Previewing the Raptors-Sixers 2022 playoff series

61 mins read
5
credit IG/zach_nph

It has been some time since we’ve gone through this exercise. Some history: the Toronto Raptors win a championship behind one of the most enjoyable playoff runs of all time and lose Kawhi Leonard — but improve on their defense in the process. I still maintain the Raptors would have repeated as champions in 2020 if it weren’t for the season interruption, but alas, the season was interrupted, and the Raptors ended up losing in seven in a grueling, painful, hack-and-slash series against the Boston Celtics. That was the last playoff series preview this site has seen.

So, a refresher: This looks at everything. Everything. No numerical stone will remain untouched as we dissect Toronto’s upcoming series. And as a refresher, we already have a series preview against the Sixers from 2019! There will be some similarities — Joel Embiid looms largest both metaphorically and literally — but mostly, the two teams are very different. But this intro — while the shortest component of this behemoth — is dragging on long. Let’s just dive into it.

Injuries

The Raptors are hard to predict here. They will likely have no unavailable players to start Game 1, but that doesn’t mean they are completely healthy.

Fred VanVleet has had a mysterious knee injury since Feb. 14 that he has said is unhelped by rest. He’s been extremely limited with the ball, outside of some incredible stretches such as against the Miami Heat, and he’s shot 29.1 percent from deep since Feb. 14. Much more on that throughout.

OG Anunoby has a mysterious fracture in his right ring finger that might be healed and also might not. He suffered it perhaps on Feb. 12, though he also said in March that he’d been feeling it for months. He also was sitting since Apr. 3 with a contusion on his leg that Nick Nurse says is mild before returning game 82 for some light cardio work.

The Philadelphia 76ers are in a significantly better situation, health-wise. Their only absence recently is Matisse Thybulle, and that’s not strictly medical. He was listed as “ineligible to play” in Philadelphia’s Apr. 7 game in Toronto, and Doc Rivers revealed that it is because of his vaccination status. So he will play only in Games 1, 2, 5, and 7 (if played) in Philly because of local rules in Toronto. This preview will proceed with Danny Green as the presumed starter rather than Thybulle for all games, however. It’s really a toss up who starts in Philadelphia, but even if Thybulle is available for only home games, I doubt the Sixers would want different starting groups for home games and road games and would instead opt to start Green all the time. I’m really, really just guessing here, but I have to guess something.

The Basic Numbers

Over the full course of the season, the Raptors and Sixers have been similar teams in the broadest of strokes. Both have been better defensively than offensively, and both are right around the edges of the top teams. They have different strengths — the Sixers are better (if less frequent) shooters, and the Raptors are better at the possession game. But they’re comparable. These numbers — and what they represent, more importantly — will of course continue to pop up throughout the entire preview.

That being said, both teams have changed throughout the season. The Raptors have shifted from a VanVleet-led team early in the year to an almost heliocentric team dominated by Pascal Siakam. (They’re better as a result, too.) On Feb. 10, the Sixers traded valuable rotation players for James Harden, who will always define whatever team for which he plays. Because the teams who meet in the playoffs will be far more reflective of those that have played since then, let’s redo the same image with numbers only since the Sixers acquired Harden.

The Raptors have leaned into their identity over that time period. They have been one of the best defensive teams in basketball, and there are fairly obvious reasons, with Anunoby, Siakam, Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, and more functioning as incredibly switchy defenders who can protect the rim, and guards like VanVleet and Gary Trent jr. forcing so many turnovers at the point of attack. Toronto has also been the best possession-hoarding team in basketball. Unfortunately for the Raptors, the Sixers have also improved dramatically in dominating possessions. On average since Feb. 10, they win extra possessions both in the turnover and rebounding battle, and Toronto will be hard-pressed to toss up 10-15 extra shots per game like they’ve expected against most teams.

Meanwhile, the Sixers have equally leaned into their identity of making a bunch of triples and drawing a staggering number of free throws. It doesn’t hurt that they’re also the most accurate free throw shooting team (82.1 percent) since Feb. 10, as well. The Raptors may score more in the paint than the Sixers, but the Sixers still live at the line, with Embiid and Harden ranked one and three in free throws attempted and made this year. Harden is a significant driver of both threes and free throws, meaning he is already implanting his identity on this team. Toronto’s leader in free throws attempts is Siakam, ranked 24th in the league, so the Raptors will start with a deficit there.

In fact, the Raptors will basically start every game at an efficiency deficit. Between made 3-pointers and free throws, Toronto is starting approximately 12 points in the hole. That’s massive. At the same time, the Raptors attempt approximately nine more field goals per game than the Sixers. That’s, more or less, equally massive. These are two very different teams who have been relatively equal in winning with their opposing identities.

