Sixers-Raptors, Round 1

There is no Kawhi Leonard to make them double over and sigh after each preposterous shot. No Kyle Lowry to bait them into untimely fouls, or Serge Ibaka to notch back-breaking threes as they scramble in defensive rotations. There is no Ben Simmons to clog the lane and stall the offense, or JJ Redick to be lined up for target practice on defense. Several iterations of the team later, James Harden is now filling the Jimmy Butler role. 

And yet, the prospect of standing opposite the Toronto Raptors in a playoff series elicits butterflies in the stomaches of the Sixers and their fans. Toronto is a demon of which the Sixers have craved exorcism for nearly 3 years. They’ll have a chance at revenge starting Saturday night in South Philly.

Series schedule

Day, Date Location Game Time (EST) TV
Saturday, 4/16 Philadelphia 1 6 PM ESPN
Monday, 4/18 Philadelphia 2 7:30 PM TNT
Wednesday, 4/20 Toronto 3 8 PM NBATV
Saturday, 4/23 Toronto 4 2 PM TNT
Monday, 4/25 Philadelphia 5* TBD TBD
Thursday, 4/28 Toronto 6* TBD TBD
Saturday, 4/30 Philadelphia 7* TBD TNT

Know your Raptors

  Offense (Ranking) Defense (Ranking)
Points per 100 possessions 112.9 (16th) 110.7 (10th)
effective field goal percentage 51.2 (27th) 53.8 (18th)
Turnover percentage 12.9 (6th) 16.4 (1st)
Offensive rebound percentage 31.1 (2nd) 27.4 (23rd)
Free throw rate (%) 17.8 (24th) 20 (21st)

 

  Transition Offense (Ranking) Halfcourt Offense (Ranking)
Points per 100 plays 126.1 (14th) 91.3 (26th)
  Transition Defense (Ranking) Halfcourt Defense (Ranking)
Points per 100 plays 125.2 (14th) 93.8 (10th)

The Raptors are a mediocre offense and an upper-third defense. They stay afloat on offense by turning the opposition over in the live court or forcing misses. Either way, they want to get out in transition. They want to make you backpedal and get you into rotation on defense. The more chaos they can generate on defense, the better they function on offense. The Raptors add 3.6 points per 100 possessions via transition play, good for 4th best in the league. They get out in transition on 18.6% of their possessions — 2nd best in the NBA.

Toronto also inflicts serious damage on the offensive glass. They’ll miss their first looks or reboundable free throws just as any team does, but the Raptors leverage their length and athleticism to rip down offensive rebounds and generate extra possessions. In fact, the Raptors are 2nd in the NBA in putback points scored per 100 missed field goals or reboundable free throws at 23.9 per 100.

Somewhat of a fascinating dynamic is Toronto’s defensive rebounding and the Sixers’ struggles on the glass. The Raptors are great on the offensive glass, so they should theoretically excel at rebounding from a more advantageous position on the defensive end of the floor. But as we said, Toronto wants to get out and run to compensate for their uninspiring halfcourt offense. As such, they’re more concerned with pushing the ball up the floor than they are with crashing the defensive glass.

At the same time, the Sixers are a horrendous transition defense and, as such, should be more focused on getting back on defense than they should be hanging around their end of the floor trying to gamble for extra possessions. Nonetheless, there exists an area of opportunity on the glass for Philadelphia. Toronto allows 21.9 points per 100 missed field goals and reboundable free throws — 7th worst in the NBA. Perhaps it’s worth dangling the biggest defensive liability back on the offensive glass in case a miss falls Philly’s way, while the other 4 Sixers sprint back to defend in transition.

Toronto’s shot profiles

  Rim (Ranking) Midrange (Ranking) Three-Point (Ranking)
Toronto’s frequency 30.2% (26th) 35.2% (6th) 34.6% (22nd)
Opponent’s frequency 32.2% (13th) 29.7% (11th) 38.1% (22nd)

Besides taking care of the basketball and generated extra possessions on the offensive glass, Toronto doesn’t field much of an efficient offense, either. They don’t get to the free throw line often, they don’t take a ton of threes, and they don’t get to the rim all that much. So by deductive reasoning, the Raptors love to nibble on the analytically antithetical midrange jumper.

Playing a deep drop scheme on pick-and-rolls navigated by Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. would be a source of pain for Philly, as a deep drop concedes anything the opposition wants in the midrange for the sake of funneling ball-handlers to the rim to clash with Embiid. Given Embiid’s prowess on the perimeter and mobility, it makes more sense to play up on pick-and-rolls, perhaps even in the form of a shallow drop. That doesn’t mean guarding at the level of the screen. Rather, lifting out of the paint and presenting resistance in the midrange below the level of the screen. The Sixers could even go the route of hedging those screens so that they show enough help to thwart the downhill action and then recover to the diver or popper once the ball defender recovers. 

