Amidst the noise of endless Anthony Davis trade rumours, there are the Toronto Raptors, plugging away.
Equally good and disappointing over the last ten games or so, the Raptors are coming off a win over the Clippers at home — always a good feeling this season, given the team from L.A. following Kawhi Leonard around — as they get ready for a three-game road trip.
The trip begins tonight in Philadelphia, amazingly the fourth and final matchup between these two teams this season. The Raptors have a 2-1 series advantage, which isn’t for nothing — considering they’re just three games up in the loss column on their Atlantic Division rivals.
The Sixers have been probably as confounding as the Raptors since the new year. They followed up a resounding national television win over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday with a bit of an egg against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, losing 115-108. It wasn’t without some noise from their big players, though, as Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons combined for 81 of their team’s 108 points.
Injuries have added up for the Sixers. Already without Markelle Fultz, Wilson Chandler is now out for 3-4 weeks with a quad issue. Add that to rest days for J.J. Redick and the Sixers are definitely one of the teams sniffing around the trade market for another role player.
Still, their three big guns are dangerous, despite a supporting cast that’s increasingly reliant on Landry Shamet to do things.
How will the Raptors respond? Let’s look at the key things to watch for, right after the game details.
Where to Watch
TSN, 8 PM ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Philadelphia - Ben Simmons, Landry Shamet, Jimmy Butler, Mike Muscala, Joel Embiid
Toronto - Jonas Valanciunas (questionable - thumb), Malachi Richardson (questionable - knee), Kyle Lowry (questionable - back soreness)
Philadelphia - Wilson Chandler (out - quad), Markelle Fultz (out - thoracic outlet syndrome), Justin Patton (out - foot), Zhaire Smith (out - foot)
The Raptors are 2-0 this season against the Sixers when Jonas Valanciunas has been in the lineup, 0-1 without. Okay, there are more factors at play than just missing the big Lithuanian — but his ability to bang bodies with Embiid has always been beneficial for the Raptors in this matchup.
While Valanciunas is likely to return on this road trip, Tuesday may be one game too soon, as the Toronto Star reports he’s likely to play in the Hawks game on Thursday. Without Jonas, the Raptors are left to deal with a guy who hasn’t scored less than 26 since January 17 in the hands of Serge Ibaka and Greg Monroe.
Balancing Embiid’s minutes with Ibaka then becomes very important. While the Sixers famously don’t run as much pick and roll as they maybe should, Monroe hasn’t been great in any area of team defence for the Raptors. Surviving the 5-6 minutes where Ibaka isn’t guarding Embiid will be critical in this one and Toronto will have to get creative with their schemes for keeping the big man out of the paint.
The folks over at Liberty Ballers have a really interesting piece up this week about Philadelphia’s struggles against strong guard play. In the piece, a glaring stat shows up — the Sixers are ranked 11th in defence but just 24th limiting pick and roll ball handlers and 30th for defending players coming off screens (per Synergy Sports). The article gets more into the reasoning why, but basically it’s that Jimmy Butler is very good, but isn’t getting much help when teams screen him off a great player.
If you’re like me, this has your mind immediately turning to the Lowry-Ibaka pick and roll that’s been deadly, especially when it’s Toronto’s primary source of offence without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup.
And while Kawhi has been incredible since the new year, averaging 29.1 points on 53.1% shooting, having him utilize more screens to get mismatches against Mike Muscala or J.J. Redick, rather than try to attack Jimmy Butler — a great one-on-one defender — wouldn’t be so bad either.
The C.J. Effect
The most welcome sign of Sunday’s game against the Clippers was seeing C.J. Miles tie a season high with 15 points off the bench. It wasn’t just isolated to that game, though — Miles has now scored in double-digits in four of the last six games while shooting 48.1% from three.
While Miles will always give something back on defence, Toronto’s battles against the 76ers have typically been high-scoring affairs over the last two seasons. If this is going to get into another battle of who can out-gun the other, the Raptors have the benefit of more depth and, if C.J. is making his three, they have a guy who can balance the table when the bench is on the floor.