As the Toronto Raptors continue to turn doubters into believers early in this 2019-20 season, lofty expectations have put a different vibe on the consensus favourites in the Eastern Conference — the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Sixers, after all, came within four bounces of the Eastern Conference Final last season — shut down by a Kawhi Leonard shot that will age like fine wine for Raptors fans and overall NBA history. They are a team full of super large humans, with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons still presumably with room to get better, and were a superior defensive team before adding shutdown wing Josh Richardson and the venerable Al Horford.
Philadelphia has confounded where the Raptors have surprised, though. Simmons — despite breaking his team’s Internet with a three-pointer last week [slow applause] — has looked much the same as last year, when Toronto rendered him all but useless in the Eastern Conference semifinal, forcing Brett Brown to hide him in the dunker spot while Jimmy Butler ran point guard.
Joel Embiid is surely still a force, but conditioning still lurks as an issue to be dealt with at a later date. Tobias Harris hasn’t been the end-of-game hero Philadelphia needs him to be in the absence of Butler, shooting just 29.4% from three and yielding looks to Furkan Korkmaz in big moments.
The one thing the Sixers don’t have to worry about is defence, which has been the key in recent wins over Cleveland, New York, San Antonio, and Miami.
The Sixers (8th) and Raptors (9th) are both top ten defences — so tonight, we get a matchup of two East powerhouses with distinctly different vibes. Both are on win streaks — for the Raptors, it’s a three-gamer that continues to prove people wrong. They keep racking up victories despite injuries to Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. For the Sixers, it’s a four-gamer that’s giving people a sense of “finally, they’re figuring it out”.
Who will keep it rolling tonight at Scotiabank Arena? Let’s start with the game details.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet, 7:30 PM ET
Toronto — Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Philadelphia — Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Joel Embiid
Toronto — Dewan Hernandez (out - thumb), Serge Ibaka (doubtful - ankle), Stanley Johnson (out - groin), Kyle Lowry (thumb - out), Patrick McCaw (knee - out)
Philadelphia — Furkan Korkmaz (out - ankle)
Gasol and Embiid
There were plenty of reasons for the Raptors to trade for Marc Gasol, even if there were downsides. Sure, Toronto lost some of their depth and youthful longevity in the deal, cashing out for an all-in move. Being able to neuter other bigs in the Eastern Conference ended up being worth it, though, as Gasol proved to be a solid foil for Joel Embiid in last year’s playoffs — one of the major ways Toronto and Philadelphia ended up being a rock fight, with Kawhi Leonard proving himself the difference-maker.
Tonight, that matchup should again be critical for the Raptors, especially with Serge Ibaka again doubtful to play with an ankle injury. Embiid isn’t playing quite at the MVP candidate level he was at last season to start 2019-20, but he has shown an improved ability to pass the ball, averaging three assists per game. Having Gasol be able to play all the minutes opposite Embiid and get him in one-on-one matchups should limit any ability Embiid has to set up his teammates out of double teams.
On offence, Gasol needs to be a factor too. In the games where he played well in last year’s playoff series, the Raptors won comfortably. That’s a storyline that’s carried over to this season, where Gasol’s scoring games have been few and far between. In a matchup that was friendly to him last season, it’d be nice to see 15-20 points from the big man tonight.
The VanVleet Questions
Coming off the bench in the playoffs last year, Fred VanVleet had a tough time establishing his offence against the backcourt size of Philadelphia. That problem hasn’t resolved itself in the months since. The Sixers have only gotten better on defence at the guard positions, as Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson present length and quickness against opposing scorers.
Watching VanVleet tonight, then, becomes a really interesting proposition. Without Lowry and, obviously, Leonard, he’s taken a much bigger scoring role early this season, including in the last game against Atlanta, where he put a burden on himself and won the game with 25 points and nine assists. Can the Raptors put him in positions to be successful against the monstrous Sixers? Has he really gotten that much better in the months since not being able to get a clean look against this team? Tonight is an awesome litmus test for a player who’s been key to the Raptors’ 11-4 start.
Play with a Chip
After early season losses to Boston and Milwaukee, getting a win against Philadelphia would be great for the Raptors’ confidence ahead of getting some key players back from injury. Ibaka should be back soon, and Kyle Lowry is targeting the beginning of next month.
For all the wins the Raptors have racked up, especially against some of the Western Conference’s strongest teams, Toronto hasn’t been as great against the best teams in the East. Now that it’s believable that they’re going to be right there when the season is over, it’d be great to see them get a win against those “Big 3”. The search continues tonight as they take on the Sixers.