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Sixers-Raptors Game 1 preview: revenge is a dish best served cold

Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey will look to exorcise some demons Sixers fans still carry from from 2019 vs. Pascal Siakam’s Toronto Raptors

Philadelphia 76ers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

The NBA playoffs are here, and today the fourth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers will play host to the fifth-seeded Toronto Raptors. If you’re like the rest of us and still suffer from the occasional recurring nightmare, if a loved one has ever shaken you awake demanding to know what “it bounced four times” means, then this is your chance to truly begin the healing.

My name isn’t James, it’s literally Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons in the dunker spot, Marc Gasol’s defense, the Game 3 windmill, gastroenteritis blues AKA the s—ts, Greg Monroe, Kawhi Leonard’s quadruple-doink, Joel Embiid cried, there are so many difficult associations from the last time these two teams met in the playoffs. There are still demons to be exorcised here, now three years later. It feels like yesterday, and it feels like a lifetime ago.

The 2021-2022 Sixers finished the season with a 51-31 record, Toronto was 48-34.

It’s best of seven, with up to four games in Philly and three up North. Winner books either a trip to South Beach to take on the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Miami Heat, or gears up to host Trae Young and the eighth-seeded Hawks who will again look to play playoff spoiler for the second year in a row.

Joel Embiid may not win the MVP award. He may not even make All-NBA first team. But he is the best player in this series. He may even be the best player in these playoffs. He has a chance to prove that to the world beginning today. And he may come out seething from the apparent wave of award voting disrespect.

How exactly Embiid channels his wrath on the offensive end will be an intriguing storyline.

The five-time All-Star finished the regular season as the first center since Shaquille O’Neal to win the NBA scoring title. And the Toronto Raptors have a notably small front-court. Basketball-reference.com doesn’t list a single Raptors player over 6-9. Will Embiid look to continue his 30 points per game ways over small defenders? Will he look to keep stacking 40 and 10 games?

Maybe, but Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s team uses a hyper-aggressive swarming strategy, sending double and triple teams Embiid’s way. It’s possible Toronto tries to force Embiid’s teammates to beat them.

Much has been made this season about Embiid’s improvements as a passer. Earlier in his career he struggled making the right reads and coughed up too many turnovers. Some of those bad habits reared their wretched heads against teams like Toronto down the stretch this season. He’ll certainly be put to the test in that regard during this series. He’ll need to know when his cutters are cutting, he’ll need to spot his spot up shooters and hit them for open threes. He’ll need to play with poise, assess the defense, and make the right play. Sometimes he’ll have the chance to BBQ some chicken, other times he’ll need to trigger a swing-swing to the corner.

That means James Harden, Tobias Harris, and Maxey will all have to do some things they haven’t always been eager to do this season: shoot quick-release threes off the catch. And Danny Green will have to settle into his spots, not drift into midrange holes in the zone:

Harden and Harris, especially, have appeared reluctant to shoot triples off the catch. Harris may be finding his rhythm at just the right time. It would be a major, major lift to this Sixers team if the Tennessee product could have his best postseason run to date. Harden has been working on his spot up jumpers all week as well:

Last week, we took a more thorough look at two possible ways the Sixers could deploy The Beard. He’s played the best ball of his career flanked by eager snipers waiting patiently beyond the arc. Now, too often, when Harden draws an advantage and kicks it out, the recipient takes a dribble (or three), generously allowing a defense to reset. Hopefully they worked on both their rotations and spacing in practice this week to empower their best perimeter player.

Harden has averaged almost twice as many points per 36 minutes when he anchors a bench lineup without Joel Embiid. Maybe he’ll look to take on a bigger scoring roll during the times Embiid rests or maybe coach Rivers will opt to rest him and Embiid at the same time and hope Maxey and Harris can keep things afloat.

It wasn’t but a few weeks ago coach Rivers expressed optimism Harden’s nagging hamstring issues (which have appeared to limit him over the last 13 months) will be healed in time for the stretch run. They’ll certainly need everyone at full strength to win a title:

The backup center minutes are also something to keep an eye on. Doc Rivers recently said he likes to use DeAndre Jordan when facing a big front court and Paul Reed when facing a small one (even if that hasn’t actually been the case for Reed). But maybe that means we’ll see more Reed in this series if he doesn’t turn to Paul Millsap instead.

