After overpowering the Orlando Magic in a decisive five-game, first-round series, the Toronto Raptors have every reason to feel confident heading into their Round 2 matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Gone are the days of frantic worrying in Raptorland; when your team employs the best player in a series as the Raptors do in Kawhi Leonard, following the team’s playoff push on a game-by-game basis becomes far less stressful.
With that being said, post-season runs aren’t always the smoothest experiences as Raptors’ fans know all too well by now. While Orlando may not have posed much of a threat in the opening round, the Sixers figure to make matters more challenging for Toronto starting Saturday.
Here are some ways the Raptors can find success against the Sixers in this series.
Contain Joel Embiid
As Sportsnet’s Steven Loung broke down, Marc Gasol has been terrific defensively when matched up against the Sixers most imposing offensive force in Embiid, limiting the big man to just 28.6 per cent shooting from the field in two regular-season contests when he was still a member of the Memphis Grizzlies.
With the success Gasol has had so far, the Raptors will undoubtedly turn to the Spaniard as the primary defender on Embiid throughout this series, which should bode well if the regular-season track record between the two is any indication.
Aside from having to deal with Gasol’s elite defence throughout the series, it’s also worth monitoring the health of Embiid’s knee. The centre missed Game 3 in the Sixers’ first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets with knee soreness and was questionable ahead of multiple contests in Round 1 because of the same ailment.
If he misses any time against Toronto, Philadelphia would be in for a world of hurt. The Sixers on/off numbers with and without Embiid showcase exactly why:
|Joel Embiid||Games Played||Minutes||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
Even though the Cameroonian is not physically at 100 per cent right now — which was reflected in him playing only 24.3 minutes per game in Philadelphia’s five playoff outings to date — he’s still an imposing force who turns the Sixers into an entirely different team on both ends.
Without Embiid, Philly becomes a far more vulnerable team, especially when it comes to defending inside the paint and rebounding. The seven-footer has hauled in a league-high 45.6 per cent of Philly’s available defensive rebounds so far in these playoffs, while also swatting away 2.8 shots per game (which equates to a block percentage of 61.1). He’s also posted the second-highest defensive rating among players who average 20 or more minutes per game at 85.6.
Simply put, Embiid needs to stay on the floor for the Sixers to have a shot in this series.
Along with Kyle Lowry, the Raptors starting five features three (arguably four) All-NBA calibre defenders in Leonard, Marc Gasol, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam.
All five individuals in that lineup possess enough defensive versatility to create tremendous problems for Philadelphia; Green, Siakam and Leonard arguably make up the most lethal perimeter-defending trio in the entire league, with all three capable of switching onto and guarding four positions. As for Gasol, see above.
It’s also worth noting that Lowry, Leonard and Siakam all ranked within the top-10 in defensive win shares these playoffs, with Lowry and Siakam ranking first and second, respectively.
If there’s one matchup to keep an eye on aside from Gasol vs. Embiid, it’s Leonard guarding Ben Simmons.
The former Finals MVP has been a nightmare for Simmons to deal in the two games they played against each other. In fact, Simmons’s worst game of the season came against the Raptors back in late October as the 22-year-old committed a season-high 11 turnovers and finished with a paltry 3.1 game score per basketballreference.com (a formula that attempts to measure a player’s productivity for a single game).
For the Raptors to be successful, having Leonard completely neutralize Philadelphia’s floor general the way he did during the regular season serves as a good starting point.
The Kawhi factor
Speaking of Leonard, he’ll have to continue producing at the ridiculously-efficient rate he has been so far in these playoffs if the Raptors plan to overwhelm the Sixers in this series like they did against Orlando.
Through five games, Leonard is averaging 27.8 points — currently a career-high for the 27-year-old in the playoffs — on an efficient 55.6 per cent from the field, including 53.8 on threes. That equates to an absurd 67.9 true shooting percentage, which ranks third among players with a 25 per cent usage rate or higher in these playoffs.
It’s no secret by now that Leonard’s offensive brilliance often dictates how high the Raptors’ ceiling can go. That subplot will once again be put to the test in Round 2.
Win bench minutes
Both teams’ starters are among the league’s top five-man units this post-season, so if those lineups play each other evenly for most of the series, bench production could play a key role in determining the outcome of this series.
After starting 51 games, Serge Ibaka has made a smooth transition into a reserve role in the second half of the season and is averaging an efficient 9.4 points and 7.9 boards in nearly 20.6 minutes per game in the playoffs.
Expect Ibaka to have plenty of offensive opportunities when matched up with Philly’s seven-foot-three back-up centre Boban Marjanovic, who’s one of the more slow-footed players in the league. Exploiting Marjanovic by forcing him outside the paint is a tactic the Raptors should definitely turn to when presented the opportunity.
In what’s bound to be a faster-paced series than what the Raptors have experienced so far, Fred VanVleet should have ample opportunity to get back into a nice rhythm. The Raptors’ sixth man struggled with his shooting touch in Round 1 against Orlando, particularly from long range.
With OG Anunoby still unavailable after undergoing an emergency appendectomy, head coach Nick Nurse has leaned on Norman Powell to round out his current playoff rotation. After struggling out of the gate, Powell’s production steadily improved as the series vs. Orlando went along.
On the flip side, Philadelphia’s bench primarily features Mike Scott — who was a nuisance against the Raptors in the playoffs last season with Washington — James Ennis and Marjanovic. Plantar fasciitis and a heel bruise will keep Scott out for Game 1 according to the NBA’s injury report, which can only bode well for the Raptors in what’s sure to be a thrilling series to come.