The East was still learning to walk outside the shadow of an all-time great, multiple teams were clamouring for a Finals where the result appeared predetermined, and Toronto and Philadelphia — thanks to the presence of superstars — had as good a chance as anyone.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because 2001 and 2019 might be generations apart for the Raptors and Sixers, but both teams once again find themselves sniffing at the opportunity of a new era in the NBA. When last time it was Vince Carter and Allen Iverson carving out legacies after Michael Jordan’s retirement, this time Philly and Toronto find themselves building stock through numbers, bolstered by LeBron’s exit to Los Angeles.
After reaching their ceiling with DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey, the Raptors swung for Kawhi Leonard, started under a new coach, and added Marc Gasol at the trade deadline. Philadelphia, not content with continuing the process strictly with youngsters Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, added Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to create one of the league’s most star-studded starting lineups.
Along with Milwaukee and Boston, who have also built up their rosters over the last two seasons, we’re getting the East semifinal round everyone salivated over once the dust settled at the deadline.
Gasol vs. Embiid, Simmons vs. Kawhi
Thanks to the necessary dangers of building through trade, both the Raptors and Sixers find themselves with top-heavy rosters — creating an abundance of tasty individual matchups on the floor, many of which we don’t have sample size on.
There are two that stand out, the first quite literally being Joel Embiid and Marc Gasol. On the Raptors side, there’s plenty of reason to feel positive. Gasol is coming off a series where he neutralized an all-star in Nikola Vucevic, who was held to 33.3/14.3 splits according to NBA.com matchup data.
Obviously, Embiid is an MVP contender and a significant level up from Vucevic! We also don’t have an example of these two matching up in their current uniforms, since the last Raptors-Sixers regular season game was on February 3, pre-deadline. If we go back to Marc’s days with Memphis, though, the signs are all positive. Embiid was held to 33.3/20.8 splits in two games against Marc Gasol this season, with the player points differential metric on NBA.com showing a -22.5 impact (this measures a player’s points relative to the team average over 100 possessions — positive number benefits the offence, negative benefits the defence).
If the Orlando series taught us anything about Gasol, it’s that he may not have the athleticism of his Defensive Player of the Year glory days, but his muscle and brain can still really help the Raptors both on-ball and off-ball.
Here’s a couple looks from Gasol on Embiid earlier this year.
Lessons? Embiid is very good and his mid-range jumper can neutralize most one-on-one defences. The key for me is that Gasol forces him to catch the ball off the block — occasionally near the three-point line. There’s an injury to factor in too, as Embiid was largely effective at getting to the rim against Jarrett Allen and the undersized Nets, but knee tendonitis was surely a factor in going 3-for-16 outside mid-range.
The other matchup to watch is Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons, who will likely guard each other for significant stretches. The other matchups on the floor will waterfall from here — my best guesses are Danny Green on Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam on Tobias Harris, and Kyle Lowry chasing J.J. Redick around screens.
Again, the story with Leonard and Simmons is positive for the Raptors. The player points differential for Simmons was -8.4, as he shot splits of 46.7/00.0 (shoot a three!) in possessions where Kawhi was on him.
Leonard doesn’t do much beyond the general strategy with Simmons — sag off, push him towards help — but his physicality allows him to strip the ball. Overall, this should be a very physical one-on-one on both ends, as Simmons presents a bigger body than anyone the Magic could throw at Leonard. While it may not be as demonstrative in the numbers in favour of the Raptors, how this matchup looks on both ends could go far in deciding the series.
Six Through Eight
Obviously, when you consider how good the top five players are for both the Sixers and the Raptors, another relevant part of the conversation is the bench. Here’s where the Raptors have an edge in personnel, albeit with the right strategy.
Philly’s bench has been gutted by trade. Add a foot injury to noted Raptor killer Mike Scott, who will miss at least Game 1, and it gets really thin for Brett Brown.
Brett Brown was asked about if he was game planning as if Mike Scott would be available. He said that he is not.— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) April 25, 2019
As for the Raptors, there’s been no word on the return of OG Anunoby, but a combination of Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and a sparingly used Jodie Meeks — same as the Magic series — should be capable of winning minutes against James Ennis, T.J. McConnell, and Boban Marjanovic. Unlike against the Nets, Boban in particular should have a harder time balancing his offence with suspect defence, as Fred-Serge or Kyle-Serge pick and pop action can drag him away from the hoop and, Toronto hopes, play him off the floor.
In the Magic series, one consistent trend was the Raptors losing minutes at the end of the first quarter, as Nick Nurse tended to go with a unit of four bench players and Pascal Siakam, who played the first 14-15 minutes of Games 2 through 4. The best this group did was play to a stalemate in Game 3 — against Philly, different tactics may be necessary. Brett Brown staggers his starters so there’s rarely a moment without Simmons, Embiid, or Butler on the floor. Going without Lowry or Leonard for extended time could be more challenging for Toronto in this series than it was against Orlando.
Turnovers and the Raptors’ Evolution
I admit that Sean Woodley said it better than I ever could, but the reason many Raptors fans have a renewed confidence in their team is how well they played on the defensive end in the first round. Even in a pace slower than their comfort zone, Toronto was able to force numerous live ball turnovers, with Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol notably at the forefront of active hands.
This is another area where the Sixers present a bigger challenge, as Philly will try to up the pace and move the ball more aggressively than Orlando. Still, with the matchup data we have above and the expected stalemates, there’s still opportunity for the Raptors to win the turnover battle. This measurement should be another key in the series: when Toronto gets live ball turnovers, they can take advantage of two of the best transition weapons in the NBA — Danny Green and Pascal Siakam. Easy buckets also continue the cycle, as the Raptors can get back on defence and start the set again.
In short, turnovers lead to Raptors runs, and push them further away from their regular season habit of isolation and stagnation in the half court. If Toronto can bamboozle Philly in a similar way to Orlando, they’ll be an extremely hard team to beat.
All in all, my confidence is relatively high for this series. Out of the three other juggernauts in the East, there’s no question the Raptors match up best with the Sixers on an individual basis. Factor in the injury troubles, and Philadelphia has a lot to overcome if they’re going to beat a Raptors team that’s talking confidently, playing confidently, and appears poised to break new ground in the 2019 Playoffs.
Prediction: Raptors in 6