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Previewing the Raptors-Sixers playoff series

After a game one that brought all of Toronto’s latent fear rushing to the surface, the Raptors actually closed out the Magic quite easily. It’s been said before, and it will be said again, but these Raptors are unlike any team that’s ever represented the franchise before. Some proof? The Raptors had never won a series in five games before. Now, they’ll face a Philadelphia 76ers team that has had championship aspirations since before the season began. Let’s get to preppin’, folks.

Injury Notes

Joel Embiid has been dealing with “left knee soreness” since the latter stages of the regular season. He was doubtful for much of the first round, but we all saw how he performed, especially towards the end of the series. His health will probably be the single most important factor determining Philadelphia’s success.

Mike Scott, both Regional Manager and Raptors Killer, is dealing with a right heel bruise and plantar fasciitis. He is listed as day-to-day. Plantar fasciitis requires tons of rest, which isn’t an option. So Scott will probably be available but limited. That’s a huge problem, as Scott is likely Philadelphia’s best bench player.

Kyle Lowry dislocated his left finger on the ball midway through game five. He popped it back in and guarantees that he will be healthy for game one versus the Sixers.

OG Anunoby remains without a timeline after his appendectomy, and his absence will be felt.

The Basic Numbers

Like last series, Toronto seems to be a far better team than Philadelphia. The Raptors finished 58-24 in the regular season, while Philadelphia, though a third-place team, was a relatively distant 51-31. Toronto has far more playoff experience, which is an unquantifiable advantage. Here are some of the foundational numbers for both teams in the regular season and playoffs.

Toronto has Philadelphia beat in almost every area. They’re a better shooting team with a lower turnover rate, and they’re far more efficient in transition (even though Philadelphia actually played with a dramatically higher pace). At the team level, Toronto seems to have an advantage in almost every area.

The few numbers that offer an edge to Philadelphia make some inherent sense. Philadelphia scores far more points in the paint. They’re a better rebounding team. All of those numbers point to Joel Embiid.

Nikola Vucevic is a fantastic player, but Marc Gasol locked him down with impunity in the first round. Embiid is another animal entirely. Embiid is one of the strongest low-post scorers in the league, scoring 1.05 points per possession in the regular season, but he’s dominant from so many areas. He’s a good roller and a terror on the offensive glass. He could be the strongest player in the league, and he has a habit of making opponents’ gigantic centers look like small children.

Embiid scored 1.28 points per post-up possession in the first-round against a hapless Brooklyn. (That mark is only slightly less than Pascal Siakam’s 1.40 from the first round.) Embiid did that while clearly playing injured. If he is healthy, Embiid could dominate the paint to such an extent that it gives Philadelphia an edge in the series.

In the playoffs, Philadelphia leaned into those numbers. They became the league’s best offensive rebounding team, and the best at scoring in the paint. While Toronto flexed its muscles on the defensive end, Philadelphia turned into an offensive juggernaut.

Q and A with Sixers Writer

Adam Aaronson, writer extraordinaire of Liberty Ballers, was kind enough to volunteer his time and help prep the series with me. Here’s a short back-and-forth:

Louis Zatzman: Embiid (doubtful) was still a monster against Brooklyn towards the end of the series. But Embiid (healthy) is probably the only way Philadelphia is beating Toronto. What’s his health status, and how much does it matter to the Sixers competing with Toronto?

Adam: Quite frankly, it doesn’t seem like Embiid’s health is anywhere near where it should be. So far in the playoffs, Embiid has missed a game and only averaged 25.7 minutes per game in the ones he’s played in. When he’s on the court he still seems dominant, but against a Nets team without anybody who has a chance defending him, it would take a lot for that not to be the case. Some little things I’ve noticed during the series, such as his atypical immobility as a perimeter defender and his overall sluggishness during dead balls, on top of his suddenly reduced workload, lead me to believe that his injury is more significant than the team is letting on.

If Embiid’s knee doesn’t get right, or at least improve a bunch, I struggle to imagine many scenarios in which the Sixers win the series. Not only do the Raptors have multiple players capable of defending him, but maybe more importantly, they have multiple bigs who provide gravity as floor spacers, guys who can step out and knock down a jumper. The Sixers have conceded open jumpers to bigs all year because of their defensive scheme that prioritizes keeping Embiid close to the basket. It’s something they have always been willing to live with, but against Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, they may not be able to. The issue for the Sixers is that they may need Embiid to be able to consistently track Gasol and Ibaka out to the perimeter and stick with them there, a task that is likely doable but will be taxing physically on Embiid given his current state.

