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April 17, 2022

In Game 1 win, Sixers found answers to deal with Raptors' strengths

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The story heading into Philadephia's first-round matchup was all about matchups. The standings, the star power, and many of the numbers suggested the Sixers are a better team, but the Raptors have very specific, very prominent strengths, each of which is matched up with a weakness for Doc Rivers' outfit.

As it turned out, the Sixers were ready to flip that script. They won Game 1 decisively, and they did so by besting Toronto in most, if not all of their areas of expertise. The Sixers outscored Toronto 29-10 in fastbreak points, won the offensive rebounding battle 10-7, and took care of the basketball as well as they have in any game in recent memory. For most of the game, the Raptors were forced to live with just one shot at a bucket, and had to do so after pulling the ball out of their own basket, Philadelphia set up on their end.

A week away from a hostile opponent paid dividends for the Sixers, who did not take their foot off of the gas despite being up against friendly faces in their Camden facility. Group text fights broke out after spirited practices, according to Tobias Harris, but the end result was a level of fire that translated to results on game day. 

"All the days of practice that we had, we knew that's the type of team that they are, scrappy," Tobias Harris said regarding the rebounding battle. "We've been drilling it all day in practice, and when we got out there today, that was our emphasis from early in the game. We had to match their physicality and even be more physical than them."

Mission accomplished. Though the Sixers would eventually break this game open with high-level offense, their success against Toronto's smaller starting five to open the game began with Joel Embiid absolutely wrecking shop in the paint, to the tune of three offensive rebounds in the first quarter. The Raptors were eventually successful in slowing Embiid down individually, but their quest to tie Embiid down left them without answers or a plan for the rest of the group, the game played on Philadelphia's terms for most of the evening.

Well, maybe that's overselling it. By the numbers, the Sixers put up one of the best offensive performances in recent NBA history in Game 1, the third-most efficient game for any playoff team since 1997. But to an extent, the Sixers played within the Raptors' style, and simply outexecuted them within their preferred terms.

For example, shrinking the floor is an organizational goal for the Raptors, their tendency to pinch off of the corners not exactly a secret. Dealing with a team who plays that way is something the Sixers went over in practice last week, and a tendency they capitalized on Saturday night, with Harden feasting on any window that opened on his strong side.

"They sell out on everything," Doc Rivers said after the game. "They pull in from the corners, they pull in from the weakside... qwe drilled it every day. It's unnatural really to drive and throw it to the strong corner, because you're always looking to the opposite corner. And tonight, we got both of those, which is good for us."

Exploiting that (among many other successes) while taking exquisite care of the basketball is a tough feat to accomplish against any team, let alone these Raptors, who live on their ability to turn you over and run. That's something Joel Embiid knows all too well, having served at the center of some nightmare Sixers performances against the Raptors in the past.

After a dominant first half, Embiid slowed down considerably in the second half, but he ultimately came away with an effort to make note of. 

"It starts with me, just not getting frustrated and kind of inviting the double teams and triple teams they kept sending at me all night," Embiid said Saturday. "It's all about me just keep making the right plays over and over and over, and I thought tonight was pretty good. I'm happy about, that's probably the first time I ever went with zero turnovers against Toronto."

While there were a few wild shot attempts that were arguably as bad as turnovers, Embiid has a point. Embiid took the third-most shots on the team (and just one more attempt than the ultra-efficient Tobias Harris) and found the pressure release over and over again, rarely being consumed by the desire to play hero. He picked up hockey assists and actual assists alike through his unselfishness:

By the time this series is over, the big man will likely have airmailed a pass or two out of bounds, but his turnover problem doesn't tend to stem from his passing, rather his overzealousness to attack off the dribble. We saw some excellent Embiid moves made toward the rim, but he didn't get caught up playing like a guard in the middle of the floor, avoiding Toronto's swarming defense by simply getting the ball away from it.

Though Maxey was the obvious standout in this game, earning chants from the crowd and a Jumbotron supercut that placed his face on Gladiator's Maximus Meridius, the theme of this game for the Sixers was their collective effort. The Sixers played a more risk-averse style in transition, instructing all five guys to stay home instead of leaking out before possession was secured. Perhaps the most noteworthy part of this game was that they outright won the non-Embiid minutes with Paul Reed on the floor, a feat so rare we might as well try to hitch a ride on Halley's Comet. 

Here's the scary thing for Toronto — this was a relatively good performance from them on offense. They didn't turn the ball over much, they shot 40 percent from three, and their per-possession numbers were roughly 79th percentile for all NBA games played this season. The two players who came into this game with health questions (OG Anunoby and Fred Van Vleet) both had solid outings on the offensive end, giving Toronto a lift where they need it most. And they still got walloped, with the Sixers posting dominant offensive numbers and neutralizing all of the things that made people hopeful for the Raps in this series. To add injury to insult, Scottie Barnes went down with a nasty ankle roll in the fourth quarter, potentially robbing the Raptors of an excellent, versatile rookie who did not look out of place in a playoff game.

One game does not make a series, and the biggest challenge in a seven-game set is not overreacting to individual outings one way or another. Philadelphia's 2019 series loss to the Raptors featured wild swings back and forth, each team landing a couple of haymakers between the tight games that ultimately determined the outcome.

The good news for the Sixers is that Kawhi Leonard isn't walking through that door and that they have now proven they can nullify Toronto's biggest advantages in the series, at least within the context of one game. They didn't need an A+ Embiid game to go up 1-0, and that alone should have them in good spirits.

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