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April 24, 2019

What can the Sixers vs. Raptors regular season series teach us about their playoff matchup?

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In the moments following Philadelphia's Game 5 victory over the Nets, Brett Brown did what any experienced coach would do before facing off with a team that has handled his own squad rather easily. He rejected what the numbers say about the Sixers' success against the Raptors, choosing to believe they are a much different team now than they were when they last played Toronto.

"We all understand what the math says with our success in Toronto and it's not flattering, but it's also not directed to the team that we have. You credit it or you can discredit it; I am discrediting it," Brown said Tuesday. "I think we have a new group, we have a new opportunity. I have tremendous respect for the Toronto team. The coaching staff has done great. But we are excited to go up there and try to fix some of the lack of success we have had."

"It's going to be an incredibly tough series. I think that Toronto is as good as there is in the NBA and we will be tested immediately when we get up to Toronto."

Philadelphia's struggles against Toronto pre-date even Brown's time with the Sixers. The last time they won a game in Toronto, Bryan Colangelo was in his final season as the GM of the Raptors, and Jrue Holiday was in the early stages of an All-Star campaign for the Sixers. It feels like another lifetime ago now.

Do you know what else feels like a lifetime ago? The beginning of this season, when the Sixers came in with high expectations and quickly moved on to a new-look roster in the hopes of improving their title odds. Their first meeting came on October 30th, and I feel like I've personally aged at least three years since the Raptors kicked Philly's butts in the opening meeting.

So before we dive into extensive previews and matchups in the coming days, let's just look at a few factors to consider from each of Philadelphia's games against the Raptors this year.

October 30th @ Toronto — TOR 129, PHI 112

Notable lineup quirks: Markelle Fultz starts and plays 19 minutes, Sixers rely on last year's starting group

Are you supposed to learn anything about this matchup from a game that featured Fultz and his missing jumper in the starting lineup? Probably not, especially when you consider the Sixers were on the second half of a back-to-back on the road, having defeated the Atlanta Hawks the night before.

I really have to emphasize the Fultz portion of this game, not because he was especially problematic in the loss, but because it was probably the last time we saw him look relatively normal as a player and jumpshooter. Within the first three minutes of the game, Fultz had already attempted two threes from opposite corners, the last non-heave threes he would take all season. I promise you, this actually happened, there's video evidence of it and everything.

(As an aside, I continue to hope that kid finds himself eventually.)

We don't just have to throw everything out from this game, however. The most important lesson from this game was the start of a trend that continued throughout the season series — Ben Simmons does not hold up well against Kawhi Leonard, and that matchup may define round two for Philadelphia.

Leonard absolutely tortured Simmons in the first meeting between these teams in Toronto, and Simmons picked up his most inglorious triple-double with 11 turnovers on the evening. Most teams choose to sag off of Simmons for obvious reasons, constructing their defenses around walling off the paint and daring him to shoot. What Leonard was able to do should be much scarier to the Sixers, because he got in Simmons' grill and just took his lunch money.

Not what you want to see out of your point guard, which may inform how the Sixers distribute touches in this series.

December 5th @ Toronto — TOR 113, PHI 102

Notable lineup quirks: Jimmy Butler's first game vs. Toronto, Mike Muscala and T.J. McConnell lead bench players in minutes

This game was all about Butler, who is going to have to step up as a scorer against the Raptors for the Sixers to have any chance to beat Toronto. He carried the Sixers in their final road game in Toronto, dropping 38 points in a terrific battle with Leonard, who had 36 of his own on the evening.

If not for Butler, the Sixers would have been run out of the building long before Toronto pulled away in the fourth quarter. Their starting lineup, which still featured Wilson Chandler at the time, had a rare terrible game north of the border. Joel Embiid had a miserable night on the offensive end of the floor, and it was one of the first times we saw the minutes load he carried early in the season catch up to him, with Embiid looking sluggish on both ends of the floor.

This was the start of some discussion about Embiid struggling against Toronto in general, though I'm not sure the overall numbers support that case. Guard penetration was an issue for the Sixers all game, and with more lead in Embiid's legs than usual, Jonas Valanciunas was able to clean up as a roll man and a glass crasher in the fourth when Embiid was forced to let him go to help elsewhere.

McConnell and Simmons combined for 12 turnovers between the two of them, with the former coughing the ball up five times in the first half alone. The team's supposed steady hand off the bench offset a decent performance from the starters in the early stages of the game, and when the starters wilted in the second half, the Sixers had no chance to leave Toronto with a win.

December 22nd @ Philadelphia — PHI 126, TOR 101

Notable lineup quirks: Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas all miss the game for Toronto

I think there is less than nothing you can learn from this game. On paper, sure, you beat the East's No. 1 seed at the time of the victory, but the Raptors had to start the very Greg Monroe the Sixers signed as emergency depth in early April, which says it all about their health coming into this meeting.

The Sixers took care of business, as they should have, but if Embiid did anything less than dominate against this group it would have been a disappointment. Ben Simmons looks a lot better against the Raptors when they don't have Leonard or a rim protector on the floor, which will surprise absolutely nobody who pays attention to basketball.

There is one thing that might be worth noting here — Jonah Bolden had one of his better games of the year on the defensive end of the floor, forced into action by early foul trouble for Mike Muscala. This was one of Bolden's first opportunities to play center this season, and he was a difference maker off of the bench. He has picked up a reputation as a foul machine, but Bolden did a great job of playing physical without getting baited into silly fouls.

This may have been his best defensive plays of the season, with Bolden absorbing Kyle Lowry's contact to his torso before recovering to swat his attempt back at him.

The Sixers may need Bolden in this series, for reasons we will discuss later. There is at least some proof he can help them defend in space against Toronto.

February 5th @ Philadelphia — TOR 119, PHI 107

Notable lineup quirks: Mike Muscala starts and plays 32 minutes, Landry Shamet starts in place of JJ Redick, Furkan Korkmaz first wing off the bench

Hours before the Sixers would make a second signature trade of the season, they lost to Toronto in relatively uninspiring fashion. The Raptors hung 40 points on Philly in the first quarter, and while the Sixers minimized the damage from there, Toronto mostly cruised to victory.

Philadelphia's health was a factor in this game, and the knock-on effect of Redick's absence was made clear by the time the final horn sounded. But this game was a reminder of exactly how deep the Raptors are — Toronto had six double-digit scorers against the Sixers, including a surprise 20-point outburst from Serge Ibaka, who has been relegated to the bench following Toronto's acquisition of Marc Gasol.

The biggest culprit here? Terrible help defense when Embiid was forced into action by leaky perimeter defense. Watch Ben Simmons here when Embiid goes up to contest Leonard at the rim, providing Ibaka with an open runway for a dunk.

And that was at a point in the game where the score was close and the Sixers actually had a chance to steal a victory! The first half was filled with examples of similarly terrible rotations from the weakside, and the Sixers got the result they deserved in the end.

However, the trade for Harris that was made after that game represents the biggest unknown in this matchup. The Raptors are equipped to deal with him on the defensive end with Pascal Siakam, but the Sixers have more offensive options to disrupt droughts than they did in February. Harris is not a lockdown defender, but he's definitely a guy you trust more in space than Muscala, and he will force the Raptors to work on the other end.

We will take closer looks at this series before things get going this weekend. But on the surface, there is truth to the idea that the Sixers are a different team now. They just can't let themselves be fooled into thinking there's nothing to learn from the film.

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