After four regular-season games where the margin of victory was six points or fewer each time, the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors will lock horns in the first round. Toronto won the season series, 3-1, including the final two games over the past 3.5 weeks. This should be quite the entertaining matchup for impartial observers and quite the frenetic, teeth-clenching matchup for partial observers.
Let’s break it down from an assortment of angles.
Full schedule for Sixers-Raptors. pic.twitter.com/UAUZVrOqst— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) April 13, 2022
Philadelphia’s offensive/defensive/net rating: 114.0 (13th), 110.7 (11th), plus-3.3 (ninth)
Toronto’s offensive/defensive/net rating: 112.9 (16th), 110.7 (10th), plus-2.2 (11th)
Season series: Toronto 3-1
Nov. 11 in Philadelphia: Raptors 115, Sixers 109
- Absences: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, Pascal Siakam and Khem Birch
- Standout performances: Fred VanVleet had 32-7-6-1 on 67 percent true shooting. Tyrese Maxey countered with 33-5-4-2-1 on 73 percent true shooting.
Nov. 28 in Toronto: Sixers 114, Raptors 109
- Absences: Ben Simmons, Danny Green, Andre Drummond, Shake Milton, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes
- Standout performances: Joel Embiid had 36-11-4-1-1 on 81 percent true shooting. Georges Niang came off the bench for 19-3-2 on 95 percent true shooting and buried five triples. Pascal Siakam starred with 28-8-6-1-1 on 59 percent true shooting. Chris Boucher slapped down 28-19-2-2 on 89 percent true shooting.
March 20 in Philadelphia: Raptors 93, Raptors 88
- Absences: Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Malachi Flynn
- Standout performances: Joel Embiid was held to 21 points on 6-of-20 shooting (42 percent true shooting), though added 13 rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal. Pascal Siakam had 26-10-5 on 57 percent true shooting. Precious Achiuwa supplemented him with 21 points and nine rebounds.
April 7 in Toronto: Raptors 119, Sixers 114
- Absences: Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby
- Standout performances: Joel Embiid had 30-10-2-1-1 on 55 percent true shooting. James Harden struggled to the tune of 13-15-4 on 44 percent true shooting. Pascal Siakam was sensational with 37-12-10-2 on 57 percent true shooting. Gary Trent Jr. hit five long balls and notched 30-5-3-1 on 70 percent true shooting.
How did vital players perform against the Raptors/Sixers this season?
Joel Embiid (three games): 29-11-3-1-1 on 58.6 percent true shooting (.466/.200/.838 split)
James Harden (three games, two with Philadelphia): 19-10-8 on 54 percent true shooting (.409/.222/.818 split)
Tyrese Maxey (four games): 20-3.5-2.5-1-1 on 64.6 percent true shooting (.527/.500/.929 split)
Tobias Harris (four games): 13-8-5.5-1 on 45.7 percent true shooting (.319/.188/.900 split)
Pascal Siakam (three games): 30-9-8-1 on 58 percent true shooting (.507/.143/.864 split)
Fred VanVleet (one game): 32-7-6-1 on 67 percent true shooting (.500/.545/1.000 split)
Scottie Barnes (three games): 13-8-3 on 41 percent true shooting (.391/.250/.250 split)
Gary Trent Jr. (four games): 19.5-4-3-2 on 48.7 percent true shooting (.365/.382/.786 split)
OG Anunoby (one game): 20-4-4-1 on 59.7 percent true shooting (.467/.500/1.000 split)
Numbers to monitor
- 16.4: The Raptors generated an NBA-high 16.4 percent turnover rate on defense this season. Meanwhile, the Sixers turned it over on just 12.9 percent of their offensive possessions, which was fourth-best.
Which side prevails here? Will Toronto’s rangy, hectic style frustrate Embiid and Harden into gaudy turnover counts to ignite the Raptors in transition? Does the experience and composure of Philadelphia’s stars combat that high-flying approach and quell Toronto’s fast-break chances?
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Raptors’ 18.6 percent transition frequency is the second-highest in the league. Their ability to play in the open floor is vital to cobbling together tenable offense. In the half-court, they scored just 91.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 26th during the regular season.
If Philadelphia’s frugal nature wins out more often than Toronto’s chaotic tendencies, that bodes well for the Sixers. Despite dropping the season series 3-1, they only turned it over on 12.4 percent of possessions and averaged 11.8 giveaways per game. Whether that’s an encouraging or concerning harbinger is up to interpretation.
