Many words have been penned at Liberty Ballers from the Philadelphia 76ers’ side of things about what’s changed since their Game 3 win. However, we haven’t talked much about how the Toronto Raptors have altered their game plan, what they’ve done to stymie the Sixers and what we might expect in Game 6. To gain that point of view, I enlisted the help of Samson Folk, who is a writer and podcaster for Raptors Republic.
This series has been quite close since Game 3. What are some broad adjustments you’ve noticed from the Raptors?
In short form: the Raptors have been much more aggressive jumping Joel Embiid when he’s on the block, or the block extended. They’ve thrown length at him in doubles, and tried to funnel the ball to less dangerous players, or more dangerous spots for turnovers. In addition to that, they’ve stopped shading James Harden in isolation, and have instead chose to guard him straight up for the most part — trusting in their defenders to get stops by their lonesome.
How have they helped unlock Pascal Siakam the last couple games especially?
Better screening, for the most part. In Game 4, he got downhill a little bit more often with better screening, but also got a really friendly whistle. In Game 5, with Fred VanVleet out, they doubled his pick-and-roll possessions (22 to 40) and allowed him more space from the physicality that was bothering him in the isolated possessions. He’s also just gotten used to a lot more of the 76ers’ stunting and doubling, and is making really great reads right now.
How has their approach against Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey altered?
I think this one is mostly answered in number one, unfortunately. But, less crashing of the offensive glass has allowed them to significantly slow down Maxey in transition and to put more bodies and resistance on Embiid as he comes down the floor.
Are there any areas you think Toronto is still susceptible against that Philadelphia could potentially exploit?
The Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll still has the potential to undo a lot of NBA defenses. Yes, the Raptors switch a lot of them, but they’ll likely start Birch again and he’ll be playing drop. And even outside of that, more aggressive ball movement can find the weak points in the Raptors’ defense that they have to give up to account for that all-consuming ‘pnr’ action. In addition to that? Harden could absolutely turn back time for one game. The Raptors have really had their way in his matchups, but one big Harden game could make their current scheme completely untenable.
How has the Raptors’ style changed in Fred VanVleet’s absence?
More length defensively, which has allowed a bit more room for error on their worst plays, and more intimidating outcomes on their best ones. VanVleet was injured and lost some punch, for sure, so it’s not like it was his fault — but the defense improved. The 76ers’ zone was significantly better in Game 5 without VanVleet as well (0.727 points per possession) after being really great in Game 3 (1.3 PPP) and Game 4 (1.8 PPP). VanVleet’s absence really allows the 76ers to squeeze spacing even thinner. Siakam’s shotmaking and wizardry carried the Raptors through it in Game 5, but the negative effects could really be seen in the rest of the series.