Outside of the pick-and-roll, Siakam loves to attack right to get to the right elbow for midrange jumpers or get to the basket with his strong hand. To mitigate that, the Sixers would be wise to send double-teams on the drive and make Siakam make plays for his teammates over and over again or go left. If he goes back to his left, where he isn’t as comfortable, keeping a strong defender on the left side of the lane is critical. Not for the purposes of double-teams, though. Rather, just to create activity in the driving lanes and generate loose balls.

Gary Trent Jr. put a hurting on Philadelphia in the 2 games that they played post-trade deadline with his off-ball screen play. Toronto set wide split screens for him to catch and go in the middle of the floor. Philadelphia’s lack of size killed them in navigating those off-ball pin screens. Having to take wide turns to get around those screens, the Sixers often fell behind Trent Jr. and forfeited midrange jumpers off the dribble.

I don’t anticipate those difficulties going away because the Sixers aren’t hitting any growth spurts in time for this series. But, I would like to see how Shake Milton fares in getting around those screens. He’s one of Philly’s more experienced guards, so he should have more muscle mass than, say, Tyrese Maxey. Milton is certainly blessed with length, too. So, he may find some success navigating those screens against Trent Jr. or VanVleet. This isn’t me preaching Milton’s capacity as a defender. Opposing offenses will try to bring him into the on-ball action and bully him. I’m not saying that Milton should start. But, I think he can sneakily play a big role in this series in helping Philly clear those pin-down screens for Toronto’s secondary ball-handlers and shooters.

Seeing as Toronto doesn’t love taking threes, it might make sense to toss out a zone defense to mix up their offense from time to time. The zone will take away driving lanes, limit shots at the rim, aid against individual foul trouble, and keep Toronto on the perimeter. The Raptors were 24th in the league in points per possessions against zone this season, according to Synergy.

On the other hand, Philadelphia was 25th in the league in points allowed per possession in zone defense. It’s also worth noting that the Sixers only used zone for 137 possessions this season. So it’s not exactly something with which the Sixers are comfortable, and that’s likely because they lack length on the perimeter. But, part of coaching is sometimes throwing [redacted] at the wall and seeing if it sticks.

Know your Sixers

  Offense (Ranking) Defense (Ranking)
Points per 100 possessions 114 (13th) 110.7 (11th)
Effective field goal percentage 53.9 (14th) 52.5 (10th)
Turnover percentage 12.9 (4th) 13.6 (17th)
Offensive rebound percentage 22.9 (30th) 26 (15th)
Free throw rate (%) 23.3 (1st) 19 (13th)

 

  Transition Offense (Ranking) Halfcourt Offense (Ranking)
Points per 100 plays 126.6 (12th) 99.6 (5th)
  Transition Defense (Ranking) Halfcourt Defense (Ranking)
Points per 100 plays 131.1 (27th) 93 (7th)

Of all trios to play at least 500 minutes together since the trade deadline, 4 of the top 5 3-man units are Sixers trios. The Sixers are simply pulverizing the opposition with some combination of Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris. Yet, the Sixers, as a team, are outscoring opponents by 3.6 points per 100 possessions since the trade deadline. That’s top-10 good. But, that they’re still not a top-5 team by the numbers despite having dominant 3-man lineups tells you how thin Philadelphia is beyond its starters. The bigger problem is that there is no identity on the bench. The starters dominate, and then substitutions make it all go haywire. 

They’re a mediocre offense because anyone outside of the 4 previously-mentioned players is a wild card to give you just 10 points on any given day. But when it comes down a slow-paced game, which everyone claims the playoffs are, the Sixers are comfortable. They have 3 players who can manufacture baskets with the ball in their hands in a halfcourt environment — that’s never before been the case in the Embiid era.

Even without Ben Simmons, the Sixers have stayed afloat defensively because of Joel Embiid. Philly does a fine job chasing shooters off the three-point line and funneling them into the midrange or to the rim, where Embiid is waiting to contest. Even if the personnel on the court dictate a scheme change drawing Embiid out of the paint, he’s more than capable of taking a switch in isolation or stunting and recovering back to the rim. Everything the Sixers do on both ends of the floor starts and ends with Embiid.