Season Series Numbers

This is where things start to look especially juicy for the Raptors. First, the numbers. Then some explanations and extrapolations.

It’s clear that both teams have played to their styles during the matchup. The Sixers have been more accurate from deep and attempted a boatload more free throws. The Raptors have run more, attacked the glass, and forced more turnovers. They won the paint. The Raptors’ effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) was slightly worse against the Sixers than on average, yet they enjoyed 54 total more shots than the Sixers. The result?

The Raptors dominated. Three wins and one loss, and the Raptors have been short-handed in every game. They missed on average two starters a game against the Sixers. Both Anunoby and VanVleet only played in one game, and VanVleet absolutely went off, scoring 32 points on 22 shots with one turnover. That was in November when he was killing everyone, but the point is that the days when length — in particular, Philadelphia’s length — bothered VanVleet are over. He extended his range, quickened his release, added a pull-up game, added some mid-range artistry, and is a better pick-and-roll passer, all new to his game since (and in many ways, because of) his struggles against the Sixers in 2019. Siakam has also averaged over 30 points a game in the season series, shooting over 50 percent from the field. He, too, has added much to his game since he struggled so mightily against Embiid in that same series. Suffice it to say throwing a giant on Siakam is no longer a sufficient defensive maneuver against Toronto’s superstar.

Though Toronto’s offensive rating against Philadelphia is close to its season average, that sort of understates the ease with which Toronto has scored. The Raptors put up 115, 109, and 119 in three games — all excellent marks that sort of belie to some extent the quality of looks that Toronto created. They’re frankly not a good half-court team — 26th in the league by points per play, which excludes offensive rebounding — but that wasn’t the case against the Sixers. On Apr. 7, the Raptors scored 107.1 points per 100 plays, far better than their usual 91.5. They didn’t need to work to create high-quality looks, which is rare for the Raptors.

Toronto’s usual strengths — post-ups, in particular — haven’t been particularly fruitful against the Sixers, with Embiid mostly able to squash any such looks either as the primary or the help defender. He’s just too big, too smart, and too athletic for such simplistic brute basketball to work. Such basketball might best be saved for when Embiid is on the bench, when DeAndre Jordan (hopefully) will be completely unable to help out without giving up looks elsewhere. (The Sixers might legitimately lose non-Embiid minutes by 60 points, once again, even if he only sits for perhaps 20 minutes total all series.) But Toronto scored well out of pick and rolls against Philadelphia, which often are more complex, nuanced, and threatening plays than rote post-ups. The Raptors have been a bottom-five pick-and-roll team this year, but against the Sixers they’ve been much more successful. Such sets leverage more offensive plays and create more threats, and the Sixers don’t really have elite defenders everywhere on the positional spectrum to keep the ship from springing holes.

To that point, the only one of Toronto’s stars who has really struggled is Barnes. More on that to come in the matchup section, but Barnes is perhaps most reliant on post-ups among Toronto’s stars, with Siakam equally capable in virtually every offensive setup, and Anunoby one of the best spot-up shooters in the league. Barnes averaged only 13.0 points per game on sub-40 percent shooting. He still played quite well, winning his minutes often by rebounding and passing well, so it’s not like he won’t have a big part to play in the series. But his scoring likely won’t be as effective against Philadelphia as it would against other teams.

Starter Matchups

Toronto:

PG: Fred VanVleet
SG: Gary Trent jr.
SF: OG Anunoby
PF: Pascal Siakam
C:  Scottie Barnes

Philadelphia:

PG: James Harden
SG: Tyrese Maxey
SF: Danny Green
PF: Tobias Harris
C: Joel Embiid

Lots of talent! I mean, the Sixers have two of the best players of all time on their roster. Yet somehow neither team has been very successful with starters in the game. Overall, that is. Peek a little closer, and Philadelphia has an advantage here. It won starter-versus-starter minutes in all four games against Toronto. The Sixers have a net rating of 2.9 with five starters on the floor; however, that numbers doesn’t reflect these specific starters. This specific iteration has seen a net rating of 14.2, which is significantly better. Toronto on the other hand has a net rating of -0.4 with its starters in the game. That’s baaad. Kind of unheard of for a team of Toronto’s caliber. And it’s very specific to the above starters, who have only played in 21 games together and have a net rating of -0.7. This is a monstrous potential pitfall for the Raptors; if we’re keeping track of spotting points — losing threes and free throws is one thing, but losing the first six minutes of the first and third quarters would be far more disastrous. Toronto can’t just offer the Sixers 20 points a game and hope to make it up with superior play over 36 minutes.

