Alright, those of you who thought this game would be for first in the Atlantic when the season started, raise your hands. No-one? Nobody?
Now, we’re not exactly talking about two powerhouses here – both Brooklyn and the Knicks have been beyond disappointing to start the season and the Celtics are, well, the Celtics. That said, it’s an interesting indication of where the Eastern Conference is right now that tonight’s matchup between the Raptors (4-7) and 76ers (5-7) features two teams right in the thick of playoff positioning at this point in the season. With the league’s expected “tankers” (Philly as exhibit A) playing better than expected, and some of the Conference’s expected risers (Detroit, Cleveland, Brooklyn, Washington… you get the picture) starting the year off slow, what we’re seeing is a conference that, with the exceptions of the Pacers, Heat, and Bulls, is mired in a case of NFL-esque mediocrity/parity.
In either case, it brings another interesting wrinkle to what should be a fun matchup between two up-and-coming teams. Philly’s strong (read: not historically pathetic) start to the season has given their fans some real hope in the now. Michael Carter-Williams has blossomed far sooner than even the most optimistic Sixers fans could have expected, Evan Turner’s proving he might have a chance to actually realize some of the hype that surrounded him when he was first drafted second overall, and Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young and solidifying their status as underrated contributors around the league.
Carter-Williams is questionable tonight, and if he’s not around, his absence will be sorely missed – the Sixers are just 1 and 3 in the four games he’s missed with a foot injury. Tony Wroten has been starting in his place and doing a terrific job (nearly 20 points, 4.3 boards, and 6.3 assists in his three starts), but he’s not a strong defender – and without the size of Carter-Williams, expect Kyle Lowry to have a big game.
The Sixers haven’t been bad at putting the ball in the hoop this year – their O-rating isn’t great, but their high pace of play ensures they put the ball in the hoop. It’s on defence, though, where their lack of depth has really hurt them – they’re giving up over 109 points per game, a number good for last in the league. On paper, the Raptors should have the advantage in almost every area, particularly when it comes to secondary scoring – their own coach, Brett Brown, said earlier this season that they have “6 NBA players,” and so there’s no time like the present for Casey to get started with his “Rudy or DeMar, not Rudy and DeMar” offensive strategy that Blake proposed yesterday. That said, pretty much every team the Sixers have played this year has had the talent advantage on paper, so we’ll see how far that gets us. Let’s take a look at the tale of the tape.
Tale of the Tape
O-Rating: Toronto 104.61 (14th), 76ers 101.94 (23rd)
D-Rating: Toronto 104.59 (12th), 76ers 108.05 (25th)
Pace: Toronto 94.6 (27th), 76ers 102.4 (2nd)
Strength: Toronto offensive rebounding (1st in the league in O-rebounding percentage), 76ers volume offence (1st in league in field goals attempted/made)
Weakness: Toronto distribution (30th in assist rate), 76ers playing big (29th in opponent rebound rate, 30th in blocks by opponent)
Point Guards: Kyle Lowry, Dwight Buycks, DJ Augustin and Julyan Stone v. Michael Carter-Williams (maybe), Tony Wroten, and Darius Morris
Advantage: Raptors (if Carter-Williams doesn’t play)
Assuming Carter-Williams doesn’t play, Lowry is far and away the best player out of this bunch. If he does, though, you’re looking at the matchup of the game. I’m excited to see how Lowry deals with Carter-Williams’ length on the defensive end. Wroten is a dead-eye shooter who’s playing out of position at the point, and Lowry (and Buycks) should be able to pressure him into turnovers on the defensive end.
Wings: Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields, Terrence Ross, and Steve Novak v. James Anderson, Evan Turner, and Hollis Thompson
Big Advantage: Raptors
Evan Turner has officially made the transition from overrated to so-overrated-he’s-underrated, and his defence will prove difficult for either Gay or DeRozan to deal with at times. That said, the Sixers’ lack of depth really shows through at this position most of all – Thompson and Anderson are barely NBA players at best, though Anderson has shown some spunk from 3-point range this season.
Bigs: Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, Quincy Acy, and Aaron Gray v. Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young, Lavoy Allen, Daniel Orton, and Brandon Davies
Young is probably still the best player out of this bunch, but the Raptors’ depth is far better than the Sixers’. Young will see heavy minutes on the floor and will put both Amir and Jonas to the test on the defensive end – hopefully, the Raptors won’t cowtow to Philly’s propensity to play small and fast, but the first time we see the Raps force the other team to match their lineups with them will be the first one.
There’s no line on this game as of writing this as Carter-Williams’ status is still up in the air, but I’m going to be bold and say that whether he plays or not, the Raptors win this one in a blowout. Raptors by 15 as our boys hilariously jump to the top of the Atlantic Division. Next stop: the Finals.