Philadelphia’s shot profiles

  Rim (Ranking) Midrange (Ranking) Three-Point (Ranking)
Philadelphia’s frequency 31.8% (18th) 34.2% (9th) 34% (23rd)
Opponent’s frequency 32.8% (14th) 32.5% (24th) 34.7% (6th)

Efficient offense breeds passable defense for Philadelphia. The Sixers take very good care of the basketball, which means the opposition doesn’t get into transition off of live-ball turnovers very often. But opponents do get out in transition off of misses, and they run the Sixers off the court in that regard. Still, you’d rather give yourself a chance with a missed shot than get nothing out of the possession because you turned the ball over. The Sixers are simply too slow and unathletic to recover in transition if they don’t beat the opposition down the floor, which they almost never do. So whether it’s the occasional live-ball turnover or a missed shot, the opposition is pushing the rock to take advantage of Philly.

Toronto will be problematic in that they have size and athleticism. Even when the Raptors miss shots, the Sixers exhibit poor habits on the defensive glass. As such, the Sixers will afford you extra shots at the rim or open threes if the offensive rebound is sprayed back to the perimeter. 

In totality, the Sixers get to the free throw line a ton, they don’t commit a plethora of turnovers, and the three-point shot is a heavy part of their diet. Those are typical indicators of an efficient offense. Their effective field goal percentage isn’t higher because they have three starters who prefer to play within the arc.

That’s a good segue to the Embiid discussion. The Raptors are going to send double- and triple-teams when he catches the ball at the nail, extended. Embiid is going to have to thwart those traps by kicking to the vacated shooter and trusting his teammates to hit threes. The capacity to identify when the extra pressure is coming is something with which the Sixers can punch the Raptors.

Toronto gives up a ton of threes, the Sixers get an abundance of clean looks from deep through ball movement and exploiting extra defensive pressure. When Embiid catches in the middle of the floor, the first reaction should be to shoot and the second instinct should be to pivot away from the approaching helper to find his original assignment. When the Raptors try to front him, Embiid can catch passes over the top by the rim or on the move to the basket. Shots at the rim for a 7-foot big that just won the scoring title are too good to pass up. Go up strong.

The Harden-Embiid two-man game is critical for two reasons. First, it gets Embiid touches moving towards the basket. More than that, Harden’s prowess as a scorer has gravitational pull. He attracts multiple defenders as he attacks the interior and then slips passes to the diving Embiid for easy finishes at the rim.

The second reason the Harden-Embiid two-man game is critical is because Toronto loves to switch on the perimeter. The 2 games after the trade deadline between Toronto and Philly proved that they have the personnel to switch on Harden pick-and-rolls and still keep him out of the driving lanes. Even if Harden struggles to beat switches off the dribble, a switch implies that a much smaller defender will eventually be on Embiid if you toggle through screens enough. Even if Harden can’t dominate as a scorer, eventually Embiid will have the mismatch he needs to go to work.

Harden’s going to get up his stepback threes and he’s going to fight to the rim for difficult layups or fouls. But, it would behoove the Sixers to run some small-small pick-and-rolls with, say, Maxey or Harris as the screener so that the switch isn’t so easy every time. When the Raptors beat the Sixers in Toronto recently, they pulled away late by exploiting Philadelphia’s defense with Trent Jr.-Siakam pick-and-rolls. Similar adjustments apply.

Beyond Harden and Embiid, Maxey and Harris are going to be huge in the swing-swing game. Maxey’s prowess for attacking close-outs is going to yield shots at the rim or additional swing passes. His growth as a catch-and-shoot sniper will also force Toronto to retreat back if they help off him. I would recommend spacing Maxey to the weak-side corner when he’s off the ball because nothing gets the defense into rotation more than a weak-side swing to someone capable of both shooting and attacking.

As for Harris, it’s really quite simple. He was one of the most efficient post-up forwards in the NBA this season. If the mismatch is there, go to the post. If he catches beyond the arc with a couple footsteps worth of space, pull the trigger. Should the defender in front of him grant one side of the lane or stand on flat feet, attack the rim. There’s no time to think. Just read and react.