Perhaps the Raptors will (and should) shift its starting lineup, and earlier rather than later. The three stars of VanVleet, Anunoby, and Siakam have had unbelievable success together. With Trent and no Barnes, they have a net rating of 13.1. The inverse, with Barnes and no Trent, it is only 1.4. With neither Barnes nor Trent alongside Toronto’s three stars, the net rating has been an absurd 19.0. The Raptors have a solid base with elite top-end talent. They desperately need to optimize how they start games, especially against a team like Philadelphia who generally blows teams out in starting minutes yet loses transitional lineups. Toronto is the best three-starter team in the league, so it can expect to win those transitional minutes. If the Raps can also snag the starter-versus-starter minutes, this series is a wrap.

Let’s look at some individual matchups. One major, major caveat: This is matchup data from NBA Advanced Stats, which is very loose. The shots made and attempted are not always accurate based on real attempts, so keep that in mind. But they do describe in broad strokes, such as total possessions with one player guarding another indicating likely primary matchups. So keep that in mind. Starting with Toronto on offense.

Lots of unknowns here, especially considering that neither VanVleet nor Anunoby have played in a game against Harden or Embiid. But in general, Philadelphia’s preferred matchups have been Maxey guarding VanVleet and also Maxey guarding Trent (expect Harden to be the primary matchup there to allow him to force some turnovers off ball, at which he remains quite good), Green guarding Barnes, Harris guarding Siakam (and also Anunoby), and Embiid guarding … also Siakam. Like I said, super confused because so few of the starters have played against one another. This is how I expect it to play out with both teams healthy:

Maxey guarding VanVleet: Maxey is the quickest player on Philadelphia, and VanVleet is probably going to be at his most threatening as an off-ball shooter, relocating around more interior actions. The alternate option if VanVleet gets going is to throw Green on the ball, giving Philadelphia more size. Green has spent a lot of time guarding point guards, so he’d be comfortable, especially if VanVleet is limited as a creator with the ball. I expect that to be the contingency play rather than the starting look.

Harden guarding Trent: Harden sometimes gets lost freelancing off the ball, but he has to guard someone, and everyone in Toronto’s starting group is either a good shooter or good cutter. Trent has the least oomph with the ball in his hands, which is when Harden’s foot speed can sometimes be an issue.

Harris guarding Anunoby: Harris has been food for Siakam, and Barnes is nearly as dangerous attacking in the post. Anunoby is likeliest the least threatening option for Harris, and this is how the Sixers played it during the regular season, too.

Embiid guarding Siakam: This is where Philadelphia has allocated the majority of its possessions during the regular-season series, and there’s logic to it. Embiid is one of the best three or four defenders in the league, and he’s both long enough to contest Siakam in the paint and strong enough to deter his getting there. Nobody else would even have a chance. Embiid at least forced Siakam into some off nights this season, although Siakam had his way with the Sixer more recently.

Green guarding Barnes: Philadelphia is going to hide players on Barnes. Perhaps Green starts there, as he did during the regular season, but if he moves to VanVleet, Maxey would likely move to Trent, and then Harden to Barnes. Barnes is going to have to hit shots this series, as his defender is going to cheat into the lane with absolute freedom. Barnes can also weaponize that as a cutter and offensive rebounder, too. If Barnes posts Green to death, Harris can move here. Barnes has to hurt Philadelphia for its defensive matchup on him.

Some other notes:

  • Philadelphia has not been particularly switch-heavy against Toronto or just in general, and I expect that to continue in the playoffs. Embiid, Harris, and Green will likely switch actions specifically between Anunoby, Barnes, and Siakam because none of the three are elite pull-up shooters, but otherwise, they’ll likely try to fight through and keep original matchups. The Sixers will let Harden defend in the post, but Maxey has to protected from that at all costs. Because Toronto doesn’t have too many threatening shooters, the Sixers will likely scram switch from the weak side to protect Maxey from the post. Toronto has to hit some really tight-window skip passes to hurt the Sixers for that. But in general, the Sixers do not have the stable of long wing defenders necessary to hurt the Raptors. If anyone switches onto Siakam other than Embiid, he’ll do some damage. VanVleet, Trent, and Anunoby will see a ton of open jumpers. The Sixers just don’t have the versatility to contain everything.
    • On that note, Anunoby will be important as a primary scorer for Toronto for short stretches during the series, particularly if VanVleet isn’t able to create too much with the ball. Anunoby’s pull-up jumper never came around during the season, but he’s become quite competent in the post, and he’s an elite finisher around the rim. He can hurt defenders like Maxey, Green, or even Harris if he’s on. The Raptors will need to score around the edges in matchups like that if Embiid shuts out Siakam for stretches.
    • Another important factor in terms of the who-does-Embiid-guard sweepstakes: Assuming it is Siakam, he’s really going to have to hit some jumpers. If Siakam doesn’t space the floor, Embiid gets to eat the rim, which will really hurt Barnes and VanVleet, especially. Embiid could also guard Barnes and just ignore him to just force Toronto into jumpers. In that case, Barnes will need to add value by recognizing and immediately adapting as a cutter and screener. He’s a rookie, but he’s so cerebral, he should be able to find ways to chip in regardless.
      • The Raptors can and will counter by putting Embiid in pick and roll, asking whomever he is guarding to screen. If Embiid switches, great, that’s perfect. Toss the ball to whomever he isn’t guarding anymore. Even if not, the Raptors draw him out of the paint, and that will open some holes elsewhere. Embiid is a world-destroying defender, but he can’t defend the entire floor. Toronto needs to be creative. If it can force Embiid onto Anunoby, for example, that can really open up the floor for everyone because Embiid needs to stick close to deter the jumper. Toronto needs to be creative with on- and off-ball screening to manipulate the matchups until they see the floor start to look appetizing.
        • The other component if Embiid leaves the paint: Toronto will feast on the offensive glass. They did against the Sixers in the regular season, and there are a lot of ways to unlock that skill against the Sixers. Just a little movement, screening, and shooting should do the trick. Embiid is a great rebounder, but there aren’t many others on the roster.
  • Thybulle’s presence will probably impact Trent most of all. He had five blocks and three steals in two games against the Raptors during the regular season, most of which came against Trent. He really hurt Trent by forcing him off the line, trailing him from behind into the paint, and then swatting his pull-up jumper in rearview contest. Green can’t really do that, and there kind of aren’t any other wing defenders on the Sixers? Trent went berserk on Apr. 7 against the Sixers without Thybulle, scoring 30 on 21 shots with zero turnovers. He probably won’t replicate that every time Thybulle doesn’t play, but he’s a threat to blow up at any point. Just another worry for Philadelphia that Thybulle would ease. Toronto’s half-court offense will almost certainly struggle for stretches. If Trent is unleashed, those stretches will be fewer and further in between.
  • A healthy VanVleet would wreck the Sixers. He shot 33.1 percent on pull-up triples this year, which would be enough to open up the defense. Nobody could stick with his funky dance moves in the mid-range. The Sixers don’t really have anybody who can massively limit him beyond maybe Thybulle, and switches have generally given VanVleet trouble. But the Sixers don’t have a super switchable team, and VanVleet should find success attacking players like Harris or Harden. He could bully Maxey, who is slim. VanVleet’s pull-up jumper won’t have many contests, he’ll find freedom relocating, and there’s no rim protector beyond Embiid. Especially if Embiid is drawn out to the corners by some hot shooting, VanVleet could find a slightly easier series than he’s used to against these Sixers.
    • At the same time, VanVleet’s 3-point percentages have dropped dramatically since he hurt his knee on Feb. 14, both pulling up and on the catch. (Interestingly, the larger drop has been off the catch.) If he’s not healthy, Toronto may depend on Trent much more. He shot 34.8 percent on pull-up 3s this year, the best mark on the team. He’s not the passer or driver that VanVleet is, but someone has to hit pull-up 3s to pry open Philadelphia’s drop defense and hurt Embiid for trying to linger in the paint. The Raptors have few options — as they’re the eighth-worst pull-up shooting team in the league — so they desperately have to hope VanVleet bounces back to form.

Now the same data but with the Raptors on defense and the Sixers on offense.

One significant takeaway here is that the Raptors switch Barnes, Anunoby, and Siakam but not as much VanVleet and Trent. More specifically, the former three switch across all five positions; Siakam and Barnes are the only players to have seen double-digit possessions against all five positions. Trent and VanVleet will switch, but not onto Embiid. That makes sense! But look closer at the numbers. Barnes has seen huge minutes against Philadelphia’s ball-handlers in Harden and Maxey and has been less successful against the secondary guys in Green and Tobias Harris. Barnes is a significantly better on-ball defender than off-ball, at this point. Though he makes some mistakes on ball and gives up blowbys from time to time, he is huge and contests like a monster. He gave Harden fits. (To be fair, so did Achiuwa and Chris Boucher.) Barnes will probably be weaponized as a primary defender on Harden to start, letting VanVleet scamper around off-ball with Maxey. That should gum up Philadelphia’s offense the most, and it maximizes Barnes’ own strengths and minimizes his weaknesses (because Harden does nothing off ball). Barnes could also guard Embiid. Lots of options for such a versatile player and team. That leads us to my expectations for the matchups to start the series:

Barnes guarding Harden: This is a wildcard! The Raptors might use Anunoby here to really stymie Philadelphia’s point of attack, but that’s probably a contingency plan rather than the starting look. VanVleet is another good option, but he’s not long enough to contest the step-back.

VanVleet guarding Maxey: This is probably the most obvious matchup. Match speed with speed. VanVleet will see time on Harden as well, certainly, but Maxey has hurt the Raptors, and VanVleet is Toronto’s break-in-case-of-emergency point-of-attack defender. Makes sense all around. His knee limited him for a stretch defensively, but he turned in some very solid games there before resting.

