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April 26, 2019

What they're saying: Sixers' keys to beating the Raptors are fairly simple

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The Sixers and Raptors are all set for a meeting that may decide the future of a lot of big names on both sides. Philadelphia has to keep an eye on Brett Brown's coaching, the happiness of Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler, and what they may need to push their team to the next level in 2018-19. Toronto's concerns will start and end with Kawhi Leonard, who may bolt for greener pastures if the Raptors' playoff demons resurface this season.

But for now, the focus in both cities has been directed at the basketball itself, which is a refreshing thing in an era where people care about transactions as much (if not more) than the games. So it's time to take a look at what they're saying about this matchup on both sides of the U.S/Canadian border.

If you haven't taken a look at some of our preview content yet, get your butt in gear and make it happen. Once you finish up with that, some outside reading to sift through before tomorrow's tip.

The Sixers' keys to beating the Raptors 

Derek Bodner | The Athletic

You'll find this shocking, but a lot of the people covering the team every day have come to the same conclusions about the key matchups in this series. Bodner keyed in on Ben Simmons vs. Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid vs. Marc Gasol, just like yours truly, though obviously no two writers get there the same.

So let's focus on Bodner's thoughts on small ball and the backup center problem, which I too believe is an option the Sixers have to turn to against Toronto.

This would be an easier conversation to have if Jonah Bolden played better at the center spot in the first-round series, but in the rare times Sixers coach Brett Brown called upon him to anchor their defense in non-garbage time minutes, Bolden looked lost and unsure of his defensive responsibilities, which led Brown to abort the experiment and return to Marjanovic, Greg Monroe or even go small at center.

That last option may be the most intriguing one for the Sixers in this series, especially when Ibaka is on the court. The Raptors, for all their strengths, ranked just 22nd in the league on the offensive glass. Putting Mike Scott at center, if he’s available, might be able to pull Ibaka away from the rim, while not compromising the Sixers’ rebounding all that much. Of course, the Raptors may put Ibaka on Simmons if that matchup is available to them, and Simmons will have to find a way to prevent Ibaka from sagging off of him, possibly through screens and rolls to the basket off the ball. [The Athletic]

That Scott portion of this equation is a problem, of course. If the Sixers don't have him in this series, their lineup flexibility takes a serious hit.

Kawhi Leonard is tailormade to stop Ben Simmons

Sarah Todd |

Turns out, when you turn the ball over 24 times in three games played against a specific opponent, it's going to be a major talking point heading into the series.

Though Leonard is not the sole reason that Simmons coughs up miscues against the Toronto squad, he impacts Simmons’ game in many ways. Because of his lateral quickness and general defensive intelligence, Leonard is able to cheat off Simmons in order to be a more readily available help defend off the ball, while still being a threat when Simmons drives.

Additionally, when the Sixers are able to force a switch and get Leonard onto another man, what that does is put Leonard in the way of one of Simmons’ offensive options. Leonard is able to guard any player on the court, so even if he’s not in Simmons’ face, he’s still cutting off a passing option or denying an entry pass elsewhere. []

That Kawhi guy is really good, as it turns out.

Joel Embiid is the key player in the series

Sean Deveney | Sporting News

On the one hand, no duh, Embiid is the franchise player. But with a lot of the pre-series chatter focusing on Simmons and Leonard, it's important to remember that no one drives Philly as much as Embiid.

There are so many reasons that this series will revolve around Sixers center Joel Embiid, beginning with his health. Embiid has not been 100 percent, as he has struggled through a knee injury in recent weeks. He missed the entirety of Game 3 of the first-round series against the Nets. But there were times he looked dominant, such as Game 4: 31 points, 12-for-22 shooting, 16 rebounds, seven assists and six blocks. It was a masterpiece.

The rest will help Embiid, but we still can't be sure whether he is 100 percent from night to night, and that could be an issue because the Raptors have two guys who have matched up pretty well against Embiid this season. Serge Ibaka is not the player he once was, and is not nearly as strong as Embiid, but he still has the savvy to get Embiid out of his comfort zones. During the season, Ibaka faced Embiid on 35.7 possessions per game in three games and held him to 42.4 percent shooting. [Sporting News]

Those Ibaka numbers are important and will perhaps get glossed over a bit with Gasol taking over the starting job for Toronto. But Embiid won't find any daylight if he manages to get Gasol in foul trouble, which is not how it usually goes for the big fella.

Raptors respectful of the challenge ahead of them

Ryan Wolstat | Toronto Sun

It's a lot easier to show respect for an opponent when you've handled them easily for years, which is the case on the Toronto side of the equation. How can bad blood develop if you've beaten a team comfortably and never played them in the playoffs?

