Gameday: 76ers @ Raptors, Dec. 23

17 mins read

There’s nothing quite like a home-and-home series in basketball.

Less than 48 hours after completing the second-largest comeback in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors get an opportunity to win in more appropriate fashion when they host the Philadelphia 7e6rs on Saturday. Thursday’s game saw the Raptors come out well enough, lose the plot in the second quarter and out of the halftime break, then roar back to steal a game they had just a five-percent probability of winning at one point. It was fun, though it’s not exactly how they’d like to be winning games.

Finding ways to win games on nights “it” isn’t there is part of the process, even if some minor concerns underlie the initial struggle. Toronto’s won in plenty of different fashions of late, with a 22-8 record overall and an 11-1 mark over a soft part of the schedule that’s included just one team above .500. They can only beat who’s in front of them, and a thinned-out Philly team in an arena where the Raptors are 11-1 isn’t exactly a ratcheting up of competition. The Raptors, then, will probably measure themselves heading into a two-day mini-holiday by the how here, looking for a more emphatic statement of the gap between the division opponents.

The game tips off at 5 on TSN 2 and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage for the game, we reached out to Andrew Unterberger of The 700 Level, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: Joel Embiid is still yet to play in Toronto. Looking at Philly’s schedule before and after this one, it looks like we’ll finally get to see him up close. I’m incredibly excited. I think at this point, everyone has started to get a decent handle on Embiid as a player – 24.1 points, 11 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 blocks, 3.2 GIFs per-game, all on solid efficiency and with a mammoth 16.5 points per-100 possession on/off swing for the 76ers. Is there a better gift to basketball fans, and long-suffering Sixer fans in general, than Embiid?

Dammit, Andrew. I had to re-send this email to re-word this question because it appears that once again, I will be missing our sweet, gifted, wrestling-loving, unicorn of a basketball prodigy Joel Embiid. Embiid is dealing with a sore back and may or may not sit out this game (UPDATE SATURDAY, BUT ASSUME OUT) after missing Thursday’s context (despite being upgraded from doubtful to questionable to probable first). Am I going to have to go to Philly to catch him? And is he ducking me because I do a better Triple H water spit than him? (In all seriousness, everyone knows, I think, just how good Embiid is and how outsized his impact on the Sixers’ play is, but what have Raptor fans missed out on from a live-experience perspective? You guys get this wonderful gift regularly. Fill us in.)

Andrew Unterberger: The Joel Embiid thing is still every bit as great as you’d imagine. When he plays, I barely care whether they win or not. OK, that’s not true, but I am generally happier after he plays well in a loss than when he plays poorly in a win.

And he plays so well. And he always gets better. He’d had a series of games where he became myopic in the post and too obviously obsessed with proving himself against opposing centers he’d made a point of talking shit about (all of them, basically). So one game he started passing — and once he started, he was disconcertingly good at it. He’s posted at least six assists in each of his last three games, after doing so just twice before that. And they’re not just kick-out-when-you’re-doubled passes, either: They’re high-low feeds on the move, they’re wraparound dishes that I can’t even see, or post feeds he anticipates before the guy even gets there. He’s amazing at it, and it’s only like his fourth best thing. You run out of words watching him. You run out of feelings.

But the game-to-game injuries are just devastating on the nerves. You get numb to it to an extent, but there’s still no preparation for the total letdown of thinking he’s gonna play in a game right until he isn’t. My parents traveled to New Orleans for the game against the Pelicans as a 65th birthday present to my father; when I heard that Embiid was out I wanted to cry. I’ve never been more excited for a regular-season Sixers game than I am for Christmas against the Knicks — the first Sixers Xmas game of the Process era, my first since covering the team — but I’m more scared for the potential bad news preceding it than I have been for any outcome since the Presidential election. It’s worth it, but it’s awful.

Frankly, I wonder if the rest of the Sixers are starting to get the same way with Embiid. They can’t seem to muster 48 minutes of good basketball without him; I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re too emotionally drained from the day-to-day of having him or not to really even try.

Blake Murphy: Ben Simmons is just as exciting, a top-40 player in the NBA as a rookie based on some metrics and an incredibly unique supersized point guard. What has the fit been like when he and Embiid share the floor? When Markelle Fultz is able to return, does he slide into a lower-usage off-ball role, or maybe even a sixth-man role, given the chemistry the main pieces have developed?

Andrew Unterberger: Well here’s the thing: I’m not totally sold that the chemistry between these guys is all that great at the moment. Embiid being out four games out of seven (and counting) certainly doesn’t help with that, but even when he’s in, it’s been a slightly uneasy partnership between he and Simmons — they don’t really run pick and roll all that successfully, Simmons’ lack of floor-spacing cramps things for Embiid, and actually most of their most dazzling connections lately have seen Joel finding Ben rather than the other way around. An Embiid pick and roll with Fultz — who, unlike Simmons, should be able to actually shoot someday soon — is, in theory, a more practical proposition. I also like the idea of a Fultz/Simmons pick and roll, a la Chris Paul/Blake Griffin, with Embiid lurking along the baseline like DeAndre Jordan for easy lob dunks.

