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The Top 16: Ranking the key players in the Raptors vs. Sixers series

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With their Eastern Conference Semi-Finals series set to begin tomorrow, we teamed up with Liberty Ballers to rank all of the players we’ll be watching over the next few games.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just a day away from tip-off for Game 1 of Raptors vs. Sixers in the second round of the NBA Playoffs. For Toronto, this series represents a chance for the team to really assert itself against some high-level competition. For Philadelphia, it’s their time to prove the process wasn’t a fluke and that they really are ready to go all the way.

Over the next four to seven games, approximately 16 players will be the difference between a series win for one city or the other. Obviously we’re rooting for the Raptors to pull it out, and are already favouring them in this series, but Sixers fans can make the case going the other way. In that spirit we’ve decided to rank those 16 players as to their importance and ability for both teams — but with a twist.

Below you’ll find the justifications for the eight Sixers players on the list, as written by Liberty BallersKevin F. Love. Meanwhile, over at SB Nation’s Sixers site, you’ll find my write-ups for the eight Raptors players in the rankings. And since we couldn’t quite decide between Kawhi and Embiid at number one, we made the case for both.

You’ll see — now read on!

The Optimism Tier

16. James Ennis

While James Ennis comes in last in this ranking, he’s been somewhat of a breath of fresh air. The fear for many Sixers fans at the start of the 2018-2019 season was that the team would employ playoff bench players who lacked versatility on offense and were no more effective than a plastic bag blowing in the wind on defense. Ennis is not exactly a Swiss Army knife offensively, but he’ll take open threes unlike some other bench options (looking at you T.J. McConnell) and he’s been crashing the boards like a madman — though I do wonder how effective that can be against a team that runs like the Raptors.

Ennis’ size has given the Sixers a switchable wing, which fits into their defensive scheme. That alone has allowed him to play upwards of 20 minutes a game in the last three. I’d imagine in an ideal world, the Sixers would scale back Ennis minutes with each playoff round, but that may not be possible with Mike Scott’s injury.

15. Boban Marjanovic

Boban Marjanovic was a perfectly adequate backup to Joel Embiid in the opening series. Against the Nets, he was who he always is: a moderate minutes eater who is highly efficient over short periods of time. He’s been a relief for a Sixers team that often loses its identity when Embiid leaves the court.

So how does he end up so low on this ranking? Well, it’s hard to see how he fits into this series. Boban moves like someone tied cinder blocks to his legs and dropped him in quicksand, and a very savvy, quick-thinking Raptors offense very well may eat him alive. It also doesn’t help that the Raptors have two bigs in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka that are able to stretch the floor — Boban is most comfortable close to the rim. Toronto just seems like a really bad match-up for the lovable giant.

14. Norman Powell

Read it here.

13. Mike Scott

Mike Scott is currently day-to-day with a bruised heel and whether he’ll make it back to 100% health is up in the air — that’s a big problem for Philly. I know what you’re thinking: “If your team heavily relies on Mike Scott, maybe you have bigger problems to worry about.” But Mike Scott hasn’t merely been some journeyman throw-in from the Tobias Harris trade. His presence has been... what’s less than solidifying but still a positive descriptor? Stabilizing? Yeah, Mike Scott has been a stabilizing contributor to a bench that is in critical condition.

Scott is a fiery competitor who has been welcomed with open arms by Philly fans. He gives this Sixers squad a mean streak. His versatility allows the Sixers to go small when necessary. And though his three-point shooting efficiency has been down, he’s more than happy to let it fly from deep. He gives Philly a solid complement to Ben Simmons because when Ben’s initiating, he’s at his best with willing shooters around him. The Sixers need Mike Scott in this series.

The Necessary Tier

12. Fred VanVleet

Read it here.

11. J.J. Redick

When the Sixers’ offense is operating at peak potency, it often means JJ Redick is hitting shots. The problem though is that when he’s not hitting shots, it can feel like the opponent is on a powerplay. In all likelihood, Redick will be targeted relentlessly by the Raptors and the most effective way he can make up for being skewered on defense is by letting it rain from distance with high efficiency. I must say though that Redick showed positive flashes of non-three-point effectiveness versus the Brooklyn Nets. JJ is like a marathon runner, continuously weaving in and out of screens and with purpose. Whoever guards Redick could get a little gassed even if he’s not nailing jump shots. And for all of JJ’s defensive shortcomings, he did a solid job on Joe Harris at times in the first round.

Redick’s impact can often be tied to Joel’s impact, as the duo has established tremendous chemistry in their two-man game. Redick will need to be excellent offensively like he was during the 2nd half of Game 3 vs. the Nets in order to be a positive for the Sixers in this series. Anything less could equal disaster for Philly.

10. Serge Ibaka

Read it here.

The Heavy Lifting Tier

9. Tobias Harris

For some readers, this might feel a little low for Harris. And it absolutely could be.

