Gameday: Sixers @ Raptors, April 9

I went to Philly once. I got lost in a bad neighborhood at 3 a.m. I survived to write this pre-game.

The 45-32 Toronto Raptors host the 17-60 Philadelphia 76ers at the Air Canada Center tonight, with tip-off at 7 p.m. on Sportsnet One.

This is exactly the kind of game where, under normal circumstances, a playoff-bound team may simply shrug and say ‘hey, whatever happens, we’re not going to worry too much about it.’ For the Raptors, however, the game matters.

First of all, the three-seed is still a contest, with the Raptors and Bulls tied with five games apiece to play. Because of a slightly easier schedule and ownership of the first tiebreaker, the Raptors are still favored for the spot, but it’s anything but assured. With Brooklyn looking like the certain five-seed, the three-seed takes on additional importance (and sure, look ahead to round two and a struggling Indiana team, but look past round one at your own risk). Washington can all but lock up the six-seed by beating Charlotte tonight, though a loss would mean the Bobcats are the likely first-round opponent for the three-seed.

In addition to the seed-jockeying, there’s also the matter of locking up the division. The Raptors are two games up on Brooklyn with five each left to play, meaning an additional year being added to THE BANNER isn’t a certainty yet.

There’s also this: By going 3-2 or better in these last five games, the Raptors would reach their best record in franchise history with 48 wins. Is this the best Raptors team ever? Should they win tonight, that’s something I’ll examine tomorrow. Should they lose, they are obviously the worst Raptors team ever. Primacy effect, in full effect.

As for the actual game, it seems as if Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson will both play. Both practiced on Tuesday, which has generally been a positive indicator under Dwane Casey. Lowry’s now had eight days off since he last played, which is hopefully plenty for the knee contusion to heal up. Johnson played last Wednesday, so he’s had about a week off to rest is bothersome ankle. Is it worth it to play them? On one hand, no, it’s the Sixers, so why risk it when they could instead have another two days off before the Knicks on Friday? On the other, it’d be nice to be able to ease them back in, and it’s probably not a bad idea to use the last five games of the season to find a groove and for Casey to nail down his non-injury rotations. My guess is they play and are capped around 30 minutes (Lowry) and 20 minutes (Johnson).

Jonas Valanciunas will also be playing, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Regardless of where you land on his DUI charge, the collective bargaining agreement is such that the team and league are unable to punish him, anyway, until the legal process plays out. Should he plead guilty, eventually there will be a (likely) two-game suspension coming his way, but the team has no choice but to play him until the process plays out. His teammates are mostly saying the right things, for what that’s worth.

Anyway, there’s a game to play. To help us set the stage, I reached out to Andrew Unterberger, who, along with banging out 10 million words on March Madness for my employer, also throws down at The 700 Level.

1. Since Jan. 6, the end of an unlikely four-game winning streak, the Sixers are 5-39, which is far closer to what everyone expected than their 12-21 record to start the year. In that span, they’ve been outscored by 14.1 points per 100 possessions, the worst in the NBA by a longshot. Where does this team rank among the all-time worst outfits?

Well, they rank pretty high, though I’d bet that of all the top 15 worst teams in NBA history–a list which the Sixers likely appear on–nobody else was half as OK as the Sixers are to be there. Not that Philly wanted to be historically bad this season, but they certainly weren’t proactively trying to be good–trading their best player, not signing or dealing for a single player past their rookie contract, and then of course, selling off three rotation guys (including their leading scorer) to the highest bidder, a bid which wasn’t even all that high. They knew what they were doing.

And believe it or not, the team’s actually been a lot better recently. They’ve won two of their last five, and of their last nine Ls–all coming against teams in the playoff race–only three have been by more than ten. Might not sound like a lot, and it certainly doesn’t make them finals contenders, but compared to where they were at a couple weeks before, this may as well be the ’83 championship team.

Oh, and if we’re putting the Sixers on the Worst Teams of All-Time list, be sure to carve out a spot there for the Bucks, who the Sixers have lost 26 games in a row trying to catch at the bottom of the standings and still couldn’t out-tank them. And they were actually trying to start!

2. Was Evan Turner sent to Indiana as some sort of false flag operation due to an unknown grudge Sam Hinkie holds against the Pacers?

Well, all of us Sixers fans had a good chuckle at the notion that Evan Turner would end up being The Difference for the Pacers in their race to the actual top of the standings with the Miami Heat. Not that a lot of smart fans or analysts really espoused that opinion, but there was Charles Barkley saying that the ET acquisition closed the book on the battle in the East–which may actually end up being true, but not in the direction Sir Charles was predicting.