But it’s impossible to tell with Fultz, since all we’ve seen of him since the summer is a guy whose jumper is even more busted than Simmons’, and without the size or otherworldly athleticism to nullify that as an issue, as Simmons has improbably seemed able to do for much of his rookie season. Was it all just a problem with his shoulder that’s since been corrected, or did he develop some strange mental block that renders him unable to replicate his successful college shooting form? We don’t know, and as long as he continues being three weeks away from being three weeks away on the Sixers’ injury report, we won’t find out.

By the way, I have a tendency to get down on Simmons, which does undersell how obviously otherworldly he’s been in his inaugural NBA campaign. He might even be a little bit underrated, since folks get so hung up on his athletic feats and counting numbers on offense that they overlook what an asset his size and adaptability are on defense — second in the league in steals, even. But there are major questions as to how he fits on an Embiid-led team — or any team in the 2017 NBA, really — as long as he refuses to improve or even really test his shooting. And it’s unclear how interested he is in eventually doing either of those things.

Blake Murphy: What gift would you recommend for the T.J. McConnell superfan in one’s household? Does he have his own line of calf accessories or hairspray yet?

Andrew Unterberger: No T.J.-sponsored products as far as I know yet, but I do know that he is in the market for a KitchenAid mixer from Target. Also, he’s of course good buddies with our mutual friend Sauce Castillo, and I can personally vouch for his titular product (from Musashi Foods) being quite delicious and quite versatile.

Blake Murphy: Fun though the Sixers have been at an individual level, they’re still just a team floating around the .500 mark. Brett Brown is by most accounts a good coach who has these guys working their asses off, but two of their biggest weaknesses are the type that you can’t really coach away, born of inexperience of trying to do too much: A consistently large negative turnover disparity, and a penchant for sending opponents steadily to the free-throw line. Is there anything the Sixers could be doing differently to minimize these weaknesses, or are they the necessary growing pains?

Andrew Unterberger: The short answer is no, I think — any team led by Simmons and Embiid in their respective first full (maybe hopefully?) years is going to suffer with these things. The turnovers could come down a little as Embiid learns to get lower in the post and to give up the ball quicker, as he’s already started to do — he had his first zero-TO game of the season against Phoenix earlier this month. But he’ll still give the ball up a bunch, as will a Simmons who doesn’t really want to shoot or go to the free-throw line. And if Joel’s in the game, I at least like our odds drawing more fouls than we give up on average moving forward — he’s gotten there 10+ times five out of his last six games, after just three times before that this season.

Blake Murphy: I know you were a part of Billboard’s collaborative top-50 albums of 2017, but what were your personal top five? (Here are mine.)

Andrew Unterberger: 5. Paramore – After Laughter
4. Syd – Fin
3. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
2. Alex G – Rocket
1. Japandroids – Near tot he Wild Heart of Life

Raptors updates
C.J. Miles has been taken off the Raptors’ injury report, so it looks as if he’ll return from a two-game absence here. The second unit could really use the spacing he provides as well as the additional scoring option, and it will be interesting to see whether Dwane Casey knocks somebody out of the rotation or expands it to 11. On a third game in four days, it’s probably the latter, especially since Fred VanVleet has probably built up too much goodwill to this point and it would be a little short-sighted to remove Norman Powell from the rotation entirely.

As of this writing, none of the three players with Raptors 905 earlier in the week have been recalled. The 905 tip off at 2 p.m. at Hershey Centre, and while they could conceivably make it back to the Air Canada Centre in time for 5 p.m. – I’m not going to risk it – the guess here is that they’re 905ers for the day. Malcolm Miller will probably be with the 905, too, since Miles is back. I’ll update that in the pre-game notes around 3:30, though you’ll be able to tell once the 905 game starts.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell,
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl
OUT: Lucas Nogueira
TBD: None
905: Bruno Caboclo, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie, Malcolm Miller

76ers updates
Philadelphia left a giant “TBD” on their injury report in the game notes, which, honestly, is probably for the best after Thursday’s mess. Last we heard, J.J. Redick was doubtful and Joel Embiid was questionable-adjacent. We’ll see what the Sixers say in pre-game, but it’s for the best if you assume Embiid is out until you physically see him on the court for tip-off. If Redick and Embiid are both out again, Philadelphia doesn’t have many options other than to go with the nine-man rotation they showed Thursday, so expect something resembling that.

PG: Ben Simmons, T.J. McConnell,Jacob Pullen
SG: Jerryd Bayless, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
SF: Robert Covington
PF: Dario Saric, Trevor Booker, James Michael McAdoo
C: (Joel Embiid), Amir Johnson, Richaun Holmes
OUT: J.J. Redick, Markelle Fultz, Furkan Korkmaz, Justin Anderson
TBD: Joel Embiid
Delaware: None

The line
The line is off the board as of 9 a.m. After being 3-point favorites on the second night of a back-to-back on Thursday, the Raptors figure to be much larger favorites here, though Embiid could nudge the line back Philly’s way.

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