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BY DAVID THORPE
The 76ers started the regular season with the NBA’s most fascinating story with the Ben Simmons drama. Now they enter the playoffs with the league’s most dramatic matchup.
Joel Embiid is the best player in this series, no question. Like almost every NBA team, the Raptors have no great solution to that problem. (Most seasons, Embiid’s play would win an MVP, it just happens that Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo were somehow even better.) Yet Embiid is but one man—and a man with a history of needing rest to be at his best. In the trade for James Harden, the 76ers gave up several good players, including Embiid’s capable backup, Andre Drummond. In digging through the advanced stats and the video since, it’s clear to me that now the 76ers are back where they have been for much of Embiid’s career: they get crushed when Embiid sits.
That’s one of the 76ers’ Achilles heels.
Another? The 76ers are about as bad as NBA teams get at transition defense—in part because they are built around an enormous man in Embiid.
After all the jockeying for playoff position and matchups, the 76ers drew the Raptors, who might have what it takes to get the most out of the 76ers’ small flaws. The Raptors might also have a way to punish the 76ers even while Embiid is on the floor.
KEY ISSUES IN THIS SERIES
Who’s the second-best player in the series after Embiid?
Harden and Embiid form what has been, by most advanced metrics, the second-best duo in the league. My hunch is that if Harden can be his other-worldly self of yesteryear in five games in this series, the 76ers will win four of them, and that’ll be that.
But it’s not easy for an old man to play like that every night, and if the Raptors wings can avoid fouling him, he will have to make a lot of step-back 3s. That’s a challenge against the length of the Raptors wings and the tough-to-score-on Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent, Jr. If Harden falters at all, Pascal Siakam is ferociously ready to establish himself as the second-best player in this series. He has been playing at an all-NBA level lately.
How fast can the Raptors play?
The Raptors will race every chance they get. It suits the Raptors’ super-athletic roster, and has infinite benefits in neutralizing Embiid. Embiid is already at risk of getting tired because of all the work he will have to do in the 76ers’ halfcourt offense. The instant that’s over, the Raptors will force him to race back on defense. He can put up huge numbers in Games 1 and 2, but at what cost to his overall readiness over the rest of the series?
The Raptors early offense can feature Barnes or Siakam racing and then sealing guards inside while waiting for a long hit-ahead pass. It’s one of my favorite things. Both wings can take advantage of smaller guards. That forces the Sixers to consider sending one less player to the glass. And that puts pressure on the Sixers’ shooters not to miss.
Another sneaky way the Raptors can wear out Embiid is with super-rookie Scottie Barnes. Barnes isn’t a shooter. Embiid would love to reduce his workload a tad by laying off him. But … with a sliver of space, Barnes knows just how to come flying into the paint for buckets or rebounds. There’s an argument to keep a body on Barnes all over the court. Embiid needs time to rest, (especially if Harden isn’t amazing). If he can’t rest on Barnes, he can’t rest against any Raptor.
Can the 76ers perform when Embiid sits?
I’ll keep an open mind, but after diving into the video it appears to me that the Sixers don’t have an answer to Embiid’s absence. A particular concern: The Raptors can crush the offensive glass when he sits. When Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher play together, the Raptors are 99th percentile on the offensive boards (per Cleaning the Glass). That can prove even deadlier in the Sixers non-Embiid minutes.
Will the Raptors wear-and-tear catch up to them?
Raptors All-Star guard Fred VanVleet has been playing with an injured knee. He played in seven of their last ten games and made just 30 percent of his 3s on nine of them a game, after shooting 40 percent for the first half of the season. Clearly something is wrong. Maybe the week off will help a great deal. Maybe not.
Also, Nick Nurse played his stars an incredible number of minutes this season. Embiid may be the only Sixer to tire, whereas Toronto could see Barnes, Siakam, and Trent Jr. all wear down. Being young and lean will help, but battling Sixers’ size is an anaerobic challenge.
How much will the 76ers’ miss Matisse Thybulle on the road?
The good news for Philadelphia is that Matisse Thybulle is one of the best defenders in the world, and he’ll be fresh as a daisy for Games 1, 2, 5, and 7. But Canada’s COVID rules will keep him from playing Game 3, 4, and 6 and wow will the 76ers miss his defense on Siakam. The Sixers had the NBA’s 16th-best defense this year. The Raptors’ offense was not generally good, but in Siakam, Barnes, Trent Jr., and VanVleet they have plenty of talented offensive players who’d love to exploit the weakest defender on the court. When Thybulle’s out, the 76ers count on Georges Niang, who has had a big drop-off in his defense this season.
SNEAKY GOOD LINEUP
SIXERS: Maxey (43 percent from 3), Korkmaz (see below), Niang (40 percent), Harris (37 percent), Embiid (37 percent)
Plus-23 per 100 possessions in 35 minutes
Korkmaz has been a huge disappointment as a shooter this year (he has made 24 percent of his 3s since All-Star) after hitting 38 percent last season and 40 percent the season before that. It’s worth the risk to trot him out with that group and if the Raptors allow him to shoot. If he hits some 3s, this unit would be impossible to guard. However, it’s not a strong defensive unit. Maybe best to play them when Siakam rests.
RAPTORS: VanVleet, Trent Jr., Barnes, Siakam, Boucher
Plus-23 in 103 minutes
This is a lineup that will keep Doc Rivers awake at night. It truly is one where Embiid will have to vacate the paint to defend someone. Boucher hit 38 percent of his 3s the final 10 games of the season. Sitting back against their drives risks foul trouble. Playing Embiid away from the ball makes some sense, but these are killer finishers coming at the rim and he’ll have to help.
25th in offensive rating
Third in defensive rating
Ninth in opposition 3-point shooting (35 percent)
Second in fastbreak points
Third in points off turnovers
Third in second-chance points
First in opponent points off turnovers
11th in offensive rating
16th in defensive rating
Fifth in True Shooting (60 percent)
Seventh in 3-point percentage (38 percent)
29th–almost last in the league–in fastbreak points allowed
11th in opponent points off turnovers
Seventh in opponent second chance points
Fifth in turnovers
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