Louis: Gasol defended Nikola Vucevic fairly perfectly in round one. Does that give you any foreboding ahead of his matchup against Embiid, or is The Process a different animal entirely?

Adam: I don’t take any stock in how Gasol defended Vucevic, to be totally honest. Guarding Joel Embiid is a whole different ballgame. But here’s where I do worry about the Gasol-Embiid matchup — over the past two seasons when he was in Memphis, Gasol has done a great job defensively against Embiid. Though it’s a very small sample size that could very well prove to be somewhat of a fluke, in the 62 minutes this season in which Embiid and Gasol were matched up, Embiid scored just 17 points on 6-18 shooting from the field, only shot eight free throw attempts and committed seven turnovers to just five assists. Again, this sample size is small, only so much can be taken away from 62 minutes of play. But Gasol has the necessary strength and, most importantly, the necessary basketball IQ, to theoretically be able to contain Embiid. Joel will not get shut down or outplayed by Marc Gasol, but he will have to work for everything, which he just didn’t have to do in round one. And for a player battling an injury, that means something.

Louis: Toronto won the regular season series 3-1, as Leonard had success taking the ball from Simmons over and over. That being said, neither of Gasol or Harris were on their respective teams’ rosters in any of the four matchups. Should we just throw out the season series data, or is there still something important to learn?

Adam: I wouldn’t put much stock in the outcomes of those previous matchups, due to the significant alterations that have been made in personnel on both sides. However, I do take stock in both Gasol and Embiid’s history as I touched on earlier, and in the job Kawhi Leonard did defensively against Ben Simmons, because those are ultimately the two biggest matchups for the Sixers to be focused on. Kawhi mostly dominated Simmons this year, with Ben posting a career-high 11 turnovers in his first battle with Leonard. Simmons did improve in later games against Leonard, but was far from his full self (to be fair, who is against Kawhi?).

Louis: Among high-usage lineups in the playoffs, Toronto and Philadelphia’s starters have been the two best performing groups. Which elite group will have an edge?

Adam: The Sixers have a better starting lineup than the Raptors in the regular season. But in a playoff setting, players with significant weaknesses, specifically on the defensive end, get exploited to a much greater extent. And that’s where I worry about the viability of the Sixers’ dominance with their starters. The member of the unit I worry about most is JJ Redick. Redick’s defensive struggles are capitalized on during this time of year, and his shooting numbers have also dipped in playoff games. The Sixers will almost assuredly attempt to hide him on Danny Green, who is fully capable of losing JJ by running through screens. The crux of it is this: nobody in the Raptors’ starting lineup will be a liability on either end of the floor. And I just can’t say the same about the Sixers. Redick will be exploited on defense and could even be taken out of the game on offense. Tobias Harris has had a great series defensively against Brooklyn, but is generally not a good defender. There are simply more question marks with Philadelphia than there are with Toronto.

Louis: Related, both Toronto and Philadelphia have had comparatively underperforming bench / transitional groups. Will these minutes be a wash? I sort of think that if either team finds a consistent edge in the 1-2 starter minutes, it will win the series. Do you agree?

Adam: As far as key reserves go, we’re likely looking at Mike Scott, James Ennis and Boban Marjanovic for the Sixers, versus Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell. Yes, the Raptors’ bench has been a disappointment this season. But I still give them an edge over the reserves for Philly there, because I’m not sure Raptors fans understand how frustrating the Sixers’ lack of depth is. However, I don’t think it matters much. If Joel Embiid dominates, Ben Simmons figures out how to score on Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler utilizes his peak powers, the Sixers will win the series regardless of what happens in the small amount of time that a few bench players are on the floor. If the Sixers win, it won’t be because of James Ennis, and if the Raptors win, it won’t be because of Norman Powell.

Louis: Call it.

Adam: As you may be able to figure out after reading my earlier responses, I think the Raptors win the series handily. Whether that’s five games or six, blowouts or hard-fought games, I’m not sure. But I just look at these rosters, I look at recent history, I look at Joel Embiid’s lingering knee issues, and I can’t bring myself to pick the Sixers.

