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April 27, 2019

Sixers vs. Raptors series preview: Matchups, weaknesses, and predictions for round two of NBA playoffs

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With all due respect to the Brooklyn Nets, who forced the Sixers to get into gear rather quickly in round one, the Toronto Raptors represent a completely different challenge in round two. Their reputation as chokers in the playoffs has been driven by repeated losses to LeBron James, one of the greatest players of all time, which has overshadowed their two-way dominance the last few seasons.

The Raptors have made franchise-altering trades over the last year, just like the Sixers, but they've had the good fortune of keeping a lot of their roster together in spite of trades for Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol. And unlike Philadelphia, they were able to get their shiny new toys out on the floor and accumulating experience together, preparing them for a deep run through the playoffs.

For the Sixers to have a chance to beat Toronto, they will need to be at their absolute best, which we saw at times during the Brooklyn series. The Raptors will hit them from every angle, force them to work much harder for their offense, and generally make their lives miserable. This is not the Eastern Conference of old — to make the Conference Finals, the Sixers have to get through one of the best teams in the league, full stop.

Let's take a glance at the matchup from a bird's eye view, setting up our prediction at the end.

Styles and stats

A quick disclaimer before we flash the chart, an explanation of effective field goal percentage: EFG simply adjusts field-goal percentage to account for three-point makes being worth more than two-point makes. Pretty simple.

Category  Philadelphia
W/L record 51-31 58-24 
 OFF RTG. (pts. per 100 possessions)111.5 (8th) 112.5 (5th) 
DEF RTG. (pts. allowed per 100)  108.9 (14th)106.8 (5th) 
 Effective field goal percentage (EFG%) 53.2 (8th)54.3 (3rd) 
 Opponent EFG%51.2 (6th) 50.9 (4th) 
 Pace (possessions used per game)102.6 (8th) 100.6 (15th) 
 Opponent 3P%34.2 (4th) 34.5 (8th)

The biggest difference between these two teams all season was on the defensive end of the floor. The Raptors, as they've been for a couple seasons now, were one of the league's best teams on both ends of the floor. That was decidedly not the case for Philly, whose star power was not enough to overcome some complacency and leaky perimeter defense over the course of an 82-game schedule.

While the Sixers have reason to believe they can hit a higher level on defense in these playoffs — they certainly did against Brooklyn — the Raptors may be the most complete team on that end in the playoffs. There are no weaknesses in their starting group, and Marc Gasol's arrival plus his subsequent move into the starting lineup pushed Serge Ibaka to the bench, which only added a bit more defensive steel on the backline. Ibaka's continuity with the other four starters will make it easy for Nick Nurse to pick and choose his spots with his bigs depending on who the Sixers put on the floor.

On the offensive end of the floor, the Raptors are not necessarily married to any one style. They were in the top-10 in isolation frequency during the regular season, and that makes sense with the number of ballhandlers they can put on the floor at one time. Their pace numbers seem to suggest the Raptors are a slower, more methodical team than they actually are in practice; over 20 percent of their offense came in transition this year, though that number has dipped some in the playoffs.

This is not a team that is going to try to pick-and-roll the Sixers to death, as the Nets failed at in the last series. They search for weaknesses, and they leverage their defensive weapons to turn you over as often as possible, which is a recipe for disaster if the Sixers revert to their worst habits.

Matchups that will shift the series

Jimmy Butler vs. whatever assignment he draws

Kawhi Leonard's ability to lock up Ben Simmons has been a major talking point this week for good reason. It is a problem for Simmons individually, but there is a domino effect on the rest of the team if the Raptors can leave Leonard on Simmons for the majority of the series.

While you worry about Leonard's ability to pick Simmons' pocket and cause havoc on the ball, it's when the ball moves away from Simmons that Leonard could be an even bigger problem for Philadelphia. Leonard's length and instincts make him a terror when he's able to play the free safety role, and having him guard a guy who is not a threat to shoot from the perimeter allows him to roam almost wherever he wants.

That makes life much more difficult for everybody else, including Joel Embiid, who certainly doesn't want Leonard swiping down at him when he tries to post up near the basket. So the Sixers have to hope Butler is able to exert so much influence on the series with other players guarding him that it becomes impossible for the Raptors to leave Leonard on Simmons. With Leonard on Butler, one of the other Raptors can still send help away from Simmons, but it won't be at Leonard's level.

It will be interesting to see who draws the Butler assignment out of the gate. Pascal Siakam has basically been Kawhi-lite this year, so it would make sense if the Raptors decided to stick him on Butler and dare Tobias Harris or JJ Redick to beat them. But Butler shot 63 percent from the field while guarded by Siakam this season, and the Sixers did have some success getting him caught up on screens in the regular season.

If Butler draws Kyle Lowry instead, that might be less fortuitous than many Sixers fans might expect. Butler has the speed advantage over Lowry, but he might get suckered into trying to back down the shorter Lowry to shoot over him, and Lowry's strength will allow him to hold firm.

These are the moments that prompted Elton Brand to trade for Butler in the first place. He needs to have a big series.

Joel Embiid vs. Marc Gasol

You should have already read our extended preview on this matchup, but if you haven't go ahead and do that right now before Game 1 starts.

One bit of good news — Embiid was not listed on Friday's injury report for Philadelphia, which is a great thing to see heading into a much tougher series. They need Embiid at his absolute apex to have a shot against Toronto.

Tobias Harris vs. his defensive assignment

No one was firmer about the irrelevance of past matchups against Toronto than Tobias Harris, who was not here for any of the team's meetings with the Raptors this season. And that's fair enough — why should he care about a losing streak in Canada started by Doug Collins' guys when he hasn't even had a chance to suit up for the Sixers against their playoff opponent yet?

