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April 25, 2019

Sixers vs. Raptors preview: How can the Sixers get Ben Simmons going against Kawhi Leonard?

Every preview of the Sixers vs. Raptors series will start with one idea in big, bold letters — Ben Simmons has been an absolute disaster when guarded by Kawhi Leonard this year. You can dress it up however you want, but Leonard has chewed Simmons up and spit him out in the three games they've played against each other this season.

It says a lot about this matchup, despite the changes in the rosters, that Philadelphia's only good game against Toronto came with Leonard on the shelf in late December. The turnover problem that plagued Simmons in the other three games suddenly disappeared, with Philadelphia's point guard easing his way to a triple-double with just a single turnover.

The bad news for Simmons is that Leonard is nice and healthy heading into this series, and there will be no load management, you'd assume, in the middle of the Eastern Conference semifinals. These two are going to get nice and acquainted in the second round, and it's something the Sixers need to be prepared for.

And that's the question — how do the Sixers plan for this, and is there anything they can do to avoid the problem? Glad you asked.

Turn the controls over to Jimmy Butler

This is the obvious place to turn to start the series. The wheels have already been put in motion with how Philadelphia set up the rotations against Brooklyn, and sometimes the simplest explanation is the answer.

For starters, let's take a look at Simmons' numbers when guarded by Leonard this season. Everyone has cited the volume of turnovers for Simmons in these games, but it's worth honing in on the Leonard matchup specifically.

Team points per possession 1.06 
 Team point differential—6.4 
 Assist/turnover ratio1.11 
Simmons' FG% 46.7% 

Frankly, those numbers are not as bad as his overall numbers suggest he has been against the Raptors. They are still not good, and when you turn the ball over nine times in three games with one guy guarding you, when you shoot 10 percent below your season average, it is absolutely fair to suggest someone has put the clamps on you.

However, it shows the Sixers still manage to score over a point per possession with Leonard guarding Simmons on more possessions than any other player. If the Raptors preserve that matchup regardless of how Philly sets up on offense, perhaps there is a way for the Sixers to beat Toronto after all.

Brown's decision to move Butler to backup point in the Brooklyn series is one that paid off big time over the course of five games. It was the starting group that carried them to victory, but removing T.J. McConnell helped stop the bleeding of the bench, and allowed the Sixers to spread the floor more, which was helpful for posting Boban Marjanovic up and for running more pick-and-roll sets for Butler and Tobias Harris.

If you put the ball in Butler's hands more, in theory, it makes the transition from the starting unit to the bench even smoother, and a lot of Philadelphia's offense is going to run through Joel Embiid in the post anyway. You don't necessarily need Butler to make complex reads with the starting five, you just need to make sure you're getting from Point A to Point B, which Simmons struggled with when Leonard pressed up on him.

That was the trouble with the Leonard matchup in the regular season. While it's not ideal to have defenses sagging off of you for entire games, Simmons has at least figured out some ways to counter that within the flow of the offense; handoffs with JJ Redick become fairly open when teams sag. But with Leonard barely allowing Simmons to dribble, the offense is neutered.

This is going to be a series where the Sixers need Butler to attack more than he did against Brooklyn, because the matchups did not work out great for Toronto before the Harris acquisition. Pascal Siakam defended Butler the most in the three games he played against the Raptors in the regular season, and Butler shot over 63 percent against while guarded by him. Butler's heater in their first meeting skews the data a bit, but it's the best starting point to work from.

Siakam has been tremendous on both ends this season, though the Sixers had some success getting him hung up on screens when he was chasing around Butler.

If the Harris addition forces Siakam to guard a bigger player in the starting five, that would leave either Danny Green or Kyle Lowry from the starting five to cover Butler, and while his numbers this season weren't great against them, you'd assume the Sixers would take those matchups should Toronto present them. Butler can beat either in a one-on-one matchup.

But sticking Simmons in the dunker's spot and hoping Leonard stays on or near him is not a true solution, so there's more to this than just giving Butler the ball.