Starter Matchups

There’s a lot to dive into and explore from that Q and A, so let’s unpack some of those thoughts with some numbers. First, we turn to the likely starters for the series.

Toronto:

PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: Danny Green
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: Pascal Siakam
C:  Marc Gasol

Philadelphia:

PG: Ben Simmons
SG: JJ Redick
SF: Jimmy Butler
PF: Tobias Harris
C: Joel Embiid

These two units have been the two best high-minute lineups thus far in the playoffs. The Toronto starters finished a +84 in 96 minutes, good for 46.3. The Philly starters finished a +71 in 49 minutes, good for a net rating of 62.2.

Here’s a Lowry stat from my recent love letter: “through all five games when he was on the floor against the Magic, Toronto won those minutes by 106 points, which is the highest of any NBA player through the first round of the playoffs. When he was off the floor, Toronto was outscored – I remind you, in a series that saw three blowouts – by 34 points.”

Lowry continues to pace Toronto’s success. If Toronto outscores Philadelphia by such a ridiculous margin when Lowry’s on the floor, then this series won’t last long.

Let’s dig into how the starters might match up, because this will be one of the most interesting subplots of the series. First, how did they match up in the regular season? The two teams have not yet played at full strength, so I’m using more than Toronto-Philadelphia data. I’m also using games between Toronto and the Clippers, Memphis and Philadelphia, and even the Clippers and Grizzlies (for Harris-Gasol data). So… take from this what you will.

Here’s the data with Toronto on offense and Philadelphia defending. Note, the unbracketed numbers in the tables are possession totals, and the bracketed numbers are field goal attempts-field goal makes.

Now the same data with Philly on offense and Toronto defending.

So, some takeaways. First let’s talk about who has had success before we get into switching and who might guard who. Lowry didn’t have a great scoring series, but he did a fantastic job doing everything else. Among players still on the team, he boasted the team’s second-best plus-minus against Philly (Ibaka was first). When Simmons or Butler guarded Lowry, he didn’t shoot well, but the offense stayed effective. Danny Green only shot well against Redick, because although Redick is a solid positional defender, Green has no trouble shooting over contests. He actually shot 36.5 percent from deep on tightly defended shots, and Green will have no problem hitting his triples with Redick defending him. Leonard dominated his natural matchup against Simmons, although Siakam had trouble against Simmons’ fluid athleticism. Embiid and Gasol won’t guard anyone else but each other.

So, Philadelphia probably will only allow Redick to guard Lowry or Green, only allow Harris to guard Leonard or Siakam (against whom he did well in the regular season), and allow Simmons and Butler to switch 1-4. The matchup data bore that out in the regular season. Philadelphia doesn’t have as many versatile defenders as Toronto, so Toronto could have Leonard or Siakam hunt switches whenever Redick is on the floor. He is the weak spot, and the Raptors will try to exploit him. Harris, to a lesser extent, is another problem. Siakam or Leonard could eat him in isolation, and he’s not quick enough to chase Green or defend Lowry’s incessent pick-and-rolls. Philly can survive having one average or worse defender on the floor, but can they survive having two?

On the other end, Toronto will probably treat this series as similar to the Orlando series. Redick is a facsimile of Ross, so Toronto will have Lowry chase him around screens and try to keep him off balance. Toronto’s centers could occasionally blitz him and see if Redick can beat Toronto as a passer. (He is a better passer than Ross, so blitzing Redick actions might not be the best idea.) The Raptors will happily switch their guards 1-4; if Philadelphia’s wings want to slow their offence and try to score on Lowry or Green in the post, that will work massively in Toronto’s favour. Lowry’s ass remains undefeated. Gasol actually had great success against Embiid in the regular season, so he will guard Embiid the same way he guarded Vucevic. Hit him early, deny deep position, force him into over-the-shoulder attempts, and ask for help from players guarding non-shooters (ie, Simmons) if Embiid gets deep position. Even though Butler and Harris are better initiators than Gordon and Isaac, the framework is there for Toronto to muck up Philadelphia’s half-court offense.