But he may very well be the difference between Philly getting bounced in unceremonious fashion and having a chance at a Conference Finals appearance. He came alive as the series wore on against Brooklyn, and the Sixers need him to sustain that momentum north of the border.

Harris may be an offense-first player, but it's the defensive end of the floor where the Sixers really need him to rise to the occasion. We saw some flashes of brilliance by Harris against the Brooklyn Nets, including one of the best possessions he has had since arriving in Philly when he flustered D'Angelo Russell so badly in Game 5 that Russell dribbled himself right into a shot-clock violation.

JJ Redick will almost certainly be asked to guard Danny Green, which leaves Harris to guard one of the Lowry/Leonard/Siakam trio. There is some logic to sticking him on Lowry, as Harris' limitations in space won't be as pronounced against a guard whose best physical asset is his strength. But for me, you can stifle Toronto's offense if you snuff out Lowry and Leonard, which would prompt me to hand those assignments to Simmons and Butler.

That would leave Siakam to Harris, and it is not an easy one. Siakam took a gigantic leap forward this year and he's one of those players who can just sort of pop up sporadically throughout the game, then suddenly you look up at the scoreboard and he has 25 points. His three-point improvement (Siakam shot almost 37 percent from deep and has maintained that in the playoffs) makes covering him a thankless task, because he'll knock down shots if you concede space, body you in the post, and force you to track him as a cutter when he doesn't have the ball.

Harris is strong enough that he can hold up well against Siakam down low, it's everywhere else that's a question mark. You can bet the Raptors are going to try to force switches to get the matchups they want, which is basically forcing Redick onto either Siakam or Leonard.

The Sixers are going to get hurt from time to time on those switches, and they have to live with it because they rely so much on Redick's shooting. What they can't have is Harris getting torched repeatedly by whoever he ends up guarding. The points will come, but this is a big moment for him. 


Mike Scott's health

Scott is officially out for Saturday's opener in Toronto, which means the Sixers are going to have to play someone in the lineup they don't want to right out of the chute. Who will be the man asked to step up?

I would give Zhaire Smith serious consideration as a backup wing to start the series. Yes, playing a rookie is a serious risk against a Raptors team with plenty of depth and lots of collective experience, but the object in a playoff series should always be to put as many strong defensive links on the floor as you can. The Sixers need players who can switch, fight through screens, and (ideally) knock down open shots.

If you bring Smith into the rotation, he can do those first two things. James Ennis is going to have to step up and play more minutes in this round almost no matter what, and he's long enough that he can split time between the three and four spots. The forward positions are mostly interchangeable these days, especially with the Sixers switching 1-4, so in my mind, you would just want as many live bodies out there as possible.

In the end, T.J. McConnell is the guy who I expect to "benefit" from Scott's absence because odds are Brown trusts him more than an unproven rookie. I think this would be a poor option— Toronto can hunt him too easily on defense, and his refusal to shoot threes will crowd the paint even more on a team that can't afford to have that happen.

This issue is directly tied to what may be Philly's death knell against Toronto.

Philadelphia's backup center plan

Neither of the Sixers' first two options at backup center are good ones against Toronto. They look a lot different in theory, but in the end, you are going to end up right back at the same place, unable to defend without Joel Embiid on the floor.

If the Raptors hadn't traded for Gasol, I think you might be able to get away with playing Boban Marjanovic in this series. Jonas Valanciunas was a more like-for-like matchup for Philadelphia's enormous backup, but the trade for Gasol has pushed Ibaka into that bench role, as mentioned up top. Ibaka can pick-and-pop you to death from mid-range, and while the Sixers might be content to let him try to beat them there across seven games, he's also a serious athletic mismatch for Boban, which will show up on rolls to the hoop and the offensive glass.

Jonah Bolden is not any better, and frankly, you could make a case he's a worse option on defense. I know how bad Boban looks when he gets left in a lurch, but Bolden's limited minutes over the last month have shown how glaring his limitations are and how inexperienced he still is. The Raptors will punish every misguided attempt to chase a block, every blown rotation, every overzealous foul that puts them in the bonus. A sharper Bolden could be a difference maker in this series, and maybe he will prove this assessment wrong. If he hits threes at a reasonable clip, he may be able to offset his limitations anyway.

The best option in this series may very well have been putting Scott and Simmons on the floor and hoping the lack of rim protection wouldn't matter. The two-way numbers have been excellent for Philadelphia's primary small ball lineup (Simmons-Redick-Butler-Harris-Scott) in the regular season and the playoffs, and if we get to see it in the Toronto series, it could be a difference maker.

Small ball is a big key

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

I wouldn't count on that, however, with Scott's availability for the series in doubt as of right now. They will have to find a way to get by with one of the options on hand, and if they can't, it likely won't matter how good the Embiid-led lineups are.


Philadelphia's performance in the Brooklyn series swayed my confidence in them just a little bit. Coming into the playoffs, I viewed the Raptors as a buzzsaw that would cut them down with ease, and I still respect the hell out of the Toronto side of this series. But the Sixers have shown an ability to respond to adversity, adjust, and turn up the intensity a notch through the first five games of the playoffs, and that's something I had to see to believe.

Still, I can't shake the simple truth that the Raptors are a much better and more complete team than they are, and they have homecourt advantage, which puts Philly in a hole before things even get started.

I think the Sixers will make this a series, but they will not be able to out-talent the Raptors the way they were able to do so to Brooklyn. Their lack of continuity will probably catch up to them in round two, and I believe they will head into next season needing to build together in order to get closer to their ultimate goal.

Raptors in six games.

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