The last time these two teams played, a late-October meeting in Toronto, the Raptors cruised to a 129-112 win, while the Sixers’ shooting woes and lack of reliable secondary scoring behind MVP candidate Joel Embiid were on full display.
But a lot has changed since then. A little less than two weeks after that loss, the Sixers landed themselves a four-time all-star in Jimmy Butler. You may have heard something about it.
Butler’s exodus from the Minnesota Timberwolves dominated headlines and offered the NBA and its followers a soap-opera worthy drama that played out from late in the summer until the Nov. 12 trade that sent Sixers mainstays Dario Saric and Robert Covington to Minnesota in exchange for Butler.
It also transformed the 76ers.
“They look better,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said when asked about his team’s opponent.
“They have a new sense of energy,” says Fred VanVleet. “The way that whole thing went down, Jimmy came in with a ton of energy and gave them a big boost.”
The results speak for themselves. Prior to landing Butler, Philadelphia was 9-6 with a plus/minus of -0.2. In the 11 games since the trade, they’re 9-2 — tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for the best record in the NBA in that span — and have posted a plus/minus of +6.5.
Butler is a gifted offensive player and has made his mark loudly on that end of the floor with two game-winning buzzer-beaters to his name already during his brief Philly tenure. Sharing the court with a gravitational force like Embiid, and offensive threats like Ben Simmons and J.J. Redick, he’s been far more efficient than he was earlier this season in Minnesota, shooting 48.5 per cent from the floor and raising his three-point rate from 37.8 per cent to 44.8 per cent.
Top 10 Plays of the Month for November!
presented by @novacare
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) December 4, 2018
But it’s defensively where Butler’s presence is truly a game changer.
“They look a little more committed and a little more connected on the defensive end,” says Nurse. “That’ll happen when you get what I call an ‘all-star defender’ — Jimmy Butler is an all-star defender. When you get an anchor or a captain of your defence like that, who starts talking and communicating, and knows coverages, it improves your defence.”
The Sixers ranked 22nd in points-allowed prior to the trade, and have improved slightly — they’re now ranked 15th — but there’s an overall effect that Butler has on the way the 76ers’ defence functions that should make Wednesday’s matchup, which will be nationally televised in the United States, considerably tougher for the Raptors than the first time around.
While the 76ers are beginning to make defensive strides with Butler on board, the Raptors are looking to shore up their defence as well, particularly when it comes to second-chance opportunities and hitting the defensive glass.
“We’ve got to continue to get better on that end,” says VanVleet. “I think our first-shot defence has been really good, and we’ve just got to figure out our issues on the glass.” The Raptors rank just 26th in defensive rebounding percentage, an issue VanVleet says simply comes down to effort more than anything else.
Nurse says there’s a different energy when playing Eastern conference opponents — especially teams like Philadelphia and Sunday’s upcoming matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks, potential post-season opponents come springtime.
The Raptors are mired in the toughest stretch of their season so far, and will see their league-best 20-5 record be tested coming off a stinging loss to the Denver Nuggets on Monday night.
But the team can’t afford to look past tonight’s opponents given how the 76ers have been playing.
“They’re playing well right now. We’ve got our hands full, for sure,” VanVleet says. “It’s going to be a tough game.”