On Saturday the Philadelphia 76ers will host the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The No.4 vs. No.5 series is often the best of all the first round. They are usually very close in record and therefore a tough series to predict. Just last season, we saw the Los Angeles Clippers narrowly escape the Dallas Mavericks in seven games in the West. In the East, the New York Knicks were upset by the lower seeded Atlanta Hawks. The two winners, would both go on to their respective Conference Finals. In 2020, there was another seven game series between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. And again in 2018, when the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Indiana Pacers in seven games. Like Atlanta and Los Angeles last year, Cleveland would reach the conference finals and actually make the NBA Finals as only the fifth No. 4 seed to do so in NBA history.
But enough about the past. This year’s No. 4 seed is the Philadelphia 76ers who over the past year (actually less) have been through a whirlwind. One June 20th, the 76ers lost a Game 7 in the Eastern semifinals to the Hawks on their homecourt. Discussions surrounding the team dominated the sports landscape for months: Ben Simmons. Chemistry. Mental health. Trade demands. Etc. Despite all the noise, the 76ers managed to reach the NBA Trade Deadline with the 5th best record in the East at 32-22 before finally trading Simmons to Brooklyn. In arrived James Harden from Brooklyn and the team has since gone 19-9.
When you consider the amount of moving parts in that deal, with Philadelphia trading Seth Curry and Andre Drummond in addition to Simmons, it’s difficult to get a firm grasp on how good this new team is. The 76ers also will be without their premier perimeter defender in Matisse Thybulle for road games due to his COVID-19 vaccination status. Those three players all played or play important rotational roles for the 76ers. Curry, Drummond and Thybulle averaged 34, 18 and 25 minutes per game, respectively.
The roster however, still has plenty of talent to go around. Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey who both average north of 17 points per game. Oh, and that guy Joel Embiid, just finished his best season as a pro. He’s healthy, just won a scoring title and might end up being the MVP of the entire league. When he and Harden were on the court together, albeit brief, the Sixers outscored their opponents by 15.9 points per 100 possessions. Amongst duos that logged at least 500 minutes, that was the 5th best mark in the entire NBA.
Their opponent on the other hand is one of biggest surprises of the entire NBA season. The Toronto Raptors had a projected win total of 35.5 and slotted to finish in the lottery, 11th in the East. In reality, they went 48-34 and have a chance to make serious noise in the playoffs after their one year post-season hiatus.
In recent years the Raptors, for lack of a better word, have owned the 76ers. 32-10 dating back to the 2013-2014 season. Yes, the rosters are different. The coaches, too. Some of those wins were during “The Process.” I know. I know. But this season they did win the series 3-1, went 2-0 against Harden, including a home win just a week ago in which they trailed by double digits.
Like Philadelphia, Toronto made significant roster additions, some before the season but also at the deadline. The biggest move being the selection of Scottie Barnes in the NBA Draft, whom like Embiid, might end the season with some hardware (currently 2nd best odds to win ROTY). His defensive versatility fit right into the Raptors DNA and as the season progressed, his offense has been trending up. They also traded for Precious Achiuwa before the season and veteran Thaddeus Young at the deadline. Both will play important roles trying to slow down the Philly stars.
The growth from the ensemble cast is also noteworthy. Fred VanVleet made his first All-Star game. Gary Trent has taken strides not many saw coming. Paskal Siakam returned from injury and is playing at an All-NBA level. But maybe the key to it all is OG Anunoby. While his numbers are on par with last year the proof is in the outcome: when OG Anunoby plays, the team is 31-17. When he doesn’t, 17-17.
The coaching comparison couldn't be much different. Doc Rivers has been an NBA head coach since 1999 after retiring as a player in 1996. He's on his 4th team now, searching for his first championship since 2008. Nick Nurse, never made the NBA as a player but got his first head coaching job over 30 years ago at Grand View University. His NBA tenure has been brief but very successful. In his first three years as a coach, the Raptors are 23-12 in the playoffs and won the 2019 Championship. Rivers has gone 98-94 in the playoffs with eight first round exits.
Despite all their differences, the teams are actually quite similar on the court. They both play slow. Very slow. Ranking 25th (PHI) and 27th (TOR) in pace. Their defensive and offensive ratings are similar.
In the three (of four) games Embiid played against Toronto this season, it was a bit of mixed results. On December 28th, the 76ers won 114-109 with Embiid leading all scorers with 36 points on 11/16 shooting. However, the Raptors with were without three of their starters and had a limited rotation due to covid. That was also months ago before the Harden trade.
The two recent games are a bit more telling. On March 20th, the Raptors won 93-88 in a fourth quarter comeback. Embiid shot just 6/20. Harden had six turnovers and shot 5/12. The Raptors were even without OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet. The last game was also a Toronto victory, 119-114, and again Harden shot even worse going 3/12 from the field. In the game, the Raptors were again without Anunoby and FVV.
Keep in mind too, that in the two games he played against the Raptors, Thybulle averaged 35 minutes per and again at this point, is not eligible to play the road games in this playoff series. The biggest beneficiary to Thybulle’s absence could be Trent Jr. In the last game that Thybulle was out, Trent was 12-21 from the field scoring 30 points. In the two games he faced Thybulle, Trent shot 8-37.
I feel like all the pressure is on the 76ers. Embiid has talked about how important winning in the playoffs is to him. Doc Rivers is rumored to be on the hot seat with some speculating that anything short of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance and he's done in Philadelphia. He has a history of playoff failures. Darryl Morey, passed multiple other offers for Ben Simmons, will need his star acquisition to shine. Like Utah in the #4/#5 Western Conference first round, if Philadelphia were to lose this series, the off-season could again be chaotic.
And then there is Harden himself. On his third team in just over a calendar year, has his own share of playoff mishaps. He also hasn’t performed or looked like the Harden of old. Since arriving in Philly, his FG% and 3PT% are the worst of his career. His 21 PPG is his lowest in a decade. With the eye test he just looks like a player who is slowing down. Some say he has been saving himself for the playoffs. If that’s the case, we will find out this weekend.
The Raptors are really playing with house money. The team might have had high expectations for themselves but this was supposed to be a transitional year. They have battled their share of injuries but when the team is fully healthy they have proven to be a very good team. They went on a 13-3 run to close the year before resting players for a meaningless season finale.
There are very few teams in the NBA that have the size and defense to slowdown Embiid. The Raptors themselves, made numerous calls around the league to actually add a new big man at the deadline. The team doesn’t have a 7′ footer. Actually, they don’t even have a player taller than 6’9. But what they do have is a number of long, athletic players and one of the better defensive coaches in the league right now. In fact, just a year ago Embiid himself praised Nick Nurse and the Raptors defense.
The 76ers are still a very good team that could definitely go on a run in the NBA Playoffs. If they had landed the #3 seed, the forecast would be completely different, in my opinion. This is just a tough matchup for them. Toronto has the edge in coaching and chemistry. The Raptors are healthy and peaking at the right time. Anticipate a hard fought, physical series, with some creative lineups, especially from the Toronto side.
Raptors in six.
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