Each team’s 3 best lineups (since trade deadline, minimum 40 minutes played)

Lineup Minutes Points scored per 100 possessions Points allowed per 100 possessions Net
VanVleet, Trent Jr, Barnes, Siakam, Achiuwa 58 122.4 99.2 23.2
Trent Jr, Barnes, Siakam, Boucher, Birch 41 110.7 97.6 13.1
Trent Jr, Barnes, Siakam, Achiuwa, Boucher 40 112.9 95.3 17.6

 

Lineup Minutes Points scored per 100 possessions Points allowed per 100 possessions Net
Harden, Maxey, Thybulle, Harris, Embiid 323 122.3 102.1 20.2
Harden, Maxey, Green, Harris, Embiid 74 120 111 9
Harden, Maxey, Harris, Niang, Embiid 52 110.8 110.5 0.3

Toronto has not had two of its best players available all that often since the trade deadline. Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby have been on the mend with various injuries. That’s worrisome considering the Raptors fared just fine without them, albeit in a small sample size of minutes. A VanVleet and Anunoby return means just as much switching and fewer defensive weaknesses to exploit. The good thing for Philly is that them playing means that someone else has to be out of the rotation or play fewer minutes. Maybe that messes up Toronto’s mojo against Philadelphia.

The Raptors will throw Khem Birch or Chris Boucher in the mix to go big. Boucher affords them both size and spacing with his shooting prowess. But, Toronto is at their best on both ends when they go small with Precious Achiuwa ostensibly serving as the center. That’s likely because going smaller makes switching more effective, makes it easier to deny passing lanes, and allows you to push in transition. 

That incentive to go small makes it all the more logical to go with Paul Reed instead of DeAndre Jordan in the minutes that Embiid is recharging. The Sixers were outscored by 30 points in the 52 minutes Jordan was on the court over the last 6 games of the season. They were +16 in the 50 minutes Reed played over the last 6 games of the season.

Simply put, Jordan’s effort has been disappointing and his decision-making has been jarring. He doesn’t have the lateral athleticism to recover from his own mistakes, either. Jordan devours rebounds, but if his first move against dribble penetration is wrong, the Sixers hemorrhage points at the cup. Reed, on the other hand, is perhaps more prone to rookie mistakes because of his lack of experience. But, he plays with a chip on his shoulder and saves plays for the Sixers solely with his effort. Even if Reed makes mistakes in his decisions, he’s athletic enough to bolt back to prevent scores at the rim.

Despite his size, Reed has the vertical burst to jump over people for rebounds to create additional possessions for the Sixers or take away additional possessions from the Raptors. Perhaps most importantly, he can keep the ball in front in space. The Raptors will feast on Jordan in the pick-and-roll by making him defend in space. Reed might miss a step as he navigates pick-and-roll coverage, but he can pivot and get back in front of the ball in a way that Jordan cannot. There’s absolutely no question that Reed should be backing Embiid, and maybe even logging some minutes at power forward next to him to take away driving lanes. Not Millsap, and definitely not Jordan.

Of course, the Raptors might adjust by playing Boucher or Birch at center in an effort to bait Doc Rivers into going to Jordan. He did, after all, say after the team’s final regular-season game that he likes Jordan against bigger lineups. The answer is still, unequivocally, Reed.

On the Sixers’ side, it’s pretty painful that Thybulle, who is part of their best/starting lineup, won’t be available for the games in Toronto. Offensively, the Raptors liked to sell out on Thybulle for the sake of applying extra pressure on Embiid and Harden. Replacing him with Danny Green should make your offense better. Defensively, it’s a huge problem with no apparent solution. His prowess next to Embiid is the only reason that lineup sported a defensive rating below 110. The whole team is going to have to step up in Thybulle’s absence, and that very well may not even be enough. In that case, the question is whether the offense with Green is better than the defense without Thybulle. The optimistic sign is that the Green starting lineup was still +9 per 100 possessions in 74 minutes. But in a playoff series with extended minutes and shortened rotations, it’s anyone’s guess.

As for the other Philly lineups, it’s very concerning that there were only 3 units that were positive in at least 40 minutes of play post-trade deadline. The best was their main starting lineup, the second best was their starting lineup once it was revealed that Thybulle couldn’t play in Canada and switched him with Green. That is likely the starting lineup in this series. The third best finally featured an indisputable bench player, and it got by by the skin of its teeth.

If the Sixers are going to win, the starters may need to play 40 minutes per game.

Prediction

The Sixers are neither as bad as nor as good as the public says they are. Toronto just poses a very difficult matchup for Philly. Ultimately, the Sixers sported double-digit leads in all 4 regular-season matchups with the Raptors and lost 3 of the 4 games. Two of those losses came after Philly acquired Harden, and without VanVleet or Anunoby playing. They were outscored by 11 points over the 4 games. That tendency for blowing leads to the Raptors, and the Sixers’ profile of wins and losses this season, has done nothing in the way of building equity with me. I don’t trust them, and not having Thybulle for 3 games of the series is a major chip in the armor.

I’m going Raptors in 6.