Following the Boston Celtics’ triumphant victory over the Memphis Grizzlies last night, the Eastern Conference playoff (and play-in) picture was set. On Saturday evening at 6:00pm ET, the Toronto Raptors will find themselves standing across from the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center in what should be the first game of a gladiatorial series.
The Raptors downed the Sixers twice during this year’s regular season, with one of those wins coming as recently as last week. Their only loss to the City of Brotherly Love occurred on December 28th – a contest in which the Raptors had only eight bodies available – two of whom were signed using hardship-exemption contracts.
Against the Raptors’ ninth-ranked defense this season, Joel Embiid has struggled, averaging as many turnovers as assists, and shooting the ball at a clip 3.3% below his season average. For a team with no traditional centers to throw at the largest and most dominant interior presence in today’s NBA, Nick Nurse‘s swarming schemes have been compensatory to say the least. Doubling Embiid on every low-post catch and rotating out to shooters in computer-generated fashion, the Raptors have shown that small-ball philosophies and benefits extend beyond the offensive side of the game.
Employing quick-footed and strong wings with the ability to guard 1-5, play switch-heavy schemes, and run the fast break immediately after grabbing a rebound is how the Raptors decided to operate this season. In theory, the corrupting defensive strategy could force opponents into turning the ball over more frequently, leading to quicker and easier baskets on the other end, in addition to providing the Raptors with favourable mismatches, allowing them to grab more offensive rebounds. Based on the fact that this year’s squad averaged the fourth-most shot attempts per game (91.3), and held opponents to the second fewest (84.4), their theory seems to be working.
Against the Sixers in particular, it has functioned exceptionally well. The Raptors shot the ball 11.3 times more than Philadelphia per game this season, providing their often-shaky halfcourt offense with a wider margin for error.
With Embiid’s neutralization in the cards, much of the weight of carrying the 76ers offense, providing Embiid with easier shot attempts, and picking apart holes in the Raptors defense will rest on the shoulders of former-MVP, James Harden. Harden has played like a shell of his former self all season, failing to score 40 points a single time over a 65 game span. Since arriving in Philadelphia, he is averaging his lowest scoring output since the 2011-2012 season.
Of course, playing alongside the MVP frontrunner opens up more opportunity for Harden to take on the role of a playmaker, which he has credibly done, however without his wizardry drawing fouls and knocking down shots from deep, Doc Rivers will be stuck searching for answers on how to make his team’s offense tick.
Ultimately, Philadelphia’s biggest concern will be on the defensive side of the ball. Toronto has a multitude of wings capable of facilitating from anywhere on the floor, driving to the basket, posting up, and even shooting an open three when it’s available. From Pascal Siakam, to Scottie Barnes, to OG Anunoby and Thaddeus Young, the Sixers will struggle to contain so much size, length, and strength.
Exacerbating their issues, it was also confirmed last night that All-NBA Defensive talent, Matisse Thybulle, will not be able to travel to Toronto for Games 3, 4, and 6 as a result of his vaccination status. His absence leaves Rivers with a slew of moderate to subpar wing defenders at his disposal, which Nurse will be sure to exploit. In last week’s matchup, Rivers chose to switch everything on ball-screen actions, essentially admitting that none of his players were better than the rest at staying in front of Siakam. Taking the likes of Embiid, Harden, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Georges Niang to the cup over and over again, Siakam effortlessly walked into a 37-point triple-double.
Not unreflective of what would typically occur, the 76ers have a defensive rating of 114.2 without Thybulle in the lineup this season, and 111.2 with him.
If Toronto is going to pull off this upset, that is exactly where they will find their pot of gold. They need to stick to their defensive principles, stay disciplined against Harden and Embiids’s foul-drawing antics, and attack on the wing at every opportunity they get, merely because there will be nobody capable of stopping them. As imperative as VanVleet’s success has been to the Raptors this season, Siakam will be the most important player in this series.
As the battle of the two best Cameroonian basketball players of all-time awaits us, fans can gear up for another season of Jurassic Park and playoff basketball in Scotiabank Arena. The last time this team played in a relatively normal playoff setting, we all know how it ended. Let’s see if that same magic can be recreated over these next couple months.