Raptors-76ers Series Preview: Two polar-opposite foes renew rivalry
It’s a rematch of 2019 and 2001 before it. It’s a contrast in vibes, and a bit of a contrast in basketball philosophy. It’s star-driven against synergy-driven, overhyped against underrated. There are plenty of differences between the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors despite similar statistical profiles and records close enough that they’re meeting in the Eastern Conference’s No. 4-5 seed matchup.
Things get underway Saturday at 6 p.m. ET in Philadelphia, with broadcast details and the remainder of the series schedule to come. What follows is a quick — okay, quick by my standards — look at the series, with the highest level stats and storylines you’ll want to keep an eye on.
76ers: 51-31 | No. 13 offence | No. 11 defence | No. 9 net rating
Raptors: 48-34 | No. 16 offence | No. 10 defence | No. 11 net rating
Season Series: Raptors 3-1 | Raptors +11
Game 1, Nov. 11: The Raptors went into Philly and came away with a 115-109 win. Encouraging? Absolutely. Relevant data point? Less so. Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid both missed the game, and this came before the 76ers acquired James Harden. It was a heck of a Fred VanVleet game, though.
Game 2, Dec. 28: Despite having half their team in health and safety protocols, the Raptors nearly stole one at home, losing 114-109 to a Sixers team that was favoured by double-digits. This was maybe Embiid’s best regular season game against Toronto, though it came with Chris Boucher starting at centre and D.J. Wilson and Daniel Oturu seeing minutes there off the bench.
Game 3, March 20: Finally, some better data. Harden was around at this point, but the Raptors did a great job limiting both him and Embiid, insomuch as that’s possible. A 93-88 victory on the road without VanVleet and OG Anunoby is impressive, though I never want to see the Precious Achiuwa–Khem Birch duo start a playoff game.
Game 4, April 7: Once again without VanVleet and Anunoby, the Raptors eke out a 119-114 home victory. It’s emblematic of a lot of recent Toronto-Philly games, as the Raptors win 11 non-Embiid minutes by 13 points.
Pulse of the Sixers
The Harden acquisition hasn’t gone quite as swimmingly as they may have hoped. At their best, they look next to impossible to defend, a veritable parade of free throws with good size defensively. As they often have in Philly — and often have with Harden — warts revealed themselves quickly. Overall, Philly was 16-8 with Harden in the mix, but they only nudged a little higher as an offence (14th to ninth), stayed level as a defence (remained 10th), and largely dug in on existing strengths (free throws!) and weaknesses (maddening inconsistency).
The vibes aren’t great with Harden banged up, head coach Doc Rivers snapping at reporters for reasonable questions, and the team still having no idea how to survive minutes without Embiid.
Pulse of the Raptors
The polar opposite of the Sixers in terms of vibes and pressure, the Raptors continued to beat expectations right down to the end of the season. While their overall stature is a tad behind Philly’s — the Raptors finished the year 11th in net rating and in the middle of the league at both ends of the floor — they were a top-five defence after the All-Star break and showed tangible, identifiable growth as a unit at that end. No team spent much time healthy this year, but the Raptors have the fortunate combination of their strength coalescing at the right moment and their players finally getting back to health. What’s more, the Raptors were the league’s third-best team against top-10 opponents this year (16-11, +1.9 net rating) and its second-best defence. This is a team that scales.
Key 76ers Numbers
23.3: The 76ers’ free-throw rate as a team, meaning they took .23 free throws for every one field-goal attempt on the year. Since the acquisition of Harden, that leapt to .29. One of the Raptors’ greatest areas of improvement over the course of the season was slowly cutting down on fouls within their hyper-aggressive scheme, but they’ll be at a major disadvantage at the free-throw line all series.
-3.6: The 76ers’ net rating with Embiid off the court, a number that barely improved with the addition of Harden. DeAndre Jordan is no longer a playoff-calibre rotation piece beyond his ability on the glass, and while Paul Reed has shown more utility as a small-ball five, Rivers has seemed hesitant to roll with him for any extended stretch. Toronto has to win — and probably dominate — every breather Embiid takes.
1.19: The number of points per possession the 76ers scored in transition, the best mark in the league. Ironically, almost no team runs less, largely because their two best players are so deadly in a slower half-court environment. How you feel about this stat, and the volume-versus-efficiency trade-off, could go either way: Either the Raptors need to get back like all hell to limit these opportunities, or they trust one of the best transition defences in the league while continuing to crash the offensive glass more than anyone outside of Memphis.
Key Raptors Numbers
345: The number of minutes the “core five” and presumptive starters have played together this year. While that group’s performance was trending in the right direction before VanVleet and Anunoby were hurt down the stretch, the net rating of +0.5 on the season is hardly encouraging. The component parts lineup data suggests that this should be an effective group, it just may not be one you start automatically and lean on for 16 or 18 minutes a game, turning it instead into a situational or matchup-based look, and likely closing unit.
1: The number of total games the five starters have come off the bench for this year. That was Gary Trent Jr., in the first game of the season. That is to say, if Nick Nurse decided to start a bulkier centre – Achiuwa or Birch — due to Embiid’s presence, it’s not clear who the player to move to the second unit would be. Scottie Barnes makes the most sense in terms of role specifics and recent experience, but this post-season is very much about getting him a lot of high-leverage reps in addition to winning. Tough call.