Anyway, as for Evan being the dirty bomb that Hinkie unleashed on Frank Vogel and the Pacers for motivations known only to his sick, twisted mind…not totally implausible, but probably not the whole story. Truth is, the Pacers started their tailspin well before Evan got there: The Pacers had lost three of their last five before the trade, two of which were to the Magic and Wolves and one of which was a 73-point scoring night against the Mavericks.

Evan was never going to be the solution for the Pacers, which any Sixers fan could (and probably did) tell you right off the bat–his offense is too inefficient and ball-dominant, his defense is too sloppy, and he’s never been very good as a complementary player. But he isn’t the problem, either, and not even His Hinkiness could tell you exactly what is at the moment.

3. You suggested on GChat that I should allow you to be a Raptors fan for the playoffs, in return for me getting to share in the excitement of MCW+Noel+2 Lotto picks next year. What about this Raps team do you find endearing?

Well, I’ve greatly enjoyed the development of Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan. From his first few games as a Raptor, I was convinced Lowry was going to change the entire culture of basketball in Toronto with his drive and fearlessness. I was disappointed when it didn’t happen last year, but I feel vindicated that it’s eventually come to fruition. And DeMar, the Raps took so much crap for that extension they signed him to a couple years back, but I’d always liked him as a potentially elite scorer–it certainly felt like he was one whenever he played the Sixers, anyway. To see that be borne out this season is also somewhat validating.

And I’ve always loved Tyler Hansbrough. Nobody draws fouls–technicals, even–with the passion and shamelessness of Psycho T. Love watching him, love listening to his teammates talk about him, wish he was on my team. He’s also one of a number of really fun wildcard-type guys the Raps have: Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson…pretty much anyone except John Salmons, who single-handedly drags this team’s watchability level down about 35%.

Also, it’s always cool to watch a team that hasn’t had a lot of relevant moments in the league the past several years get to play exciting basketball again. They have great fans, great unis, a great home arena, a great mascot–two if you count Drake. It’s fun to have them be a thing again.

4. Poor Thad Young. I don’t have a question, I just feel so bad for Left Behind.

Yeah, you do gotta feel for Thad, but don’t shed too many tears for him. He’s gotten to do expand his game under Brett Brown this season in ways that never would have been possible under Doug Collins. He’s shooting threes, he’s reaching for steals, he’s handling the ball a ton–there was a time not that long ago where you cringed whenever you saw Thad crossing half court with a live dribble, now he might be the third-best playmaker on the team.

When Thad plays for a relevant team again–and I haven’t given up hope on that being the Sixers of two or three years from now–his game will be at its furthest level of development, and I believe this season will have a ton to do with that.

5. Despite the overall poor performance, the Sixers have won games before. Even if Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson sit, the Raptors would be favorites, but what bad habits should the team be weary of that the Sixers could conceivably take advantage of to steal a W?

Well, staying out of transition would probably be a good start for Toronto. The court has really opened up for Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten late in the season, particularly without Evan Turner needlessly trailing behind the play with his arm raised looking to be passed the rock, and while this team still struggles mightily to score in the half-court, they can go end-to-end as well as anyone. Well, not anyone, but, y’know. Some teams.

Also, keep an eye out for that boy Hollis Thompson. He may not look like much–nor does his stat line for the season–but he’s been absolutely lights out from beyond the past few weeks, hitting 18 of his last 26 triples. He and MCW have developed a nice catch-and-shoot rhythm, particularly with our new bigs Henry Sims and Jarvis Varnado–the first quality screen-setters the Sixers have had in about a decade–clearing space for the two of them up top.

And Sims…let him crash the boards at your own peril.

Vegas says: Off the board. It’s likely a case of Vegas favoring the Raptors regardless, but the line will swing dramatically based on the status of Lowry and Johnson (and possibly any context notes on Valanciunas). With both a go, it’s probably Raptors favored by 15 or more, otherwise by just a six or seven.
Hollinger says: Raptors -18
Will Smith says: Nothing. Will Smith don’t say nothing.

Blake says: This needs to be a summary ass-whooping. If Lowry and Johnson sit out, it’s another chance for the Next Man Up squad to continue their rhythm and fight for playoff minutes, and that motivation is probably enough given the talent level of the two teams. If Lowry and Johnson go, even with limited minutes, that opens up a pretty wide gap in team quality, one that no longer seems subject to the workings of randomness (the 76ers haven’t beaten a .500 team since Jan. 15). There shouldn’t really be much question here, and there’s not a lot of in-game stuff to break down. Playoff team, tanking team, win.

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