That said, the Raptors know the regular season stuff goes out the window quickly, and they're putting in the prep time to deal with Philly.

“Right off the bat, with Embiid inside, they’re big all over. They’ve got the biggest centre in the league and maybe the biggest point guard in the league in Simmons,” Nurse said.

“So it presents some matchup issues because of that. I think again we’ve got our hands full. It’s a good thing we’ve got two big defensive centres (in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, who were both masterful in shutting down Orlando all-star Nikola Vucevic).”

Gasol said he would immediately start watching film on Embiid, who he hasn’t faced all that often over the years because he played in the other conference as a long-time member of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Gasol added he’d be looking closely at how the Sixers try to get the ball to Embiid (he’s a monster in the interior, but has struggled from three-point range for months now). [Sun]

We'll see how much respect exists at the end of this series. My guess is less than before.

Sixers can't get by on talent alone against Toronto 

Jeff Zillgitt | USA Today

The Sixers may have assembled one of the best starting fives in the league, but they're up against one of the few teams in the league who has a lineup that is either as good or better, and they have a lot more reps together as a unit.

The starting five of Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris and Embiid were fantastic on the court together against the Nets, scoring 131.5 points and allowing 81.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s a great sign considering they played just 10 games together during the regular season.

Simmons might not have a jump shot, but his ability to push the ball and drive to the basket opens opportunities for himself and teammates. Butler’s ability to find his spots with Philadelphia is underrated, and Harris is an efficient scorer.

Philadelphia’s high-powered offense will have a much more difficult time scoring against Toronto’s stingy defense, and it needs to hit 3-pointers at a better percentage than it did against Brooklyn.

Defensively, Butler, who can't get ejected like he did in Game 4, will take the job of guarding Kawhi Leonard a majority of the time, and that is a matchup worth watching. Toronto’s bench also has the edge on Philadelphia. Will the Raptors just wear down the Sixers? That will be part of Toronto’s game plan. [USA Today]

One wrinkle to watch in this series — Brett Brown often played all five of his starters at the beginning of second and fourth quarters against Brooklyn, which is not how many coaches tend to rotate their team. It may screw with Nick Nurse's rotations if the Sixers go to that again against Toronto.

No time to gloat for the Raptors

Doug Smith | Toronto Star

Philadelphia's opponent to the north has a longer track record than the Sixers, but that doesn't mean anyone in Toronto is going to take the Sixers lightly. They've experienced plenty of playoff heartbreak over the years, and they're aware that high-end talent can win out when all is said and done.

The Sixers, who possess as talented a starting five as there is in the NBA, are definitely not the Magic, unproven and without a true star. Philadelphia has good shooting, a dominant centre and playoff experience, all major factors in a seven-game series.

Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid may have only been together for a half season but there’s a ton of talent there that the Raptors will now have to contend with.

Philadelphia only needed five games to get past the Brooklyn Nets in a series that turned out far more one-sided than many thought it would. [Toronto Star]

One thing I'm enjoying about the Sixers playing a team from Canada is consuming Canadian media, where I can read about "centre" Joel Embiid. I mean this earnestly — one of my prized possessions growing up was the British copy of the final Harry Potter that I snagged because I was traveling abroad when it released, and you're not not going to read it.

Anyway, I digress.

Eight factors that will decide Sixers vs. Raptors

William Lou | Yahoo Canada

A lot of good stuff in here on the keys to the series, but let's hone in on the defensive side of the ball. 

One of the reasons the Sixers rarely help is because they are adamant about protecting the three-point line. They finished second in three-point attempts allowed (they allow almost half as many corner threes as the Raptors), and while percentages can be subject to variance, they also limited teams to a fourth-best 34.4 percent from beyond the arc. 

This is where Gasol and Leonard’s work from the elbows can be a factor in breaking them. Philadelphia was also in the bottom third in field goal attempts allowed from the mid-range, and if Gasol, Leonard and Ibaka show a willingness to take what the defence gives them, the Sixers could be forced into tinkering with their schemes.

Considering the principles of their defence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that despite their length, the Sixers forced the fewest turnovers in the league. When you’re not really looking to help and poke at balls, you’re more focused on being disciplined positionally and contesting shots when the time comes. This does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity for them. [Yahoo Canada]

This has been an ongoing debate around Philadelphia all year, and it will continue to be a talking point during this matchup with Toronto. Against Brooklyn, it wasn't as big of a deal because the Sixers were able to cut off the head of the snake by putting Ben Simmons on D'Angelo Russell. They will not have that same luxury against the Raptors, who put multiple creators on the floor at a time.

Stay tuned here.

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