- .233: Philadelphia’s free-throw rate sat atop the league during the regular season. Toronto surrendered an opposing free-throw rate of .200, which was worse than only nine other teams. This club will foul. Embiid and Harden populate the charity stripe and doing so routinely is a notable component of their offensive success. The contrast here seems like something that favors the Sixers, particularly their stars.
The Raptors’ turnover-heavy defensive ethos leaves them susceptible to fouls and breakdowns inside. They’re going to gamble for steals and deflections. The Sixers will need to capitalize, especially given the way Harden has struggled as a scorer against Toronto this year. Off-ball movement, both in terms of cutting and relocating around the arc, is another path to manipulating Toronto’s frenzied defense.
Embiid free-throw rate vs. Toronto: .637 (.602 on the year)
Harden free-throw rate vs. Toronto: .500 (.540 on the year)
Glean what you wish from that data.
- 47.9: That’s Fred VanVleet’s true shooting percentage in 15 post-All-Star Break games. Through four months and 50 games, VanVleet performed at an All-NBA-caliber level. He shot 40 percent from deep, provided versatile All-Defensive Team services and averaged 21.5-7-4.5-1.5 on 57 percent true shooting. But he was also playing a staggering 38 minutes per game and carrying a monstrous two-way workload.
Those responsibilities seemingly weighed on the All-Star from late February onward. Largely due to a persistent knee injury, he missed 10 of Toronto’s 25 games following the intermission and averaged just 16-6-4-2 on 48 percent true shooting (.343/.291/.872 split).
His three-ball wavered. Maneuvering inside the arc grew even thornier than it already was for him. His lateral mobility and defensive execution declined. Quite frankly, he was not very good.
As he faltered, Siakam stepped up and mounted a late-season All-NBA charge. If they play like All-NBA dudes at the same time, Toronto is a dangerous, dangerous team, even beyond this first-round matchup. If VanVleet continues to be hampered and struggles on both ends, the half-court offense and swarming defense both suffer. The former outcome is a massive hindrance to Philadelphia’s chances in this series (not to say it couldn’t still win). The latter is a massive boon.
Questions in search of answers
Can the Sixers slow Toronto on the offensive glass?
The Raptors’ 31.1 percent offensive rebounding rate placed them second during the regular season. In four games against the Sixers, they scooped up 57 offensive boards, including 20 in their March 20 victory. Despite shooting shooting just 37.6 percent, they put up 20 more shots than Philadelphia and won that night.
The Sixers, while much worse on the offensive glass (30th at 22.9 percent), finished just 15th in defensive rebounding rate (26 percent). It’s clearly been an issue in recent games with the Raptors.
The disparity in speed and athleticism on the front-line is fully displayed when dudes like Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa and Thaddeus Young are skying in for putbacks over ground-bound bigs like Georges Niang, Tobias Harris and Danny Green. Even Joel Embiid, who is an excellent athlete, is not an explosive leaper, and that’s hurt him and the Sixers in this matchup.
But the athletic gap between these front-courts does not justify the degree to which Toronto has thrived on the offensive glass in these games. Philadelphia has to be better prepared for the waves the Raptors send to the boards and truly commit to boxing out. Neither occurred on a consistent basis in the regular season.
Toronto’s half-court offense is not good, but it doesn’t have to be to win the series if the Raptors haul in offensive rebounds like they did across those matchups. Philadelphia has to limit second chances and exploit the Raptors’ lack of creation. Offensive rebounding is a pillar of their game-plan. Curtailing it puts them in a precarious spot offensively.
How do the Sixers approach this series defensively?
If Philadelphia switches screens, how does it impact Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes, who relish attacking mismatches to thrive from the free-throw line and in? That duo loves initiating contact and playing through it to wield their intermediate touch and length as scorers. The Sixers are somewhat selective in their switches, but have shown to go switch-heavy when needed.
None of Harris, Maxey, Harden or Green are consistently adept at navigating screens. Switching them may be the most prudent strategy to avoid allowing driving lanes and flooding Embiid with rotation after rotation. But switching also provides Siakam and Barnes preferable opportunities.
Barnes, albeit a wonderfully skilled and promising creator, isn’t a highly efficient scorer yet (55 percent true shooting), so the Sixers could be content to switch against him. He’s also not found much traction in these games, as noted above.
Siakam, though, is an entirely different caliber of player and offensive talent. Switching ill-suited defenders on him is the first step to a dominant series in his favor. He cooked Philadelphia in each game this season and capitalized on its lack of athleticism, footspeed and length in the frontcourt, namely Harris and Niang.
