Heading into their second-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers, there are many matchups the Toronto Raptors could look to narrow in on, but none more important than slowing down Philadelphia’s two best players.
The 76ers got an influx of talent mid-season with the acquisitions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, but it’s still a team that will only go as far as young stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid will take it.
Priority No. 1 for Raptors coach Nick Nurse and Co. will be finding ways to limit the 76ers’ dynamic duo’s impact on this series and they already have something of a blueprint of how to possibly do so after previous success Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol have had against Simmons and Embiid this season, respectively.
Here’s a closer look at these two matchups:
Kawhi Leonard vs. Ben Simmons
If there’s nerves from Raptors fans coming into this series, this matchup should be the one that alleviates most fears.
Leonard is a perfect 13-0 against the 76ers in his career, including three wins in the three games he played against Philly this season.
More pertinent to this upcoming playoff series than just the team’s success is the Raptors star managed to nearly completely neutralize Simmons in those three victories.
Simmons averaged 16.9 points and only 3.5 turnovers per game in the regular season. In the three games against Leonard, he only averaged 13 points per contest and gave the ball away eight times a night.
The 76ers played the Raptors four times in the regular season and it was only when Simmons didn’t see Leonard that he found any success and managed to help Philadelphia to a win with a 26-point, one-turnover effort.
The fact that the one time this season Simmons had success against the Raptors ended in a 76ers win is no coincidence. Simmons is the key that opens the pathway to Philadelphia’s victory.
He doesn’t have a good jumper, but that doesn’t matter when he can do everything else and help set the table for his team by scoring in the paint and ensuring the ball is taken care of.
Unfortunately for him and the 76ers, he hasn’t been able to do those two things when he’s seen Leonard in front of him — something that’s very bad news for him because if recent trends stay steady, Simmons will see nothing but Leonard all through the second round.
According to NBA.com’s stats, Leonard matched up against Simmons on defence in 180 possessions, the most of any player he saw on that end of the floor in the regular season. In those 180 possessions, Simmons only scored 17 points and turned the ball over nine times.
This is because, for as unique a blended talent of length, athleticism and strength as Simmons is, Leonard can match him in nearly every regard, something allowing Leonard to stay in front of Simmons and make strong contests:
And, more importantly, force turnovers and get both Simmons and the 76ers off their game while also sparking Toronto’s dangerous transition game:
In the three games he played against the 76ers, Leonard averaged four steals per contest to help the Raptors head off to the races and blow up Philadelphia offensive sets. He also averaged 30.3 points against Philly this season meaning Simmons was getting cooked even worse trying to stop Leonard on the other end, erasing the impact he can have as a defender:
Simply put, Leonard has owned Simmons this season and it’ll be up to coach Brett Brown and the 76ers to figure out how to get their star going in the series.
Marc Gasol vs. Joel Embiid
This particular matchup doesn’t have as much cut-and-dry evidence as our previous comparison and that’s because Gasol has never faced Embiid as a member of the Raptors.
Gasol saw Embiid and the Sixers twice this season while he was still with the Memphis Grizzlies and in those two contests, Embiid’s effectiveness was greatly limited as he only averaged 14.5 points on a dismal 28.6 per cent shooting.
Gasol’s defensive work on Embiid in those two games managed to limit the 76ers star centre to just 6-for-18 shooting, including an 0-for-6 mark from three-point range, in 108 defensive possessions over the course of the two games, according to NBA.com.
Embiid is one of the two best centres on the planet, blessed with uncommon quickness, agility and shooting ability for a man of his size and strength. To slow him down in any capacity as the primary defender is no small feat.
Toronto should feel pretty confident making Gasol the primary defender on Embiid during this series because he has the right tools to make life difficult.
For example, his length can bother Embiid’s slow release:
His quick feet allows him to stay with Embiid and recover back onto him when he has to defend screen actions:
And the overall basketball smarts Gasol has and understanding of the scouting report against Embiid to stay down on his myriad of moves and where he’s likely to make a move from:
Additionally, keeping Gasol on the floor against Embiid shouldn’t only help Toronto defensively, it has benefits offensively as well. He should be able to exploit Embiid’s reluctance to leave the paint on defence, something that should give Gasol the green light to fire away from deep and punish Embiid for doing so:
In 87 possessions Gasol matched up against Embiid on offence this season, he was 5-for-8 from three-point range, according to NBA.com. So Nurse and the Raptors would be remiss if they didn’t at least try to free Gasol up from distance with Embiid also on the floor.
One of the ways the Raptors can do this is by putting Embiid into pick-and-pop situations where he’s more inclined to sag back into the paint, as seen in this example:
The Raptors have actually attempted to get Embiid in pick-and-pop situations this season, doing it with Serge Ibaka. It’s been effective as Ibaka is shooting 61.5 per cent against Embiid in the 101 possessions he saw the Sixers big man defending him. But these buckets were all two-pointers and despite how effective Ibaka has been offensively against Embiid he has given it right back on the defensive end.
Embiid has absolutely shredded Ibaka in the three games Ibaka played against the 76ers this season, averaging 14.7 points with Ibaka attempting to defend him.
Ibaka, for all his strength, athleticism and shot-blocking instincts, simply isn’t long or quick enough to handle Embiid in the post or anywhere else:
So consequently because of this, the Raptors are going to want to avoid having Ibaka on the floor with Embiid as much as possible.
Like in the Orlando series, expect to see Gasol get the brunt of the work against Embiid, but unlike against the Magic, it might be too dangerous for the Raptors to swap Ibaka in for Gasol with Embiid still on the floor.
The way Nurse and Brown handle these particular pieces on the chessboard will be among the most interesting subplots to watch for, as it could very well dictate the flow of quarters, games and the series itself.