It’s a big cup of coffee…start it off with the series-preview podcast:
Joel Embiid’s health
Joel Embiid’s health continues to be in question.
Embiid missed five of the team’s last seven regular-season games, dealt with knee soreness throughout the series against Brooklyn and was even held out of Philadelphia’s Game 3 win.
The 25-year-old, however, excelled on both ends in the final two matchups of the first round to help Philadelphia advance.
“We are the recipient of Jo trying to inch along slowly and buy time,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said earlier this month (via The Philly Voice). “You win a game, two more days, you win a game, three more days, you might drop one, four more days. How do you deliver him responsibly to a later date in ultimately what you hope will be a deep playoff run?
“It’s not as clear cut as you thought it would be on ‘how do you maintain a fitness base and still get his knee rest?’ What do we do to help him most now? I believe a solid plan is in place that can deliver him responsibly, incrementally to later dates.”
The 76ers will certainly need their center in the lineup and consistently on the court against the Raptors.
Sidelined by a serious quadriceps injury last season, Kawhi Leonard hadn’t made a playoff appearance in two years. But his reputation for treating the regular season as 82 practices, and knack for cranking his game up another notch when the playoffs tipped off was legendary. Fans couldn’t wait to get a glimpse of “Playoff Kawhi.”
And through five games of the post-season, the Toronto Raptors star has certainly lived up to his billing.
“That killer instinct . . . the biggest thing that I’d seen in the last series (against Orlando) was you could see him just taking those guys’ spirits away, breaking those guys’ spirits and no matter what they really did it didn’t phase him or affect him, he was able to break their will so to speak,” said guard Fred VanVleet. “That’s what superstars do.”
The Raptors host the Philadelphia 76ers — a team Leonard has never lost to in the post-season — on Saturday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Leonard has never lost to the Sixers, a win streak that spans 13 games. The 2014 Finals MVP averaged 30.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, four steals and 2.7 assists in three wins over Philly this regular-season. Toronto’s only loss to the Sixers was a 126-101 blowout at Wells Fargo Centre on Dec. 22 in which Leonard didn’t play.
Leonard’s proven talent as a big-game player, and his ability to shut down Raptors killer LeBron James in the 2014 Finals, were major reasons Toronto acquired the six-foot-nine small forward in last summer’s blockbuster deal that sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio.
The Sixers had their problems against the Nets. The Raptors aren’t the Nets. They’re more talented and deeper.
The prediction: Toronto in six.
The other prediction: Brett Brown will get fired — though he deserves another season with this team, meaning a training camp and more time in putting these pieces together. He may not get it.
With fan pressure building and Sixers owner Scott O’Neil putting it out there that he expects the Sixers to advance beyond what they did last year, Brown could lose his job and this “Process” may have to hit the restart button.
Since the Sixers eliminated the Brooklyn Nets in five games and now prepare for Saturday’s opening of their Eastern Conference semifinal series in Toronto, Simmons’ struggles with Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard have been revisited this week.
The two spent the majority of time guarding each other. Toronto was 3-0 in the games that Leonard played. In those games, Simmons had 24 turnovers and 27 assists. In the game Leonard didn’t play, the Sixers won, 126-101, on Dec. 22 and Simmons had 26 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists and just 1 turnover.
So he was asked during a brief interview with the media his thoughts on the matchup with Leonard.
“I don’t have any thoughts on it,” he said before Friday’s practice.
When prodded further, Simmons spoke briefly about Leonard, a three-time All-Star, two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP in 2014.
“He is an All-Star, an amazing player, “Simmons said. “Great defender, great offensive player, so it is going to be a good matchup.”
Simmons then was asked about the difficulties that he can pose to Leonard.
Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby remains sidelined indefinitely as he continues to recover from an emergency appendectomy, ESPN reported Friday.
It is unknown whether he’ll be available at all when the Raptors meet the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Anunoby underwent the surgery April 11.
The second-year player, who is a key reserve for the Raptors, averaged 7.0 points and 2.9 rebounds per game this season. He played in 67 games this season, starting six of them, a year after he started 62 of 74 games played as a rookie from Indiana.
Mike Scott, who left Tuesday night’s Game 5 against the Brooklyn Nets early with a right heel contusion, has been ruled out for the contest. Scott being missing in action will serve as a blow for Brett Brown and his rotation, especially considering Scott’s reputation as a tenacious defender. As he proved in Game 4 against the Nets last weekend, he’s also capable of hitting a big shot.
