It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities
The Philadelphia 76ers dispatched the Brooklyn Nets in a gentlemanly 5 games in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Nets were young and inexperienced but had a backcourt that could present the Sixers perimeter defenders with problems off of the dribble and in the pick-and-roll.
Ultimately the Sixers had answers defensively and offensively. Aside from a Game 1 where they shot a horrendous 3/25 from three and missed 13 free throws, the first round may have ended in a sweep.
The Toronto Raptors, however, present a very different challenge in nearly every respect. When asked for his assessment of how different the two teams were, Jimmy Butler broke it down like this:
While factually accurate and chuckle inducing, the Raptors are truly a stark contrast to the Nets both stylistically and experientially.
The Raptors’ starting 5 averages 29yo or mid-prime compared to just 23 years old for the Nets’ starters. To add to that, the Raptors’ core is playoff tested. They’re led by Kawhi Leonard who has already won a championship with San Antonio to go along with his 3 all-star appearances and 2 first team all NBA selections. The two time Defensive Player of the Year is also known as a defensive stopper who especially gives Ben Simmons nightmares.
When asked about Leonard Thursday afternoon, Brett Brown said, “He remains an all-star and one of the great players in the NBA for a reason… he is incredibly gifted on both sides of the ball.”
James Ennis talked about Kawhi Leonard and the challenge he poses. “Kawhi, man, I remember guarding him when I was in Memphis.. that was the first time I was in the playoffs, and he averaged 30 for the series.”
Add to the mix Danny Green, Marc Gasol, and Kyle Lowry, all players over 30 with years of playoff experience, and you have a team that will likely play smart, not panic, and be able to make adjustments based on what the Sixers show them. Serge Ibaka as 6th man is also a veteran of many playoff battle.
Styles Make Fights
But experience is not the only major difference between round 1 and round 2. The Nets were a team that relied on dribble penetration off of the pick-and-roll to get either attempts at the rim or lobs to Jarrett Allen. The Sixers were able to play their centers in mostly drop coverage to protect the rim and give up contested pull-up jumpers.
The Raptors have two bigs, in Gasol and Ibaka, who can be expected to stretch the floor and make a drop coverage much less viable. The play of Boban Marjanovic was a huge factor in the Nets series, mainly because Jarrett Allen, Ed Davis, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were unable to credibly punish the Sixers for dropping back.
“You’re looking at Marc Gasol who is a stretch 5,” said Tobias Harris who then noted that Kawhi and Pascal Siakam had size and length to present a different challenge. Talking about Gasol, Brown called him an “incredible quarterback” and noted his passing ability from the pick-and-roll and high post. Brown continued, “He’s a perfect fit for them, to the point that after the trade, they are the best three point shooting team in the NBA.”
On the defensive side, JJ Redick summed it up best. “They are long, athletic, and at times, they play a swarming style of basketball.”
The Sixers will use a variety of players and looks to try to slow down the Raptors offense. Ben Simmons, who was elite in guarding De’Angelo Russell in round 1, will certainly guard Leonard at times, but as Brett Brown noted, “For sure he (Simmons) will be on him, but I think that we have different candidates that we hope to give Kawhi different looks.”
When it comes to Joel Embiid on Marc Gasol, Brown said, “To think you’re gonna just turn out JJ and dump the ball into Joel Embiid would be naive…. I gotta do a good job of freeing Joel up.”
The X factor for the Sixers may come down to Jimmy Butler as a do-it-all “whatever it takes to win” player. Given the struggles that Ben Simmons has had with turnovers when facing Kawhi Leonard, don’t be surprised if Jimmy Butler runs the offense as the lead ball handler at times.
With Kawhi’s ability to redirect Ben Simmons and force TOs don’t be surprised if Butler runs the offense a lot more this series.— J Blevins (@JBlevinsNBA) April 24, 2019
“I’ll do whatever it takes for my team to win, I know what I’m capable of. If I need to score, I can score. If I need to guard, I can guard…. I just get in where I fit in.” – Jimmy Butler
This series will be as tough as anything this team has faced. The Sixers can beat times in a variety of ways and are a far more difficult team to beat than they were last year. Brett Brown will surely need all of his stars to play at their peak to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
But fear not. Today I presented the Doom and Gloom, but Harrison Grimm wrote yesterday about How the Sixers Can Beat the Raptors
And be sure to listen to the latest Burner Podcast for more discussion on how the Sixers should approach the series.