Trent guarding Green: This is not where Trent saw the majority of minutes during the regular season, but the Raptors never played healthy against Philadelphia. Trent gambles a lot, and Harden would turn that into an avalanche of free throws and easy layups or threes. The Raptors have to avoid Trent guarding Harden at all costs. The Sixers don’t run a ton a ton of guard-guard screens, and Trent can really get into ballhandlers’ airspace to force turnovers. Green is not a good dribbler, so Trent can do some damage there. The Raptors have to hope this weaponizes Trent the most while also hiding him from Harden. If Philly wants to run Harden-Green pick and rolls, that’s kind of a win in itself for Toronto.

Siakam guarding Harris: This lets Siakam cheat into the lane a lot, as Harris has really had a down year offensively. He doesn’t initiate a ton, and his shooting is down. The Raptors do switch Siakam about as much as any team switches anyone, and they do it proactively just to get him on ball. He’s a terror. He’ll guard everyone, often during the course of a single possession, but starting on Harris lets him hurt the Sixers off the ball, which is how Siakam likes to start possessions. Siakam will of course see time on everyone and their grandmother this series, so it’s least important who he starts on.

Anunoby guarding Embiid: Uh, I guess, someone has to? No good options. (More on that in one sec.) But Siakam saw the brunt of minutes during the regular season, and he struggled. Obviously, everyone struggles against Embiid. But Siakam just doesn’t have the bulk. Anunoby has more lower-body strength.

Okay, some other notes:

  • Embiid has also torched everyone in Toronto’s starting group, especially Siakam, who has seen the lion’s share of the possessions among the starters. It’s worth mentioning that Anunoby hasn’t played against Embiid this year, but last year Embiid shot 2 for 2 in 21 possessions against Anunoby across three games. (That’s good deterrence!) Anunoby may start on Embiid, but that’s probably not a long-term solution. In general, the Raptors have had a lot of trouble guarding Embiid without one of Khem Birch or Achiuwa on the floor, so if the series tilts the wrong way for Toronto because Embiid just thrashes the Raptors for the first six minutes of the first and third quarters, and the Raptors are spotting Philadelphia 15 points a game, we might see some changes.
    • One change is to double or triple him when his back turns. That’s a fine option, and it works sometimes if your primary can just hold him off in the post for a moment. Anunoby can do that. But it risks letting Philadelphia’s shooters — which includes every starter — getting hot. Embiid will still turn the ball over when doubled, and he’ll take some bad shots, too. This is how Toronto responds, most likely, to Embiid getting hot, rather than changing the starting look right off the bat. But the trigger finger has to be at least a little jumpy on that one.
  • Embiid has shot, per the same matchup data, 7 for 21 when guarded by Achiuwa and 2 for 6 when guarded by Birch this season. If the Raptors do decide Embiid is killing them, either Birch or Achiuwa would start (I would prefer Achiuwa, but it seems like Nick Nurse would prefer Birch) and take the Embiid job.
    • This is the second “series is a wrap” possibility: if Achiuwa (or anybody, really) locks up Embiid, that’s game. The Sixers don’t have the weapons to punch with the Raptors if anyone contains Embiid. Achiuwa is probably the likeliest to do that because he can almost match the strength, angles, and quickness, and he’s the best rim defender on Toronto. Not to say he is likely to limit Embiid (no one is), but he has the best shot. In the two games Embiid shot below 50 percent, the Sixers lost. In the one game he didn’t play, the Sixers lost. In the game he dominated, dropping 36, they won with ease. Embiid’s success is a necessary condition for Philadelhpia’s success, but against Toronto, it’s not a sufficient condition.
  • Ok, the third “series is a wrap” possibility: if Achiuwa (or anybody, really) shuts down Harden in switch, that’s probably a pretty easy win for the Raps. Toronto won both games in which Harden played, and he averaged 15 points on 8-for-24 shooting. Boucher blocked him and took charges. Achiuwa forced him into impossible shots. He averaged eight free throws a game, which is a lot, but it’s a manageable number. The Raptors will probably let Anunoby hang with him in isolation and can expect (relative) success there. When Philadelphia throws Harden into pick and roll to jumble up the defenders, Toronto needs to trust its bigs can hang without selling the farm in help. Harden needs to be better against Toronto for Philly to really have a shot. That’s not a crazy ask; he’s still really, really good.
  • Harris has had a miserable season for Philadelphia. He didn’t score well against any of Toronto’s defenders, all of whom (even VanVleet, who saw a fair number of possessions considering he only played in one game) saw plenty of time against Harris. If Harris’ post-up and isolation scoring doesn’t threaten Toronto at all, that’s a big win for the Raptors. They can switch whomever onto him and trust it won’t compromise the shell of the defense. Small hinge upon which the edges of the series will swing.
  • Now the other side of the Thybulle dilemma: he’s not really that threatening off the ball. He averaged 9.5 points against Toronto and actually shot better from deep than his season average of 31.0 percent. Toronto will almost completely ignore him on the offensive end, and he can hurt them a little as a cutter and streaky shooter, but that’s not enough to make him a consistent positive. If he starts, that puts a hole on the offensive unit for Philadelphia that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Toronto will twist the knife on those occasions to show extra bodies on the ball, dig opportunistically, and force more turnovers. Barnes or Siakam especially could create some offense out of ostensibly being Thybulle’s primary defender.
    • The Sixers don’t really turn the ball over much, and that showed against Toronto in the regular season. Toronto needs to find a few ways to jump-start their transition game so as to keep Embiid from sinking his teeth into the half-court offense. Ignoring non-shooters is a good way to do that.