Many of the mysteries surrounding the rotation were clarified against Brooklyn. Jimmy Butler will be the backup point guard at most times. T.J. McConnell will see very little playing time. Zhaire Smith isn’t going to play. But now, a few questions emerge. The first player worth addressing is Mike Scott, who is listed as day-to-day with a right heel contusion. Brett Brown said he doesn’t expect Scott to play in Game 1, but it doesn’t sound like it is an injury that would force him to miss more than a few games.
When Scott is out of the lineup, the Sixers will have a noteworthy amount of minutes to fill — Scott averaged 23.6 minutes per game against Brooklyn, and that amount was only going to go up as the playoffs continued. Part of the solution is likely slight minute increases for Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and possibly Butler. As mentioned in part one, lineups with Jonah Bolden playing the four next to Joel Embiid excelled (+14.5 points per 100 possessions), but as I will get to later, Bolden’s brief run of meaningful minutes against Brooklyn was all the Sixers needed to see in order to confirm their suspicions that he isn’t playable in the postseason yet.
In the second half of the series finale against Brooklyn with Scott out, Brett may have tipped his hand in regards to who the primary replacement for the stretch four will be: T.J. McConnell. McConnell assumed most of Scott’s minutes in the second half, and in order to free up the room for him, Ben Simmons became a more traditional power forward as T.J. ran the offense. In essence, Simmons will take the majority of Scott’s minutes at the four, then T.J. will take a bunch of Ben’s minutes as the team’s point guard. And, yes, this does mean that until Scott returns, be emotionally prepared to see some of the dreaded Simmons-McConnell lineups.
However, T.J. may not be the only player getting consideration. Brett Brown said that in the event Scott misses time, there is a chance rookie Zhaire Smith sees the floor. I have been a proponent of Zhaire getting playing time, even if it may be a culture shock of sorts for him to go from meaningless NBA minutes in a small handful of games to playing in the postseason against a team that almost won 60 games. He’s basically a zero on offense, but is already one of the Sixers’ better options on the perimeter defensively. He may prove to be simply not experienced enough for high-stakes minutes, but I have no issue with giving him a shot.
The Sixers, led by Allen Iverson, had home-court against a Toronto team that would go as far as Vince Carter could take them.
Lowry, then 15 and fanatical about every one of his home teams, took it all in via his household television.
Lowry was asked if he was invested in the series.
“Come on,” he says. “Come on. That was life. Philly was the Sixers, the Eagles, the Phillies. That was life, to be honest. That’s just what it was at the time.”
So Lowry and his mom and his older brother Lonnie would convene in the kitchen, or the bedroom, or whichever room had the best TV and cheer on the Sixers. In 15-year-old Lowry’s case the Sixers were the draw, but the focus was Iverson.
“He meant everything,” Lowry said. “He changed the culture of the city. Everyone had tattoos and braids and played hard and wanted to do the crossover. That’s for the game of basketball in general. For the city, he meant the world. There is still probably no greater basketball player in the city in the eyes of Philadelphia basketball players than Iverson.”
Iverson wasn’t just everything to a soon-to-be 6-foot-1 point guard, he was a window to his future.
“He’s the reason I’m able to be out there and do what I’m doing at 6-feet-1,” Lowry said. ” He enabled me to get out here and play and showed that smaller guards could do their job at a higher level.”
It was almost as if Iverson gave Lowry permission to be the player he would become.
“It was just the ability to show that small guys could average 30, small guys could average 20 and that 6-foot guys didn’t have to just be point guards. That’s what changed the game,” Lowry said.
The 2000-01 season was a charmed one for the Philadelphia 76ers. Iverson was named the league’s most valuable player, and Reebok marketed the hell out of him. On the strength of notable individual performances — in addition to Iverson’s accolades, Dikembe Mutombo won defensive player of the year, Aaron McKie won sixth man of the year and Larry Brown won coach of the year — the 76ers went 56-26 and earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Iverson was likely the league’s most iconic star at this point. After a Game 1 loss, Philadelphia took care of Indiana in the next three games to advance to the second round.
Meanwhile, the Raptors lost McGrady the previous offseason and set out on avenging their embarrassing first playoff appearance, a loss in three games to the Knicks that followed the usual veterans-versus-upstarts script. The two teams met again in the first round. The Knicks lost and regained home-court advantage over the first four games, with the Raptors winning Game 5 in Madison Square Garden. Off of a broken play, Alvin Williams, who became the team’s starting point guard after they dealt Mark Jackson to the Knicks at the deadline, drilled a jumper to give his team a six-point lead and effectively clinch the series.
