Much like the rest of the league, the Raptors dealt with a combination of injuries and COVID-19 outbreaks. Coupled with a thin bench outside of the core rotation, they were unable to withstand the blows in the earlier half of the season. As for development, Pascal Siakam has unlocked his abilities as a playmaker this season. His court-awareness on a team with multiple play-finishers has brought cohesiveness to an unorthodox roster of Swiss Army Knife wings like Achiuwa and Barnes.
The latter two have made leaps this season as ball handlers and short-roll passers; so, although the Raptors aren’t brimming with Gary Trent Jr.-esque snipers, their wings are able to drive, draw plenty of attention, and produce wide open shots that even average perimeter shooters can knockdown.
Add in some time to conjure up chemistry for a roster with new faces and you have a very young team beginning to figure things out.
What is this team’s identity?
I’d say this team’s identity is defensive modernity. Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office have taken an innovative approach to team building that I think is a means of adjusting to the rapid innovation of NBA offenses. The Raptors have a seemingly endless supply of 6-foot-7 to 6-10 wings with lengthy wingspans. Even though the defensive synchronicity has yet to set in, the potential and vision is obvious for stretches of play. To them, offense will come along, but defensive versatility is the obvious priority for this new era.
How do you think they’ll go about defending Joel Embiid?
Since they no longer have the traditional center to battle Embiid down low (think Marc Gasol, and, even, Jonas Valančiūnas before him), I think the Raptors will instead rely on swarming and changing up coverages frequently to cause hesitancy. Embiid is arguably this season’s MVP, but the only “average” part of his remarkable play is his distribution. Harden provides a release valve by dispersing the gravity on the court, but I think the Raptors will continuously push Embiid to pass by any means necessary. The emphasis will be on nailing rotations when such passes are made.
What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?
I’ll be keeping an eye on how Fred VanVleet navigates the height discrepancy of this matchup*. He’s going to be snaking through overwhelming length on both teams, which has rattled him in the past. I think he’s made strides this season by further extending his distance as a shooter and polishing his abilities as a finisher at the rim. I’m interested to see how it looks in a matchup that will test the progress he’s made.
*Editor’s note: Fred VanVleet has since been ruled out after Yasmin graciously provided her insights.
Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?
Most pleasant surprise is an easy one. I entered the season keeping expectations of Scottie Barnes low. In college, he was a pass-first bench guard with plenty of potential and the build of a seasoned NBA professional. I was hoping for bench production and some improvement with his finishing. Instead, he looks like the ROY. He really has a hand in every skillset, and is already so proficient in several of these tools. Whenever I catch a bad rookie habit, it seems to vanish in a few games. His capacity for growth and development has been the surprise of the season, and the fact that he has looked better with time, even as teams have created their scouting reports on him, is kind of awe-inspiring. Paired with his easy-going nature and excitement to learn under the tutelage of his team’s veterans, the future is exciting.
Biggest disappointment of the season?
It’s tough to find a disappointment of this season. The Raptors bypassed a tedious rebuild and found a gem in the draft, so the success of this year seems like gravy. If I had to choose one thing, it might be OG Anunoby’s health. To no fault of his own, I feel as though he’s missing out on some vital development games with the rest of the team’s young core because of these unlucky injuries, just as they’ve begun to find rhythm with one another.
What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this one?
I think Sixers fans should watch out for how the team approaches defending Siakam and Barnes. The Raptors and Sixers may not encounter one another in the postseason, but how Philly defends big wings with a willingness to pass may indicate how they game-plan for other teams boasting similar player archetypes like the Bucks, Nets and Heat.