The Bench

There aren’t a whole lot of teams with as little bunch punch as the Raptors. In fact, they’re the bottom two teams leaguewide in bench scoring, with 26.7 per for the Sixers and 25.3 for the Raptors.

Georges Niang, Shake Milton, and Furkan Korkmaz are Philadelphia’s three most important bench scorers. Niang is a 40 percent 3-point shooter, and the other two are streaky shooters and slashing scorers. Frankly though, the Sixers have four stars in Embiid, Harden, Harris, and Maxey, and at least two of those four will (should) be on the floor at all times. They’re the scoring threats; the Sixers don’t bring in a lead initiator off the bench. The bench players are supporters.

The Raptors are similar. Their five starters are their five offensive threats, and everyone else just fires if open from three and attacks the offensive glass. Boucher, Achiuwa, and Thaddeus Young are the real bench threats, scoring 9.3, 9.1, and 6.3 points per game respectively. Boucher only shoots 29.3 percent from deep, but Achiuwa (36.4) and Young (38.1) aren’t fake threats; they’ll hurt teams that leave them open, particularly from the corner. Achiuwa may moonlight as a primary when he gets the ball in transition or late in the clock or attacking a rotation, and Young may deal in the post here and there, but generally, the three serve to get out of the way of the stars. Toronto commits the fewest bench turnovers in the league. By and large, the two benches are similar.

Both teams will likely go deeper than eight in some games. Birch might see time for the Raptors, or if they desperately need some guard play, maybe Malachi Flynn or Armoni Brooks see the floor. Doubtful, that. Meanwhile, the Sixers will likely play one of Jordan or Paul Reed. Neither will be productive for Philadelphia, but Jordan especially would be a boon for Toronto. Remember when the Raps beat the Sixers by 10 million points in the non-Embiid minutes in 2019 because neither Greg Monroe and Boban Marjanovic couldn’t hold the fort defensively? Jordan would be a shot-for-shot remake of that epic production. Perhaps Isaiah Joe gets some time for Philadelphia as a stout defender and solid shooter, especially in games in Toronto when Thybulle isn’t available.

Likely, though, both teams will play eight or nine deep, and both teams will look to the benches simply to replicate and maintain the same style of play. Just because the benches function similarly doesn’t mean they are equally effective. Achiuwa, Boucher, and Young unlock Toronto’s defense in ways that Niang, Milton, and Korkmaz simply don’t. They’re better players, by and large.

All stats taken from PBP Stats

It’s worth mentioning that neither team plays with zero starters in minutes that matter, and it’s likely that neither will play with only one starter, either. So the real data points that matter are with two, three, four, or all five starters in the game.

The Sixers don’t bleed lost usage from sitting stars to their bench. When Harden sits, Harris’ usage skyrockets from 16.6 percent to 23.7. Maxey sees almost as high a boost. When Harris sits, Harden’s usage jumps from 22.5 percent to 34.1. Harden’s usage jumps even higher when Embiid sits. The stars control the game no matter who’s alongside them. Perhaps correspondingly, the Sixers are fairly solid no matter the number of starters, with a net rating between 3.5 and 7.1 whether there’s two, three, or four starters on the floor. Those numbers are driven by their top-end talent, not the talent on the bench.

The Raptors are a little more lopsided. They hold the fort basically at all times, with one, two, four, or five starters all on the floor. And they gun the jets with three starters, with the single highest net rating — 11.4 — in the league in those minutes. Toronto mixes up what that three-starter unit looks like, but on average, Siakam (or Barnes), VanVleet, and Trent end the first quarter with Achiuwa and Boucher on the floor as a transitional unit. That group has a net rating of 20.4. Siakam, Barnes, Achiuwa, Boucher, and Anunoby (long boys the lot of them!) start the second quarter on average, another three-starter group, and they have a net rating of 14.7. Those are the break-the-game-open-like-a-watermelon minutes, and Toronto gets another crack at them in the second half.