One – Looking at the Sixers’ vitals
The 76ers finished 13th in both offensive (112.4 points per-100 possessions) and defensive (110.8) efficiency since trading for Tobias Harris, but don’t write off their mediocre plus-1.6 net rating as Joel Embiid missed 14 of the 28 games (17-11 record) played. They won 10 of the 14 games in which he suited up, including impressive wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics over the span of four days in March.
Note: For the sake of avoiding repetition, unless otherwise specified, assume all stats for both the Raptors and Sixers are post-Marc Gasol and Harris trades, respectively. These are smaller sample sizes but much more representative of the teams as currently constructed.
The 76ers have a tremendous starting five of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Harris and Embiid, which finished a plus-17.6 in 161 minutes, and Raptors head coach was singing their praises after practice Thursday.
“I think if you look at all five of those positions, there’s a lot of teams in the league that would take any one of those guys,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “They’re legit players. Got a couple of experienced guys there, got some obviously couple of the youngish superstars in the league coming. They got an inside game, they’ve got a big point guard, they’ve got shooting, they’ve got a sharpshooter, someone who can really draw the attention, so there’s a lot there to try and solve.”
Kyle Lowry – Ironman
These two lead by way of unceasing activity, and with just enough of an endlessly quipping, cranky asshole-vibe to be both endearing and annoying. They’re also both super smart, and have more weapons than you’d think at first glance.
Danny Green – Black Widow
The quintessential supporting character. Not quite able to deal the big punishing blows by themselves (unless Green starts hitting every 3 or Black Widow gets to fight a bunch of regular mercenary dudes), but capable and useful and nice to have around.
“You know Kyle,” he said, paraphrased. “He wants to win. I tell him, ‘Keep your head down, do what you do. You’ve got the best chance you’ve ever had to win big. Don’t mess it up. Play, play hard, keep your head down and win.’ ”
And here we find ourselves, Lowry with the best Toronto team he’s played on, doing what he’s asked to do and doing it tremendously, ready to lead the Raptors into a second-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers that starts Saturday night at the Scotiabank Arena. He’s doing more and scoring less, he’s not the biggest star on the team nor is he its best player but he’s the most important and no one — not the uber-intense Kawhi Leonard, not the dominant-but-happy-go-lucky Pascal Siakam, not the savvy-but-quiet Marc Gasol, not any of them — can will a game his way in the manner that Lowry can.
Lowry bristled and held his tongue when the Raptors made a transformative deal to move DeRozan and add Leonard and Danny Green. Lowry didn’t say an awful lot during the season when he became the second and then the third option in the team’s offence once Siakam proved he was for real. Maybe he wasn’t entirely happy but he never moped and he played hard, and well, and did what was needed because what drives him is winning and winning big and that’s never been as possible with the Raptors more than it is today.
Everyone sees it.
“King James has gone from our path. But he is also gone from our excuses,” Lord Ujiri says grimly. “If we fail to conquer the East this year, it could be the end — for all of us.”
Delightfulness ensues. Drake makes a cameo. The menacing Trade Raptor, a genius nod to the actual team mascot’s inflatable alter ego, makes an appearance. Kyle Lowry and DeRozan beg their Lord to give them one more chance at conquering the East together.
“Please! I’ll do anything! I’ll try on defence!” wails the animated incarnation of DeRozan.
But in fiction as in sports, the worlds of Thrones, Zones and the North are merciless places. The episode concludes with Lowry’s character kneeling in despair as the Trade Raptor rumbles off to House Spurs.
“Well, whoever we’re getting back, he better be a bloody monster!” Lowry’s cartoon stand-in cries.
Cut to the entrance of Kawhi Leonard cast as one of the White Walkers, the supernatural beings out to destroy humanity — or, depending on how the coming weeks play out, possibly just select Philadelphia 76ers and various members of a couple of other NBA teams.
Which brings us to the playoffs. Yes, Toronto’s five-game dalliance against that team from Disney was franchise-affirming and fun. But things figure to get less comfortable beginning with Saturday’s Game 1 against the Sixers, whose talent level dwarfs that of the Magic. Toronto is still the expected winner. But if Vegas had the Raptors as 10-point home favourites over Orlando in Game 1, they come into Saturday as the six-point home chalk.