Other general points from this matchup data:

  • Who should be chasing Redick? Green is probably the best option, but he also had great success against Butler, and Toronto wants him there. The Lowry-Butler matchup is survivable for Toronto, but not optimal. At the same time, Toronto shouldn’t waste Lowry’s legs chasing Redick around seven screens on every possession, but there really isn’t any other option for a primary defender. Switching those screens, or having the centers stunt hard and rotate behind them, could help the defense create turnovers while saving a little of Lowry’s stamina.
    • Having Lowry, or VanVleet especially when he enters the game, toplock Redick will be an interesting wrinkle, but I expect Toronto won’t compromise their backline like that unless Redick gets hot and starts hurting their base package. So, Toronto should start with toplocking, but it’ll be in the back pocket, certainly.
  • If Leonard stays on Simmons to erase him in the half-court, that would leave Lowry-Siakam as the primary defenders for Butler-Harris. I would be tempted to let Lowry defend Harris and have Siakam try to dominate the Butler matchup. Siakam was a great defender in the regular season, but his footwork, awareness, and activity in the first round was Scottie Pippen-level. His defensive ability can’t be overstated, and if Toronto uses Siakam as the primary defender on Butler, it could force Philadelphia into an isolation-heavy half-court offense. Advantage Toronto.
    • Of course, Toronto will switch heavily in their half-court defense, so don’t stay too attached to any individual matchups other than Gasol-Embiid.
  • Harris defended Leonard and Siakam well in the two regular season matchups between the Raptors and Clippers, holding them to 2-for-12 combined shooting. That’s a key data point, even if the context is bizarre and probably too airy to matter much. But the fact is, if Harris can guard Leonard or Siakam effectively, that would be huge for Philadelphia. Because he probably can’t.
    • Really, Simmons and Butler are the only two who can guard Siakam and Leonard. Who does Harris even guard in this series? Green? That’s actually not a bad idea.
  • Speaking about the Gasol-Embiid matchup, those are some mighty fine numbers in Gasol’s favour. Sure, Gasol himself didn’t shoot well, but he’s a fifth option. He held the opponent’s lodestone Embiid to 6-for-18 in 108 possessions. (Again, these numbers are from Memphis-Philadelphia, so don’t think of them as the most important data points, but they still mean something.) And that stifling defence came when Embiid was healthy in the regular season. Gasol recently bottled up Vucevic to the extent that the man quit on game four. We’ll hear more about this matchup in coming days – Adam McQueen will drop a piece on that, as well as the Kawhi-Simmons matchup – but for now suffice it to say that if Gasol holds Embiid to sub-40 percent shooting, Toronto’s going to win the series. And Embiid has had trouble with Gasol for far longer than the one years’ worth of numbers cited in the above chart. Those who follow Philadelphia far closer than I believe the same thing, as you saw with Adam above.
    • Foul trouble could be one detail that might be in Philadelphia’s favour. Embiid has averaged the second-most free throws per game in the regular season and the third-most in the playoffs. Gasol has a tendency to slap at the ball, which, even when it isn’t a foul, can look like one. If Embiid gets to the line 15+ times per game, all bets are off.

One detail that is unimportant but fascinating is the difference in roster construction. Here’s the list of starters again, but this time with draft order next to players’ names.

Toronto:

PG: Kyle Lowry (pick 24)
SG: Danny Green (pick 46)
SF: Kawhi Leonard (pick 15)
PF: Pascal Siakam (pick 27)
C:  Marc Gasol (pick 48)

Philadelphia:

PG: Ben Simmons (pick 1)
SG: JJ Redick (pick 11)
SF: Jimmy Butler (pick 30)
PF: Tobias Harris (pick 19)
C: Joel Embiid (pick 3)

Philadelphia has three lottery picks in their starting lineup and Toronto has none on their roster. Toronto is starting two second-round picks, and Philadelphia is starting none. Cool.

The Bench

Toronto’s bench, as predicted, was the team’s weak point in the first-round series. Toronto won the series by 72 points, and their starters won their minutes by 84 points. So, you know, Toronto was outscored by 12 points in total minutes when their starters weren’t on the floor.  Toronto’s starters will not win their minutes by such a dramatic margin against the Sixers, so the bench and transitional minutes could swing the series. I agree with what Adam said above that James Ennis and Norman Powell aren’t going to win this series; however, they’re far more likely to lose it than the teams’ respective stars. If, for example, Ennis performs up to snuff and Powell (though currently playing like a golden god) shoots 1-for-14 over the series, then these minutes could have a bigger impact.

