The Toronto Raptors welcome the Philadelphia 76ers to Scotiabank Arena this evening in a battle between two of the East’s best teams. While some of the grandeur of the game is lost with the absence of Joel Embiid (torn ligament in finger), the Sixers are currently playing a dangerous brand of basketball with four wins in a row.
Since Embiid caught his finger on Steven Adams’ jersey on Jan 6th the Sixers have put up a record of 5-2. In particular it has been Ben Simmons who has thrived with the team shorthanded, as his fit with Embiid has rarely been as natural as Philadelphia likely hopes it would be at this point. In the last 7 games Simmons is averaging 21.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 7.9 assists, all while shooting 62.7 percent from the floor (not a single 3 point attempt though, for those keeping track at home).
Along with raising his scoring, Simmons has also been a terror on defence averaging 2.1 steals per game in the last 7 contests. He has been everyone and when engaged Ben is one of the league’s best defenders, able to guard both inside and outside due to his size/speed combination.
The absence of Embiid is not the reason behind this success, as he is clearly one of the league’s most dominant bigs, but without him the remaining players have found a cohesiveness with more naturally fitting skillsets. During this stretch only the Milwaukee Bucks have had a better defensive rating than the Sixers at 103.9.
Toronto meanwhile is going to other direction in regards to health, as Saturday marked the first time since early December where the Raptors had their top 7 players all healthy at the same time. And with the return of Gasol, Norm, Siakam, and VanVleet, the Raptors have once again shown how dangerous they can be.
Gasol transforms the Raptors on both sides of the ball, quarterbacking one of the league’s most versatile defences, while also being the linchpin for the Raptors offensively.
Philadelphia brings a unique challenge on both sides of the ball. Offensively they can struggle scoring, but can use their size and rebounding to score in the paint and gain second chance opportunities. With that said, they remain mostly a disaster offensively, ranking 20th in offensive rating (108.7). Even on their current 4 game win streak this number drops to 107.6, which would place them 21st in the league over the last 4 games.
It is on the defensive side of the ball where they have excelled. Between Simmons, Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, and Al Horford, the Sizers have high level defenders up and down their lineup. Thybulle and Simmons in particular can create havoc on the passing lanes as Horford defends the paint.
Simmons is the type of defender that can bother Pascal Siakam, having the size, length, and speed to stick with him, while someone like Horford is a natural option to defend Gasol (the battle of who can jump the shortest).
In their last meeting on November 25th the Raptors walked away with a 101-96 victory in Toronto, in the historical 0 point effort from Joel Embiid.
Nick Nurse has spoken openly about the Raptors fluidity in the starting line-up with what he considers to be seven available starters when fully healthy. With Embiid’s absence it seems unlikely that Ibaka starts alongside of Gasol, which means that the final starting spot likely comes down to either Fred VanVleet or Norman Powell.
My guess is Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, and Gasol start, leaving Norm the opportunity to continue his push towards the 6th Man of the Year award. On the year Norm is average career high’s in almost every statistical category.
Who would have imagined that Norman Powell would be fast approaching a 50/40/90 season, falling shy on free throws to date. He has been a revelation and has turned his contract into one of the league’s true bargains if he continues his current level of production.
If Powell replicates his performance against the Hawks the Raptors bench production should help push them past the Sixers, as the starting lineups could be a wash.