Outlook: There might not be a player in the league that looked better than Kawhi Leonard did in the first round against Orlando. After having his workload managed throughout the regular season, Leonard tore apart the Magic, making 55.6% of his shots from the field and 53.8% from three-point range on his way to an East-leading 27.8 points per game. Right behind him was Pascal Siakam, who averaged 22.6 points a game. The big concern for Philadelphia is Embiid’s sore left knee, which kept him out of Game 3 against the Nets. When he’s played, he’s been terrific — 24.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. Slowing down shooting guard J.J. Redick will be a key. When he shoots 50% or better from three-point range, the 76ers are 20-6. The Raptors will miss OG Anunoby, who needed an emergency appendectomy before the start of the postseason. He’ll probably be out until the conference finals.
Toronto’s 119-107, wasn’t-as-close-as-that-looks victory hadn’t been in the books for an hour before news broke that the 76ers were sending three players and four draft picks to the Los Angeles Clippers for Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott. It’s already paid off for Philly in many ways; Marjanovic has been a solid backup for Joel Embiid and Scott made perhaps the biggest shot of the 76ers’ first-round win over Brooklyn.
Scott is now ailing and seems likely to miss Game 1, if not more, with a heel injury. The speed the Raptors play with may affect how Philly plans to use Marjanovic in this series. But Harris fits in perfectly with the 76ers’ needs on both ends — just as Gasol, who will be primarily tasked with slowing Embiid, has done since joining the Raptors.
“Everybody loaded up,” Brown said. “They really loaded up. It was an arms race for the Eastern Conference championship.”
Embiid averaged 26.3 points against the Raptors and Ben Simmons shot 63 percent in the four games, but was also forced into 6.3 turnovers per game in the season series. For Toronto, Kyle Lowry averaged 16.8 points, while Siakam averaged 16.3 on 52% shooting. And Kawhi Leonard averaged 30.3 points in three meetings against Philadelphia — with the game he sat out in the series being the only one where the 76ers prevailed.
It wasn’t just the trade deadline where teams were thinking about these 2019 playoffs. The Raptors swung the deal for Leonard last summer precisely for these moments, and the 76ers offered him the highest praise.
Gasol vs. Embiid, Simmons vs. Kawhi
Thanks to the necessary dangers of building through trade, both the Raptors and Sixers find themselves with top-heavy rosters — creating an abundance of tasty individual matchups on the floor, many of which we don’t have sample size on.
There are two that stand out, the first quite literally being Joel Embiid and Marc Gasol. On the Raptors side, there’s plenty of reason to feel positive. Gasol is coming off a series where he neutralized an all-star in Nikola Vucevic, who was held to 33.3/14.3 splits according to NBA.com matchup data.
Obviously, Embiid is an MVP contender and a significant level up from Vucevic! We also don’t have an example of these two matching up in their current uniforms, since the last Raptors-Sixers regular season game was on February 3, pre-deadline. If we go back to Marc’s days with Memphis, though, the signs are all positive. Embiid was held to 33.3/20.8 splits in two games against Marc Gasol this season, with the player points differential metric on NBA.com showing a -22.5 impact (this measures a player’s points relative to the team average over 100 possessions — positive number benefits the offence, negative benefits the defence).
If the Orlando series taught us anything about Gasol, it’s that he may not have the athleticism of his Defensive Player of the Year glory days, but his muscle and brain can still really help the Raptors both on-ball and off-ball.
This series comes down to two matchups: Kawhi Leonard guarding Ben Simmons, and Marc Gasol on Joel Embiid. Both favor the Raptors.
We all know the stats: In three games this season that Leonard played against the Sixers, Simmons had 27 assists and 24 turnovers. The one Sixers-Raptors game that Leonard missed, Simmons went to town — with 26 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, one turnover and a plus-26 rating in a 126-101 home win Dec. 22.
The Raptors traded for Gasol after they finished this year’s four-game series with the Sixers. In two games this season against Memphis when Gasol was there, Embiid averaged just 14.5 points and shot 28.6 percent from the field.
More important, Gasol has become more of a facilitator. It will be interesting to see if he can pull Embiid away from the basket and open up the inside for the Raptors.
Simmons and Embiid have to play over their heads for the Sixers to win. Another problem for the Sixers will be stopping emerging star Pascal Siakam.
Toronto has plenty of options, plus home-court advantage. That should be enough.
Raptors postseason notes – General:
Only Eastern Conference team that has won a playoff series in each of the last four years. Have won four straight playoff games for the first time in franchise history.