Toronto:

PG: Fred VanVleet
SG: Jodie Meeks
SF: Norm Powell
PF: Kawhi Leonard
C:  Serge Ibaka

Philadelphia:

PG: TJ McConnell
SG: James Ennis
SF: James Ennis
PF: Mike Scott
C: Boban Marjanovic

The most important bench player for Toronto is VanVleet. He was quite bad against Orlando. He over-dribbled and forced his own offense to the detriment of his teammates. He lookied to drive when he should be passing, or looked to pass before he opened an advantage for the offense. He and Ibaka are supposed to be Toronto’s best bench players, who can replace the stars for stretches or play alongside them, and VanVleet was not that. The numbers reflect his rough series. VanVleet’s plus-minus was even, which was the lowest of all Toronto rotation guys. (Again, Toronto won the series by 72 points.) VanVleet posted a strong +4.7 in the regular season. All of his shooting numbers dipped across the board. McConnell is not nearly as long as Michael Carter-Williams, so it’s possible that VanVleet returns to form with less length bothering him. Or it was just a slump. But Toronto will need a better version of VanVleet against Philadelphia.

Mike Scott is Philly’s most important bench player, and he’s limited. He can play some small ball five for the Sixers, and he’s a stretch big who never misses a shot against Toronto. His injury would be a huge problem for Philly is he can’t play in the high-20s minutes effectively.

Here’s how both teams have performed, by net rating, with 0-5 starters on the floor in the regular season and playoffs.

In the regular season, both teams were better with more starters on the floor. Makes sense. Because it is a big sample size in the regular season, the line is smoother. Philadelphia was a little less terrible than Toronto with an all-bench lineup playing, but that won’t matter a single bit in the playoffs. Toronto was better than Philadelphia with more starters on the floor, which reflects Toronto just being a better regular season team.

So far through the playoffs – lots of small sample size noise making sure that the data doesn’t form clean lines – both teams have been ridiculously successful with their starters on the floor, excellent with two starters buoying transitional lineups, and bad in almost all other areas. Both teams know that, and 5- and 2-starter looks are by far the most frequently used lineup iterations for both teams. That’s an interesting wrinkle, because that’s not how teams have to construct substitution patterns in the playoffs, but it is how Toronto and Philadelphia have decided to do it.

On the whole, Toronto was outscored by 12 in all non-starter minutes, and Philadelphia was outscored by 16 in all non-starter minutes.

Because most of Toronto’s and Philadelphia’s bench minutes were two-starter lineups, most of both teams’ bench minutes were fine. Toronto was surprisingly hammered in VanVleet-starter minutes, and they surprisingly were not hammered VanVleet-Meeks-Powell minutes. Toronto should eliminate the latter lineup. If Philadelphia runs a Simmons-Redick-Ennis-Scott-Embiid lineup to end the first quarter against a Toronto group with Siakam as the lone starter, it’s easy to see how Philly could put some points on the board.

More specifically, can Boban Marjanovic even play in this series? His pace when changing direction is probably the worst in the league, so slow that beep tests in middle school likely brought him to tears in under a minute. Ibaka or Gasol will pound jumpers onto head like they’re pounding… books into his mouth? I’m not sure, John Wick 3 hasn’t come out yet. Siakam only shot 57 percent at the rim against Orlando – after clearing a clean 71 percent in the regular season – because of the length and rim protection of Jonathan Isaac, among others. Siakam probably wouldn’t ever miss again if Marjanovic was the second line of defense against him.

So there are advantages to be won in round two. More specifically, there are advantages to be lost. Toronto won’t go into the series with the same gameplan as they had against Orlando, so who knows what the bench / transitional lineups will look like. Against Orlando, Toronto used four main lineups that weren’t the starters: VanVleet+starters, Ibaka+starters, Lowry+Leonard+bench, and Siakam+bench. (Green made some appearances in both of those latter groups.) Expect to see those same rotation groups at least to start, but there are other options if any start bleeding points.

Offensive and Defensive Styles

Let’s get as granular as possible, because the night is still young and the coffee is still plentiful. (I kept that line in from my last series preview deep dive, but it remains true, so it stays.) For film breakdowns, the always fantastic Coop will have a series of videos dropping in coming days. This will be numbers and words.

