The last time the Toronto Raptors saw Jimmy Butler across the court, he was part of a Big Three gone wrong. Nick Nurse sounded excited to use his shiny new toy Kawhi Leonard against Butler, saying, “that’s why we got that guy, to guard that guy.”
For Minnesota, you could have cut the tension with a knife during that tumultuous time. For Philadelphia, they were struggling to put on the face of contenders many projected them to be. Brighter days are upon them now as both teams have been better off since the deal, the 76ers tied for the NBA’s best record since at 9-2 and the Wolves knocking on the door at 8-3.
When the 76ers came to town on Oct. 30, Nurse had Leonard guard Ben Simmons and absolutely smother him and was a major contributing factor in the … sophomore? … having 11 turnovers which resulted in him calling Leonard a “freak.” Such is the magnitude of the Butler trade that their new Big Three can cause all sorts of matchup complications. The Raptors will likely maximize their switchability and have Danny Green, Leonard, and OG Anunoby spend the bulk of their time guarding those two 76ers stars, but the margin for error significantly decreases with JJ Redick now also in the starting lineup.
The Sixers had one of the best starting lineups in the league a season ago with Redick included but bumping him for Markelle Fultz was obviously a decision made to try and kick-start the former No. 1 pick’s career. With ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reporting on Tuesday that Fultz has now been diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and is expected to miss the next three to six weeks.
If this is indeed the case and Fultz can make a healthy recovery that helps his shooting form, that’s great news for the organization and the NBA as a whole. The league is better when someone who was a consensus No. 1 pick can go about his business in exactly the manner he would like to, and hopefully this helps him do that. If not, it’s actually kind of crazy to think of how poorly they’ve drafted outside of Simmons and Joel Embiid.
That dude Joel, though. Averaging 27.4 points, 13.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and two blocks per game, he is firmly in the running for league MVP. He was very complimentary of playing in Toronto, and one can only imagine he’ll be even more jacked up to play on a night where the organization will honor Nelson Mandela.
“About as big as they come,” Nurse said when asked about the challenge Embiid presents. “Obviously, the size, the skill, and when he’s playing with some focus that he’s playing with right now he’s really tough. He wants it in tough situations, he wants it down the stretch, he scores in, he scores out, he’s big time when he’s focused the way he is now.”
Another who’s thriving under the spotlight is fellow Cameroonian Pascal Siakam. Expect him to bring out some extra spice on ‘Mandela 100’ night and maybe even try out his spin move on Embiid if the matchup presents itself. Whether OG Anunoby, in the words of Masai Ujiri, wakes up feeling Nigerian, British or American remains to be seen.
Adding further intrigue to the night is the fact that the game will be part of ESPN’s ‘Toronto All-Access’ for Wednesday. Mike Breen, Doris Burke and Tom Rinaldi will call the game, there will be tons of coverage throughout the day through various ESPN programming, including a telecast of the Raptors 905 game at 11 a.m. against the Iowa Wolves on ESPNU.
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET / 5:00 p.m. PT.
TV: Sportsnet ONE. Radio: TSN Radio 1050.
Jackson Frank, Senior Sports Editor for the Gonzaga Bulletin and a 76ers contributor to The Athletic and Liberty Ballers was kind enough to answer some questions on the new-look Sixers. Be sure to follow him on Twitter at @jackfrank_jjf.
RR: The 76ers are 9-2 since acquiring Jimmy Butler. Their net rating is virtually identical with the Raptors over that time but I find it interesting that their turnover rate is actually lower since the Sixers have been such a turnover prone team. Has Jimmy helped bring more discipline to the play of Simmons and Embiid or is this just the benefit of having another elite player comfortable with the ball in his hands?
Jackson Frank: I think Butler has helped as a steadying initiator. It certainly helps they’ve played some cupcake opponents like the Suns, Knicks and Wizards, though Butler has long produced a low turnover rate, despite significant offensive duties.
RR: The last time these two teams met, Kawhi Leonard was an absolute nightmare for Ben Simmons and the Australian finished the game with 11 turnovers. How has Simmons fared in general when matched up against guys just as big and strong(er) as him?
Jackson Frank: For the most part, most of Simmons’ struggles seem to be self-induced this year. He either grows too passive as a scorer, becomes too liberal and daring with his passing and loses his defensive zeal. Leonard is obviously an incredible defender and will likely make the game uncomfortable for Simmons but not many can match his pairing of size and quickness. If it’s another rocky game for the second-year guard, it’ll likely just boil down to Leonard being a generational wing stopper.
RR: How much has the insertion of JJ Redick into the starting lineup changed the dynamic of this team?
Jackson Frank: Redick is so vital to this team’s offense. His elite shooting — both on the move and spotting up — is emulated by nobody else on the roster. He’s constantly darting around the floor to make life easier for others. Playing him alongside the other starters, notably Embiid, who he’s paired with to form a devastating two-man game since last season, elevates the offense to near-elite levels. Redick is also just better as a starter. In 13 games off the bench, Redick’s true shooting is 54.7 percent. As a starter, it’s 64.9 percent. Something just clicks for him. I’d imagine it’s the fact he gets to play with high-level talent more often.
RR: Mike Muscala appears to have settled into a nice groove of late, what’s working for him?
Jackson Frank: Truthfully, he’s just making shots. His primary offensive weapon is the 3-ball and over the past three games, he’s connected on 6 of 13 3-pointers. The energy and activity on the boards has been there all year; he’s been a little more mobile around the perimeter than expected defensively; the high-low connection as a passer with Embiid or Simmons is a nice resource. But he’s most valuable when he’s knocking down jumpers and that’s been the case as of late.
All systems go except for Norman Powell who is about a week away from making a return. He’s been doing non-contact drills and even some pregame work so he must be champing at the bit.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: Danny Green
SF: Kawhi Leonard, C.J. Miles
PF: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby
C: Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, Greg Monroe
OUT: Norman Powell
They got a Shake Milton and I don’t how to act.
PG: Ben Simmons, T.J. McConnell
SG: JJ Redick, Landry Shamet, Shake Milton
SF: Jimmy Butler, Furkan Korkmaz
PF: Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala
C: Joel Embiid, Amir Johnson
OUT: Markelle Fultz, Zhaire Smith
The Raptors are six-point favorites and the over/under is set at a whopping 228.5.