Nothing triggers 2019 PTSD like a 10-point run by the opponent the second Embiid’s replacement enters a big ballgame. If we don’t see Reed it will be perplexing since he has looked the best of the three available reserve bigs. If we do see Reed, it will leave us wondering why the team didn’t begin to get Harden and Reed more reps together beginning in Mar.

Plenty of storylines for the broadcast team to hammer:

Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr. Scottie Barnes, and Pascal Siakam didn’t get the chance to develop a ton of cohesion this season for Toronto. A mix of illness and injury held them back. But they form a vaunted quintet when on the floor. Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa, and others round out a very rangy, switch-happy rotation that forces teams to make difficult decisions. They try to make less mistakes than their opponent every game.

It’s basically a crime that a team who won a title a couple seasons ago did one sneak-tank and landed a possible star in Scottie Barnes.

VanVleet sat out the final few games of the regular season to rest a bruised knee. The first-time All-Star missed 11 of the team’s final 24 contests with the ailment. He’s going to play in Game 1, but according to Bill Streicher, FVV admitted the issue “isn’t going anywhere,” as recently as Thursday.

Per SI.com:

“I’ve had a pretty good week of work. I’m getting ready for this series,” VanVleet added. “It could go really good or really bad. I’m optimistic about it. I feel good. Continue to do all my work and my rehab.”

Anunoby also isn’t 100 percent. He’s dealing with a thigh contusion. Coach Nurse did not confirm the Indiana product would be active, but Boucher intimated he thinks the stalwart swingman will be ready to roll.

On the Sixers side of things, only Charles Bassey and Jaden Springer were on the injury report. That’s pretty much a clean bill of health to begin the stretch run. And they’ll need it.

On the year, the Sixers had the 11th ranked offense (113 points per 100 possessions). They’re 12th overall on the defensive end, allowing 110.2 points per 100 to the opposition.

But maybe it would be more interesting to see how the Sixers have fared after Harden played his first minutes in Philly.

Since Harden came aboard, the Sixers improved their offensive rating to 117.8, good for eighth overall. That’s nearly a five points per game increase with the addition of Harden. Rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

There was a bonanza of scoring down the stretch of this season by the league’s better teams. The team’s defensive rating was 112.6 post Harden’s debut. They allowed more points per 100 post Beard arrival, but their rank held steady amidst the scoring league’s barrage.

Toronto has the 19th ranked offense and the third ranked defense across the same 25 game sample. They have a clear strength and identity. They want to force turnovers, then get out and run.

The Sixers have been the significantly superior offensive team on the season. They say defense wins championships, but if that cliche implies D is more important than offense, I’m not buying it. So hopefully the better scoring team wins out. Maybe that’s why Philly is favored per sports markets.

The Sixers come in as 4.5 point favorites per Draft Kings. They’ve settled as-180 series favorites. That translates to an implied 64.3 percent chance that Philly makes the second round, something they’ve done three times in the Joel Embiid era. (I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this gambling line. I thought it might have been even closer before checking).

But if the casinos are backing The Process, we’re in some good company. With 3.5% of bets, the 76ers are bettors 9th favorite to win the NBA title and fifth among teams in the East, per Oddschecker. That’s the bad news. The casinos like the Celtics, Nets, Heat, and Bucks more than they like the Sixers.

But that -180 is interesting because it also means the Sixers are not the slimmest round one favorites. That dubious distinction belongs to the (-130) Boston Celtics, set to host Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. Dodging the Nets in round one was a good thing here.

SB Nation voters believe Tyrese Maxey is the series X-Factor. The sophomore phenom out of Kentucky finished third overall in the entire league connecting on 43 percent of his attempts from distance. Embiid and Harden will rely on ‘Rese to stay hot.

Our Jackson Frank dropped an awesome preview. According to Frank, this is a clash of styles and one way to attack the Raptors will be to punish them for their aggressive defensive ethos. Jackson expects both teams to do lots of switching and is keeping his eye on how Harden especially fares facing that strategy. Harden struggled beating a switch in the teams last meeting.

It’s almost time to get your snacks and beverages in order and then commence your multi-hour state of panic. But remember a few things. No Sixers lead is safe. If they storm through the games and rattle off a 28-12 lead, or a 17-2 lead, whatever you do, do not rejoice. The Sixers did that in both of the these team’s prior two meetings and lost both times.

So just lean in to the crushing anxiety season. It’s Sixers playoff day. One victory later and you can breathe a massive sigh of relief. Let’s GOOOOOOO!

Game Info

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Toronto Raptors

When: 6:00 pm ET, Apr. 16, 2022

Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA

Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @Liberty_Ballers

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