Ever since acquiring Gasol, the Raptors have played a different brand of offensive basketball. Players have become far more willing passers, and Nurse has correspondingly ratcheted up the play-calling by degrees. The offence has turned into a semi-scripted ballet, rather than the unscripted, post-up and isolation-heavy march that it was before. Philadelphia has plenty of motion and diversity in their offense, as well. To start, let’s break down both teams’ frequency and efficiency in several types of plays into another handy table.

 Isolation possessions per game (points per possession)Transition possessions per game (points per possession)Pick-and-roll with either handler or roller shooting possessions per game (points per possession)Post-up possessions per game (points per possession)Put back possessions per game (points per possession)Spot-up possessions per game (points per possession)
Toronto regular season7.7 (0.94)22.5 (1.19)24.8 (0.93)7.3 (0.94)5.5 (1.09)22.8 (1.05)
Toronto playoffs7.0 (0.97)17.0 (1.01)24.2 (0.84)5.0 (0.88)3.0 (1.40)26.6 (1.12)
Philadelphia regular season5.0 (0.88)20.0 (1.07)17.1 (0.95)12.3 (0.94)6.3 (1.08)20.8 (1.01)
Philadelphia playoffs4.0 (0.74)19.0 (1.00)22.8 (0.96)9.4 (1.09)9.4 (1.21)23.0 (1.08)

(This data is from nba.com’s publicly available synergy data, which does not include passes away from plays. This limits the usefulness of data. For example, Toronto’s post-ups are most threatening because if Leonard or Siakam achieve deep position, they draw help and kick the ball to a waiting shooter. Though the shot is created through the post-up, this data only includes it in the spot-up category. That’s why Toronto’s post-up and pick-and-roll numbers are so low, because the real meat of those possessions – hitting perimeter shooters after the ball touches the paint – isn’t included in the data.)

This is another potential overload of data, so let’s go through some of the information in order.

Even though they are – like Toronto – at their best flying down the court in transition, Philadelphia has tons of ball and player movement in the half-court. They averaged the third-fewest drives per game in the league in the regular season, but they still got plenty of paint touches. They averaged the third-most passes per game in the regular season. They created more points through assists than any team not named the Golden State Warriors. Philadelphia’s players covered more distance in each game, and at a faster average speed, than any team not named the Sacramento Kings. As a result, their 25.9 paint touches per game were ninth-most in the league. The Sixers play with pace, run lots of scripted actions, and whip the ball around the court. It will be much harder for Toronto to stop their actions than it was Orlando’s. More pace, ball movement, and man movement isn’t an inherently better offense, but it does require more defensive focus and stringency to goad Philadelphia into turnovers and mistakes.

Offensively, Philadelphia is actually fairly similar to Orlando in some ways: their love of the paint. Philly plays far more often through the post and chases more offensive rebounds than Toronto. Cleaning the defensive glass has been a nagging weakness all year for Toronto, and it will be imperative against the 76ers. However, Toronto held Orlando, and its all-star center, to the second-lowest points in the paint in the first round, at a minuscule 23.0 (while scoring at a fifth-best rate in the paint on the other end.) Toronto is equipped to keep Philly off the glass and out of the paint. If that happens, can the Sixers punish Toronto with their shooting? Their starting lineup features 2.5 shooters, while Toronto’s features 4.5, so that is a big advantage for Toronto. As the Raptors did against Orlando (with Isaac and Gordon), the primary defenders of Simmons and Embiid can cheat away from their men and stand deep in passing and driving lanes.

Philadelphia can be goaded into turnovers and mistakes. Embiid, Simmons, and Butler can all slide into midrange-happy moments. Embiid and Butler especially, as they both notched 80th percentile marks or higher for frequency of attempts from the midrange, and both shot below 40 percent from the midrange in the regular season. Simmons and Embiid are high-turnover stars. There are weaknesses to exploit.

Toronto’s offense is a little bit more complete than Philadelphia’s, with more counters. Orlando did a great job taking Toronto’s offense out of its comfort zones. Toronto adjusted, still scoring well, but their transition offense was dismantled. Philadelphia will want to take Orlando’s principles. Transition defense requires multiple, disciplined efforts, with bodies flying back already with foreknowledge of what is required. It also requires athletes equal to the offense’s fast-break. Philadelphia, like Orlando, has all of that in the bag, so expect Toronto to have another tough series on the break. (However, Leonard still scored excellently in transition, even if Siakam and Lowry decidedly did not. Leonard being immune to defenses geared to stop him is a neat thing.)