He’s a vastly improved scorer than he was in the 2018-19 series, when Embiid neutralized him. His passing has also evolved. Send help and he’ll capitalize. This is not to say Embiid couldn’t slow him, but the approach cannot be a carbon-copy of three seasons ago.
When the Sixers assigned Embiid to Siakam late in the April 7 loss, Siakam didn’t miss a beat on the few possessions he looked to score and posed issues for the MVP candidate, just as he did others. Embiid’s proven to dial it up in the playoffs defensively, so that battle could shake out differently. Regardless, everyone must be ready for the array of counters Siakam has incorporated in recent years, as well as his improved shooting and playmaking.
The ripple effect of tagging Embiid to Siakam for long stretches is three-fold.
It removes Embiid from some help situations and puts a greater burden on Philadelphia’s flawed perimeter stoppers to combat dribble-drives. Yet Toronto isn’t rich with downhill scorers, so that might not be a pressing matter. On many instances, it likely situates the Sixers’ best rebounder — at least among starters, word to Paul Reed — farther from the basket against a premier offensive rebounding club. It gives Embiid a highly demanding defensive responsibility, in conjunction with his offensive workload that will require sharp execution in the face of Toronto’s nonstop length.
I also wonder how the Sixers and Embiid handle any inverted Siakam-VanVleet pick-and-rolls, a set Toronto embraces in crunch-time at various points. VanVleet is a premier guard screener and might really lay into Embiid to force him off of his co-star. Any 7-footer maneuvering around a screen is a lofty ask, let alone when the pick man is so adept at his job. Embiid is an All-World player on both ends and might prove ready to answer all these questions, but they’re questions nonetheless for now.
How do the Sixers crack this surging, top-10 defense?
Just as Toronto is sure to see switch after switch, Philadelphia will also be greeted by a plethora of switches. That’s been a tactic to slow the bountiful Harden-Embiid two-man game and figures to potentially continue as much, with all the size and length the Raptors can throw Harden’s way.
Toronto’s ability to not sacrifice size or mobility on its switches could challenge Harris as well, whose creation is best featured when overpowering smaller defenders on drives or snappy post-ups. There aren’t many of those players in the Raptors’ rotation.
The counter to all this, of course, is Embiid. Any one-on-one matchup is favorable for him. When the Raptors send help, his passing growth in recent years should shine brightly. With Philadelphia presumably starting Green in each game for “continuity,” the floor-spacing limitations that arise from Thybulle won’t exist. Four shooters/scoring threats will be stationed around the superstar center for lengthy stretches. That’s a good place to be.
Yet the Sixers have to make Embiid’s touches on those switches a priority. Harden, Harris and Maxey cannot dance around, while neglecting or failing to feed Embiid. Their moments will come — even more so if they let Embiid tilt the defense into rotation and attack from there. If Embiid gets the ball in beneficial spots, the Sixers’ offense will probably run smoothly. They have a clear size advantage on the interior. Featuring it as often as possible is vital.
Green’s presence should also ease some of the tension in Harden-Embiid pick-and-rolls that stem from Thybulle as a starter. When they didn’t automatically switch, the Raptors shrewdly used his lack of gravity to complicate that lethal action. Green’s exceedingly superior spot-up shooting renders him a much more credible outlet if Toronto ignores him to clog Embiid on the roll or Harden on the drive.
How does Harden fare as a scorer against the Raptors’ length?
Toronto, as the numbers and tape illuminate, has been a complicated matchup for Harden this season. His passing remains masterful, which is typically the case, independent of his scoring output. However, the scoring volume and efficiency are problematic. The Raptors’ length has bothered some of his step-back triple attempts, though he’s also just missing quality looks en route to his 22.2 percent clip beyond the arc against this team.
The larger issue is how Toronto’s held him to 12.3 shots per game, down from his season-long mark of 15.3 (and 13.6 with the Sixers). The results need to be beneficial for Philadelphia, but Harden also has to manufacture higher scoring volume to invite fruitful results.
Helping to increase that volume would be Harden actually embracing spot-up threes when they arise. This aversion has been a long-standing, mildly damaging trend in his career. Alleviating some of it starting with the Toronto series would behoove him and the Sixers.
A renaissance with his floater may also empower him. He ranks in the 37th percentile on runners with Philadelphia and was only in the 33rd percentile with Brooklyn. Prior to this year, he hadn’t ranked below the 77th percentile since 2018-19. Given his warts as a finisher, the floater as a worthwhile tool could offer a nifty release valve.
This series is a delight to assess and project. Everything covered here is only a snippet of the relevant storylines ahead of Saturday’s Game 1 in what will assuredly be a fascinating Round 1 battle.
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