Remember though that predicting those three-starter groups are averages based on season-long totals, and the minute totals of those units are tiny because Toronto has so rarely been healthy. So predictions here might not hold. Still, Toronto plasters teams to end the first and third quarters and to start the second and fourth. Conveniently, that is also when Embiid sits — to start the second and fourth quarters. And though Embiid himself has a high turnover rate, his presence really limits his team’s carelessness; Philadelphia’s turnover rate per 100 possessions is significantly higher with Embiid on the bench. Toronto could find a huge advantage in those minutes, enough that one of Philadelphia’s first adjustments will probably be to stagger better so their worst lineups don’t face Toronto’s best.

To complete the picture, Toronto desperately needs to find winning minutes when Siakam sits. He leads the team in on/off differential. Their best unit without Siakam features all four other starters alongside Achiuwa, and that is also their highest-minute group without Siakam. Playing that group would help find Siakam rest, but it would make it difficult to maximize the minutes of Toronto’s three-starter fireballs. Nurse won’t hesitate to play his key players 40 minutes or more, but there are still choices to be made. The Sixers theoretically have Harden to keep things afloat when Embiid sits, though such units have lost their minutes by a mile. Toronto has to hope those groups don’t find their footing. Similarly, if VanVleet isn’t himself, the Raptors don’t have a consistent star who can offer Siakam anxiety-free rest.

Toronto’s real bench strength isn’t in individual players but instead in its defense. The identity remains true when the bench enters the game, and the offense flows from turnovers, transition play, and offensive rebounds; when Boucher and Achiuwa are on the court together, which they have been more and more recently, Toronto has a 99th-percentile offensive-rebounding rate and an 82nd-percentile turnover-creation rate. Philadelphia will be hard-pressed to counter without Embiid playing all 48 minutes or Harden starting to drill step-back threes and draw oodles of free throws.

Offensive and Defensive Styles

This has bled into every section so far, so I’ll try to keep this brief. Relatively brief, that is.

There are similarities, and there are differences between these teams. Both love the post and neither has its pick-and-roll ball-handler shoot a ton. While Toronto wants to play fast when possible, it will slow down if forced into the half-court. The Sixers are just happy to play slow in the half-court all the time. As a result, Philly is better in the half-court, averaging 114.0 points per 100 possessions to Toronto’s 112.9. The gap when excluding offensive rebounds is almost 10 times larger; if Philly can just clean its own glass, the Raptors will be hard-pressed to find enough advantages to win. (That’s “series wrap” the first for Philadelphia.) Furthermore, Philadelphia has a better half-court defense than Toronto whether accounting for rebounding or not.

Now, things get even shakier for Toronto when you look at each component of offense. When you break it down to playtype, Philly scores more efficiently than Toronto in every area.

(Another caveat: This data is from NBA Advanced Stats, which does not include passes away from plays. This of course limits the usefulness of data. 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.)

That’s legitimately scary. Introducing the second “series wrap” for Philadelphia in the form of them simply being more efficient in every area of offensive basketball. How is Toronto supposed to build a faster car when every part the Sixers toss into the creation — wheels, engine, chassis, etc. — is better? That’s a tough question to answer for the Raptors, and it’s cause to worry in a playoff series when gimmicks like turnover creation and offensive rebounding are harder to sustain. At the same time, it’s the explanation for why Toronto turned to such gimmicks in the first place: They aren’t that good at the traditional stuff.

This lays bare the hill that Toronto must climb in every basketball game, let alone every playoff series. They just don’t have many talented-for-the-NBA individual scorers. There is definitely talent, but the Raptors don’t have many flat-out get-bucket players. Trent, statistically, is the only above-average isolation player on the Raptors, though for my money Siakam is one of the best in the league, his middling numbers be damned. Still. There’s a reason Toronto’s the fourth-least efficient isolation team in the league yet attempts the highest frequency of isolation shots. The Sixers, on the other hand, employ three of the best isolation players in the league in Maxey, Harden, and Embiid. Playoff games grind down to isolation contests — not for full games, but for stretches. Toronto has little chance to win those battles. It must stay true to its identity and not be suckered into such talent shows.

To be fair, Toronto has been significantly better at the traditional stuff as the season has gone on, so the full-season numbers don’t capture the level at which Toronto has played for a few months, now. As Siakam has ascended to superstardom, Toronto’s struggles in the half-court have mattered less and less.