In the pick-and-roll, Toronto’s playoff numbers were so poor because VanVleet, Siakam, and Lowry all posted horrific shooting splits when trying to score out of ball screens. Of course, Lowry did his damage in the plays hitting shooters, which is captured in the spot-up section, where Toronto performed great. Leonard remained excellent as a scorer and passer when handling in the pick-and-roll, which, surprise surprise.

Toronto is far more likely to isolate than Philadelphia (which makes sense, as they have better isolation scorers). When all else fails, Toronto can run a Siakam or Leonard isolation and be quite happy with the results. If the games break down into Butler isos versus Leonard isos, Toronto will run away with these games handily.

Toronto has adapted to a tiki-taka style of basketball of late. At their best, the ball hits the paint, either through a creative entry to an isolation or a pick-and-roll, and then it pings out to the perimeter, where it stays ahead of defenders via a flurry of passes.

Defensively, Philadelphia is relatively conservative. Embiid is a drop-back big, which means that he isn’t asked to step too far away from the rim to defend high pick-and-rolls or off-ball screens involving opposing centers. Instead, he stays in the paint to corral the ball, while Philadelphia’s freakishly athletic wings rotate around the perimeter. (I literally copy-pasted that from my Magic preview, because it remains true. If Toronto gets the Bucks in round three – I don’t believe in jinxes – it will remain true then, too.) The Sixers want their guards and wings to fight over screens, taking away pull-up or catch-and-shoot triples, and forcing Toronto’s players to drive into Embiid. Embiid was a top-two rim protector in the league in the regular season, holding shooters to 9.5 percent lower field goal rates than expected. Even though his injury has hampered his mobility in the playoffs, it hasn’t hampered his rim protection; that number has improved to 12.1 percent lower than expected. Gasol raining triples would go a long way towards unpacking Philadelphia’s paint and drawing Embiid away from the hoop.

Toronto is more versatile defensively. They switch much more often through every position other than center, and Toronto is at its most comfortable when a wing – Green, Leonard, or Siakam – is guarding the ball. Lowry is a more threatening off-ball defender, anyway. Toronto uses the switch as a proactive weapon rather than a reactive salve. Siakam at his best switches three or four times in one possession, always staying as close to the ball as possible, wreaking havoc with his anticipation, quickness, and athleticism. Siakam will be the Raptors’ antidote to a lot of Philadelphia’s actions; if Butler starts hurting Toronto, Siakam can just take off his cape and go lock Butler up. Gasol is an absolutely bruiser with ridiculously fast hands, but Toronto is still comfortable with either him or Ibaka blitzing pick-and-rolls on occasion. Gasol isn’t going to clean up messes on the defensive end, but his incredible ability to read plays means that when every other defender is doing his job, Gasol walls off all the remaining crevices. He picks up a lot of steals when Toronto contains the ball at the point of attack. He finished third in the league in defensive PIPM this year. His alter ego of brick wall will be difficult for Embiid to penetrate.

Just more generally about Toronto’s defense, it’s one of the best we’ve probably seen in a long time. Among the starters, who is the worst defender? Who can you pick on, fight to get switched onto an attacker, and then isolate? Lowry feasts on those moments, and he is so heady at switching, stunting, and diving into the lane to take charges, that he can erase entire offensive sets by himself. Lowry was the starters’ best defender last year on a top-5 defensive unit. Green has been Toronto’s best and most consistent defender all year. Leonard is a top-2 or top-3 defensive player of all time. Gasol just broke an all-star and is a former defensive player of the year. Siakam is, in all probability, the team’s best and most versatile defender in high-leverage moments like the playoffs. So… what do you do with that?

Prediction

Philadelphia is a scarier team than Orlando, but Orlando was absolutely no slouch. Philly is a worse defensive team than the Magic. From February 6, the day Tobias Harris was traded to Philadelphia, the Magic went 20-8 with a +8.4 plus-minus. The 76ers finished the regular season 17-11 with a +1.7 plus-minus. Philadelphia’s talent translates better to the playoffs, but let’s not confuse them for a championship contender. And Toronto is just starting to reach their potential, especially defensively. Furthermore, Toronto’s defense is almost tailor-made to stop all of Philadelphia’s strengths. Like Adam, I’ll take Toronto in five. To hot takeify that, if Embiid remains injured, or if his injury worsens, I’ll say it’s a sweep.

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