17.3: The turnover rate the Raptors forced against the league’s top-10 teams, easily the best mark in the NBA and actually higher than their mark against bottom-20 teams. Toronto’s defence improved steadily as they cleaned up their defensive rebounding and penchant for fouling, but it’s important to highlight that they did that without sacrificing their greatest strength: An aggression that renders opponents uncomfortable and helps fuel a transition attack (thereby insulating a pretty shaky half-court offence). While Philly protects the ball well, they’re an abhorrent transition defence when they do cough it up.
The Thybulle Factor
About those non-Embiid minutes: Well, their depth will take an even bigger hit in games in Toronto, as Matisse Thybulle is ineligible to play due to his vaccination status and current border restrictions. (Note: This applies to Raptors entering the U.S., too. They are fully vaccinated as a team.) Philly moved Danny Green into the starting lineup for the team’s recent visit to Toronto, then kept him there, likely because it will be too disruptive to change their starters game-to-game in a playoff series.
Even if you think Thybulle’s impact as an all-defence, no-offence piece is limited in a playoff environment, a team that runs about six players deep losing one of those six is troublesome. Thybulle was fifth on the team in minutes after the Harden acquisition and the team had its best net rating with him on the floor. Georges Niang and Shake Milton aren’t ready for primetime post-season roles beyond potentially getting hot on offence here and there. Who guards Gary Trent Jr., and how that ripples to the rest of the matchups, is a major decision on Rivers’ plate.
Editor’s Note: The COVID-19 situation, in sports and around the world, is constantly evolving. Readers in Canada can consult the country’s public health website for the latest.
The Other Thybulle Factor
When Thybulle is available, he becomes a fascinating basketball philosophical: How good do you have to be defensively to justify playing time when you are a complete non-factor on offence? That’s not an exaggeration. On March 29, the Bucks basically just didn’t guard Thybulle whatsoever, and he made them pay with one shot attempt in 21 minutes. He took a whopping 13 attempts over the 71 minutes he played against the Raptors this year, admittedly scoring 19 points but not scaring anyone. Given the aggression of Nurse’s notorious star-stopping defensive gameplans, it stands to reason that Thybulle will be welcomed to have a usage rate of 100 per cent in this series, should the 76ers so choose.
Thybulle’s presence (or absence) won’t necessarily mean a strategy change for Nurse’s defence. Even with better shooting around him, the Raptors are willing to send multiple bodies to Embiid to make life difficult. This isn’t just about trying to stop Embiid. It’s about exacting a physical toll on him over the course of a game and series. Expect just about everyone to get a chance guarding him and using their six fouls as required, with plenty of physicality to force him away from the paint before the catch, plenty of collapsing into the paint when he penetrates, and double-teams and dig-downs from all sorts of angles, both on the catch and on his first dribble. Embiid has a stable argument as a top-three player in the world right now; the Raptors will treat him as such.
Back in 2019, the 76ers deployed what was, at the time, the best strategy for the Raptors’ ascendant No. 3: Put him against size and dare him to drive into it, betting he wasn’t comfortable enough with his three-point shot or mid-range package to adjust. Even through a calf injury, Siakam averaged 19.4 points on moderate efficiency, turning in only one bad game (one where it was a surprise he suited up).
If that didn’t work then, it’s hard to see it working now, even with the ability to give Siakam the attention of a No. 1 scorer. Siakam’s become adept at not only reacting to opposing defences but seeing one step ahead of them, emerging as a 92nd-percentile passer among forwards, per Cleaning The Glass. He’s also developed an elite floater-range game, ranking in the 99th percentile for volume from 4-to-14 feet and in the 84th percentile for finishing there. He’s also shot nearly 40 per cent on true mid-range jumpers.
Put it all together and Siakam looks like a player far more comfortable attacking whatever’s thrown at him, whether it’s posting up a smaller player (Thybulle), attacking size (Tobias Harris) or countering a dropped back big inside (Embiid).
76ers starters: Harden, Maxey, Green, Harris, Embiid
76ers bench: Thybulle (in Philadelphia only), Niang, Milton, Jordan
76ers fringe: Reed, Korkmaz, Joe
Raptors starters: VanVleet, Trent, Barnes, Siakam, Anunoby
Raptors bench: Young, Achiuwa, Boucher, Birch
Raptors fringe: Brooks, Flynn, Banton
Note: Two-way players Champagnie, Johnson, Brown, and Powell are ineligible to play in the post-season.
76ers Win If…
Embiid is able to withstand the physical toll over seven games. Harden plays to the level he’s capable at both ends (and yes, he’s capable of being a solid defender when engaged). Tyrese Maxey continues to establish himself as a high-end slash-and-shoot third option. Harris gives them something. The Raptors’ inexperience and lack of half-court event-creation is too much for effort and Nurse’s coaching advantage to overcome.
Raptors Win If…
A tight eight-man rotation with heavy-minute loads holds up fatigue-wise while dominating non-Embiid minutes. The starting lineups play to a draw. Siakam outplays Harden and VanVleet outplays Maxey. The combustible vibes in Philly flare up. Barnes is ready to carry over a Rookie of the Year-calibre season into prime time. Precious Achiuwa can handle reasonable minutes against Embiid thanks to his strength, effort level, and Nurse’s buffet of help coverages, allowing OG Anunoby to handle Harden duties.
Siakam has spent the last three-and-a-half months playing at an All-NBA level and should, in my estimation, make Third Team All-NBA. Embiid will be the best player in the series, but if Siakam can outplay Harden as the series’ second-best player, there’s a path to the Raptors’ edge three-through-eight stacking just enough marginal advantages to eke out the upset. It’s too hard to win a series where the opponent has the two best players, and Siakam has an opportunity here to turn a feel-good, step-forward 2021-22 season into his second coming-out party as an NBA star.