Attack cross matches when possible

Toronto's defensive versatility is a big asset for them, because they won't necessarily fear the Sixers if their top assignments get jumbled on a given play. But the Sixers have to make sure they allow Simmons to influence the game when Leonard ends up covering other players.

Danny Green is the guy to watch in Toronto's starting group. Simmons is big enough to back him down and bully him if he gets the ball on the low block, but the other advantage is that he can see over Green as a passer, opening up Philadelphia's cutting game.

Leonard doesn't necessarily have "weaknesses" on defense, but you'd much rather have him chasing guys around away from the ball than hounding your lead ballhandler. The Sixers have to trust in their ball movement here — some of their best offense across four games came when the ball didn't stick, even when Leonard was the guy chasing.

Whenever a player other than Leonard draws the Simmons assignment, he should be at a strength advantage. That doesn't mean they should just throw the ball to him on the low block every time, because his touch is not good enough to justify running the offense through him. But they have to do it enough to make Toronto contemplate sending help, which in turn would create bigger passing windows for Simmons.

Using Simmons in small-ball lineups

I don't like using antiquated positional labels to describe Simmons, because a guy with his size and skills should be asked to handle the duties of a point guard or a power forward depending on the individual possession. But his history playing more of a traditional forward role should be leaned into as much as possible in this matchup.

Against Brooklyn in round one, we saw the sort of damage Simmons can do rolling to the basket. You'll also notice something else about this sequence beyond the action that is notable heading into the Toronto series:

They were forced into it because of Embiid's absence, but the Sixers are running small here, with Simmons and Mike Scott the two biggest guys on the floor for Philadelphia. This created problems for Brooklyn, who didn't want to help off of Philly's shooters around Simmons, which created a lot more space for him in the painted area.

The urge to go small should be even greater against Toronto. This matchup is a lot more problematic for Boban, as he will most likely be matched up against Serge Ibaka on the bench unit. If the Sixers can get him on the floor against Marc Gasol, they'll celebrate, but the goal of Toronto's second unit will likely be to spread the floor and torch Boban until the Sixers refuse to play him anymore.

Quietly, Philadelphia's small-ball group has put up excellent numbers in limited time together. Their offensive numbers were a bit underwhelming, but the five-man unit of Simmons-Redick-Butler-Harris-Scott gave up just 94.2 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. And the offensive component changed in the playoffs, with Philly blowing Brooklyn off of the floor with Simmons and Scott their nominal "bigs."

Time of season ORTG/DRTG
 Regular (87 possessions) 103.4/94.2
 Playoffs (19 possessions) 157.9/104.8

The numbers are skewed by insanely small sample size here, and the Raptors have much better options to defend small ball than Brooklyn. Still, it's a point for Philadelphia to consider. The more playmaking and shooting you can put on the floor, the better. The best way to accomplish that is with lineup choices, not a big switch in the scheme.

Some will make the case that the Sixers should be proactive about going small, and while I think that may end up being the best bet, it would certainly screw with their rotations and pairings should they go that route. The mixture now relies on Embiid/Simmons and Butler/Harris as their foundational duos, with the former's chemistry having grown over the last two months. If you play Simmons at center more, he's going to have to rest during some of Embiid's minutes, which undercuts where they've had success recently.

The other downside — Philadelphia took the untraditional route of having all five starters on the floor to start the second and fourth quarters in the Brooklyn series, which may mess with how Nick Nurse likes to sub guys if they stick with that plan. Hoping that Boban can hold on long enough to buy you time and get to those minutes may end up being a better move, because if you can force Toronto to adapt to how you play, that may be the recipe for an upset.

(Scott's heel contusion also has the potential to throw a wrench into this plan, by the way, because they can't afford to go ultra small with their lack of guard depth on the roster. We'll presumably learn more about that at practice on Thursday.)

In any case, Leonard's defensive versatility makes it hard to devise a gameplan that will minimize his contributions. If the Sixers try to simply avoid the problem, the Raptors can have him switch his matchup, pestering whichever poor soul ends up drawing him as their defender.

The takeaway here should be that flexibility and creativity will be needed to solve this problem. Brown proved willing to adjust in round one, and even that may not be enough.

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