Toronto’s identity revolves around mucking it up on both ends, trusting Siakam to shoulder the world, and rebounding missed shots to help lift his arms, Moses-style in the battle against the Amalekites. That’s been enough to beat the Sixers in the regular season, remember, and without the Raptors being full strength in any game. For those keeping score at home, Toronto should be climbing uphill with a starter deficit, an efficiency deficit, and a half-court deficit. Yet … Nurse and company have somehow managed to turn that into a 3-1 record. Dark magic.

The Sixers are a traditional defensive team. They play drop coverage with their center and over coverage with their guard at one of the highest rates in the league, and they’re pretty good at it. Toronto will need to hit some pull-up shots to hurt that coverage. Full strength, they might have the guns to do it, especially if VanVleet comes into the series healthier than he’s been recently. Toronto can be bothered by switchy, aggressive teams (like, say, the Boston Celtics). Passive-yet-stout defensive teams like the Sixers let Toronto take their time and set up their stuff. The Raps will likely benefit if both teams are calm and thoughtful on that end of the floor. Philly doesn’t have the guns to speed up the Raptors.

The battle on the other side of the floor will be much more of a clash of styles. Philadelphia is going to play static offense, much like Toronto, and the Sixers roster the league leader in isolations and the league leader in post ups. They have the third-slowest average time of an offensive possession in the league. (Toronto is fifth.) They do run pick and rolls, but Harden prefers to get a switch and pull the ball back out to isolate. Embiid likes to short roll, get the ball in the middle of the floor, and take his time to either isolate or post. Slow, pensive basketball.

Yet the Raptors want to speed up opposing offenses to such an extent that they’ll intentionally put their defenders in rotation. They force opponents to play at the third-slowest rate on the offensive end because opponents are forced into tough choices, pushing them away from actions and easy shots. Will Philadelphia be able to play slow as it likes, or will it be forced to play into Toronto’s hands and make snap choices? This is one of the foundational areas where the series will be decided — who dictates identity when Philadelphia has the ball. Once again, whoever wins here probably wins the series. Maxey will be Philadelphia’s ace in the hole. He is as speedy as they come, able to blaze past sloppy or even mediocre rotations and finish at the rim. He is a killer shooter off the catch or the bounce. If Toronto scrambles too much, Philadelphia can still hurt Toronto if it’s sped up; Maxey will be critical to that effort.

Toronto is avant garde defensively. They switch at an above-average rate and are very, very good at it. They almost never duck under screens, preferring instead to bring the fight to opponents. They play weird zones. Nurse rewrote the defensive book across the NBA. The Raptors are probably not going to win this series on the offensive end. If they do win it, it’ll be through grinding defense, exploratory blitzes, forced turnovers, wild rotations that shock secondary attackers, and incredible second- and third-effort contests from groups at the rim. That’s hard. That’s playing PhD-level basketball, but the Raptors have spent a season studying for that doctorate. They’ve amassed players who can succeed in that style. Vision 6’9. They’re ready to take their comprehensives, and they’re about to do it against a review board of two of the all-time greats in Embiid and Harden. Talk about an outrageous test for your thesis.

Prediction

I count three “series wraps” for Toronto and two for Philadelphia as well as a shared “wrap” between both teams. To recap:

  • If Toronto wins the starter-starter minutes, Toronto wins.
  • If Toronto’s bigs (and frantic defensive schemes) can lock down Embiid, Toronto wins.
  • If Toronto’s bigs (and frantic defensive schemes) can lock down Harden in switch, Toronto wins.
  • If Philadelphia doesn’t let Toronto grab offensive rebounds, Philadelphia wins.
  • If Philadelphia just shoots better than Toronto in every type of play, Philadelphia wins.
  • Whoever dictates the style when Philadelphia is on offense will win.

Obviously multiple could trigger and throw off the 100 percent likelihoods that I’m (foolishly) asserting here. But the point is that these are six building blocks upon which the results will rest. In a vacuum, the Raptors’ seem less likely. But they’ve accomplished two of their three in the regular season against Philadelphia (they haven’t yet won the starter-versus-starter minutes), and the Sixers have accomplished neither of their tasks. The identity battle has gone both ways.

Frankly, Philadelphia is probably a better basketball team. They have a better defense and offense in the half-court, and they shoot better and draw far more free throws. Still, Toronto is better suited to the matchup, with significantly more and better defenders, and Philadelphia lacks the big, versatile wing defenders necessary to limit Toronto. Furthermore, practically all of Toronto’s numbers are skewed because they’ve been so mangled by injury all year, while Philadelphia has been much healthier. And entering the playoffs, Toronto has finessed itself into relative (based on how VanVleet has responded to time off) health for the first time in ages. The Raptors might even be significantly better than their numbers indicate.

All told, the Raptors should be the favourite simply because they’ve proven they can walk the required paths to victory. But it’s not going to be an easy series. The Raptors will have to win going uphill, but they’ve done that consistently all year. Let’s go with Raptors in six.

5 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.