While preparing for a Sixers visit to Toronto, the big question is always the same: will Joel Embiid play? The big Cameroonian was selected third in the 2014 draft and in three years has never appeared on a court in Toronto. (To be fair, he didn’t appear on any courts his first two seasons.) It’s worth noting that the one time the Sixers beat the Raptors in the past four plus seasons was with Embiid on the floor.
But now the big man has been tearing it up in 2017, and that means surely the Raptors (and their fans) will have to deal with Embiid on their home court. Ah, but not so fast — the Raptors are fresh off a win on Thursday night against the Sixers, but there was no Embiid. And now, as we tiptoe towards the 5pm start time for the two teams’ next meeting, we remain on edge: will Embiid play or not?
Let’s set that aside for a second. The Sixers still have Ben Simmons, and other rangy players like Robert Covington, JJ Redick, and Dario Saric (who’s done some damage to the Raps in the past). They’re not quite good yet, but they are extremely dangerous if/when they can get rolling. The Raptors found that out the hard way, after falling behind by 22 points in their previous meeting.
But the stage — even after an inspiring comeback Raps win — is set anew. The Raptors welcome the Sixers to Toronto two days before Christmas, we don’t quite know if Embiid will play, and that’s where we are right now.
Here are the rest of the game’s details.
Where to Watch:
TSN2, 5:00 pm
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Philadelphia – Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Amir Johnson, Dario Saric
Toronto – Lucas Nogueira (still questionable), C.J. Miles (but how bad could his teeth be?)
Philadelphia – Joel Embiid (maybe?), Furkan Korkmaz, Markelle Fultz, Justin Anderson
Take Them Seriously
If the Raps-Sixers game on Thursday taught us anything, it’s that Philly’s squad — crumbling as it may be at the moment — is not exactly to be trifled with. The Raptors were coming off a game the night before, but still: a 22-point hole is no joke. It’s also telling that the lead was at its biggest near the start of the third quarter. This wasn’t a case of the Raps running out of gas down the stretch (quite the opposite actually, as they came back to win), it was a clear cut example of underestimating the opponent from the jump.
The players to be most concerned with if you’re the Raptors are as follows, in order: Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Robert Covington. (This is assuming Joel Embiid doesn’t play, then put him at number one and tell Bob Covington to chill.) Simmons, the rookie impresario, has been doing all kinds of fanciful and wonderful things for the Sixers this season; Saric is an underrated two-way force; and Covington is one of those guys who can kill a team if left alone. There’s a lot of size and speed with this group, and while they’re still young — and still prone to turnovers (23 vs. the Raps on Thurs — they’re a load.
The Raptors are also a load though. With Delon Wright back, Toronto almost has its full complement of players (come back Bebe! be well Miles!) and if Thursday is any indication — coach Dwane Casey has the will to use them in any which way he sees fit. Or, should I say: in any way that works.
Only two players got over the 35-minute mark on Thursday night: DeRozan and Lowry (of course), and it’s not hard to see why. The Raps always need Lowry to be good, and DeRozan put on one of his best performances ever with a career-high 45 points (more on that in a second). Serge Ibaka also did what he could in just under 35 minutes. But the rest of the Raps’ on-court time was divvied up between the usual cadre of faces.
In this case, Valanciunas’ size worked against him (especially without Embiid there to matchup against), so Casey went smaller and faster with Pascal Siakam and Serge. Meanwhile, with Lowry off to a slow start, more Wright was what they doctor ordered (especially given the size of Simmons, the Sixers “point guard”). There was and continues to be a place for Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, and Jakob Poeltl too — and presumably for Miles as well, if he’s back — and it’ll be interesting to see who takes off in the rematch. The Sixers have had a day and a half to think it over.
Daring DeRozan to Destroy
But of course, preparing for DeRozan doesn’t always mean you’ll be successful in stopping DeRozan. In years past, yes, it could be done — by pressuring him on the catch, by being aggressive with the double teams, by forcing him to take tougher and tougher shots. But now, hoo boy, we’re watching DeRozan respond to defenses (and his critics) in real time and it is astounding to watch.
On Thursday DeRozan did indeed drop a career-best 45 points, but the amazing part was how he did it: 13-of-21 shooting, including an insane 6-of-9 from deep, and a tenacious 13-of-15 from the free throw line. (Note: DeMar is now shooting a career-best 49 percent from the field.) DeRozan kept forcing the Sixers to figure out how to stop him — just set him up with a screen in the middle of the floor and look out — and Philly couldn’t do it. When you add in the fact that DeRozan is now more of a threat to find a good passing lane than he was before, and that he may actually be comfortable taking 3s now, the Sixers may never have a solution.