Have seen the biggest drop in pace from the regular season (100.6 possessions per 48 minutes, 15th in the league) to the playoffs (95.7, 13th).
Have been at their best in the first (plus-27.8 points per 100 possessions) and third (plus-32.0) quarters. Were a plus-9.6 per 100 possessions in the second quarter and were outscored by 6.5 per 100 in the fourth.
Beyond his glorious on-court impact, Gasol is a walking sense of urgency, the grizzled “missing piece” who, aside from winning it all, has seen pretty much everything basketball has to offer. His goals are symbiotic with the organization’s. By themselves, each has endured unimaginable basketball heartache and frustration. Together, they’ve drawn power from that pain and looked unstoppable.
Less has proven to be much, much more for Gasol. In the first round, he averaged 5.6 shots and 8.4 points per game, well below his prior career postseason averages of 13.5 shots and 17.2 points. His usage rate — the percentage of possessions he ends with a shot, turnover, or drawn foul — was 24.0 in previous playoff seasons; this year, it’s 11.7. But Gasol also entered the postseason with an efficiency differential in Toronto that was higher than every single player who logged at least 500 minutes. Their offense scored 12.8 more points per 100 possessions with Gasol, an outrageous positive impact that was second only to Kevin Durant. (In short terms, the Raptors played like a 74-win team with Gasol and a 35-win team without him.)
Those numbers are noisy, since Gasol is playing a majority of his minutes with several top-40 players. That said, they illustrate the way he’s enhanced Toronto’s style without dominating it. He’s displaying ego-free, basketball altruism, the best-case scenario for a team that will ultimately go so far as Leonard, Siakam, and Lowry take them.
The colourful Embiid is one of the NBA’s best trash-talkers, but Siakam playfully dipped into the fray first.
“It’s good because people on Twitter were like, ‘Oh, it’s Douala versus Yaounde because I’m from Douala and he’s from Yaounde and at the end of the day, Cameroon wins.’ And I’m like, nah, at the end of the day, Douala wins,” Siakam said, before turning more serious.
“I think it’ll be a big deal for sure. Obviously, people were more tuned into Joel and now starting to tune in to me and kinda seeing that at the end of the day, we’re both at the top of our teams and we represent our country. That’s just like a sense of being proud and obviously we have a long way to go in our continent and our country but we’re heading in the right direction and having guys in the league representing our country, just like, the youth of Africa in general is definitely inspirational.”
Lastly, at this point in the postseason, basketball is played differently. There is a different intensity, different style, and more preparation that goes into each game.
“These games are totally different,” Nurse said. “There so many things that could have been [happening] schedule-wise or effort-wise. I don’t put too much into any of it.”
The Raptors are hoping that their focus, meticulous preparation, and home-court advantage will give them the upper hand when the series kicks off on Saturday night.
Lowry said that the Raptors have familiarized themselves with the Sixers’ sets, which he doesn’t expect to change much. He believes that more important than the team schemes or sets is understanding individual tendencies.
“We know what their sets are going to be but at the end of the day it’s going to be Ben, Jo, Tobias, JJ, and Jimmy,” he said. “They’ve got a good team. Knowing the individuals and knowing the personnel is huge.”
With the elite talent spread across both teams, the Raptors are looking forward to the raised level of basketball that is going to be played in the second round, and they feel they’re up to the challenge.
“It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be fun. It’s a good series,” Lowry said. “There’s just talent all over the place.”
“It was just regular season,” Leonard said after Friday’s practice. “The game is played a little differently in the playoffs.”
Leonard’s play at both ends of the floor in the playoffs had a key role in the Raps efficiently dispatching the Orlando Magic 4-1.
“He was really guarding. And the best thing about that was I think he found out that the harder he played defence, the harder he was playing offence as well, with more force,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “So he kind of got to a level of speed at both ends. And the big thing is they’d be making charges back from 15 or 18 down, and he’d score three in a row. That’s hard to handle mentally.”
Leonard – an NBA champ and finals MVP – was acquired to help deliver the Raptors somewhere it has not yet been in the playoffs. His teammate, Fred VanVleet, noticed a unique killer instinct in Leonard during Toronto’s first playoff series.
“The biggest thing that I’d seen in the last series was you could see him just taking those guys spirits away and breaking those guys’ spirits,” VanVleet said. “He was able to break their will so to speak, and that’s what superstars do.”