For Game 1 of the Sixers’ opening-round series, Harris looked lost in the Sixers offense. In 40 minutes of play — forty! — he took just seven shots and totalled four points. But as the series progressed, Harris’ scoring touch resurfaced in a big way. He went on to average 21.0 points a game for the remainder of the series, shooting 55.6% from distance (and flirting with double-doubles averaging 9.3 boards). What changed? Harris began taking more threes and Brett Brown allowed Harris to orchestrate many more pick-and-rolls, a play in which Harris is highly effective as the ball-handler. In the regular season with Philly, Harris ran just over three pick-and-rolls a game. Against Brooklyn, he averaged over six. It’s added an extra layer to the Sixers that allows them to get buckets whenever the offense stagnates.

I’m very interested to see how Brett Brown deploys Harris defensively. The best I can describe Tobias on defense is “meh”. He doesn’t rack up steals or blocks and he’s not explosive laterally, but he’s athletic and has a big body. Toronto should give him some matchup problems -- I’m assuming he’ll guard Pascal Siakam with sprinklings of Kyle Lowry, and neither of those is a comfy assignment for Tobias. Depending on if Harris responds positively on defense, he could climb this ranking so long as his offensive contributions are similar to vs. BKN Games 2-5 Tobias. Part of that will also depend on Brett Brown, who should not revert to the low dosage of Tobi PnRs.

8. Danny Green

Read it here.

7. Marc Gasol

Read it here.

6. Ben Simmons

I don’t think it would be a surprise to anyone to hear that the spotlight is on Ben in this series. After putting out what felt like an effortless performance in Game 1 vs. Brooklyn, he played some of the best professional basketball we’ve ever seen out of him, specifically on the defensive end. D’Angelo Russell still has nightmares. Ben’s All-NBA potential was blooming. But can he bring that same impact versus Toronto, who has given Ben his own nightmares? To put it bluntly: Kawhi Leonard has been Ben’s kryptonite, forcing turnovers left and right out of Simmons.

Simmons and the Sixers may have a counter though. Against Brooklyn, Jimmy Butler took the ball out of Ben’s hands with Jimmy often running the point, and Ben was truly impressive off the ball. He screened like a brick wall, he cut with purpose, he directed teammates — it was everything Philadelphia has been waiting for. This off-ball purposefulness that Simmons has developed will be absolutely key to this series — Simmons cannot simply meander around the lane and suffocate the Sixers spacing.

Ben’s defense will also be of the utmost importance. If he’s engaged, he can make life very difficult for Kyle Lowry. He may also be called upon to slow the massively improved (and Liberty Ballers basketball crush) Pascal Siakam (who Bryan Colangelo passed on not once but twice — we’ll never be over it). Like Tobias, Simmons can climb this ranking quickly depending on which version we get.

5. Kyle Lowry

Read it here.

4. Pascal Siakam

Read it here.

3. Jimmy Butler

For most of the regular season, Philadelphia fans wondered if Jimmy Butler was saving himself for the playoffs or if Tom Thibodeau’s overuse of Jimmy caught up to him. Cassidy Hubbarth of ESPN even asked Jimmy if he had a playoff switch he was waiting to flick, to which Butler confirmed that he did. And that has proven to be true thus far.

Butler can light up the box score, but he doesn’t have to. He’s taken on many important roles for the Sixers — sometimes they don’t require him to score with volume, sometimes they do. One night, he’s got to carry the scoring load and close out the 4th quarter with nine field goals in four minutes. Other nights, he’s alleviating Ben Simmons of initiating duties and making smart decisions that keep the offense humming. Despite his national reputation, Butler has been an incredible teammate who has put the team before himself. He’s not quite the same lockdown defender he once was, but he’s intelligent and intense and damn effective. He’ll be up for whichever assignment he draws.

The Game Changing Tier

1. The Case for Embiid

Our King, Joel “Hulu has live sports” Embiid. The engine of the team.

It has been well documented that Embiid is not 100% healthy; nonetheless, he’s continued to put together superhuman efforts. The missed time appeared to hamper Embiid’s conditioning in Game 1, but once he got his legs back under him, he dominated a helpless Jarrett Allen to the tune of 25.7 points with a true shooting percentage of 64.7% adding on 13.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game over Games 2, 4 and 5. Oh by the way, in just 24.3 minutes per game. Joel Embiid is back.

While Marc Gasol has a history of slowing Embiid down offensively, it’s been over a very small sample and I still expect Jo to rise to the occasion and get his. Does that mean a career high in playoff points per game? No, not at all. Embiid needs to draw fouls and be smart with his decision making, the rest will come organically. In fact, the Sixers should not rely too heavily on Embiid to produce points (although they will be hard to come by with as stingy as the Raptors are). I say so because Embiid cannot exhaust himself on offense — he’s just too important to the team’s defensive identity.

Embiid’s defensive abilities are nothing short of mindblowing. He frustrates bigs, he switches onto guards and smothers them (you cannot get a mismatch on Jo). He covers ground like a lion in pursuit of gazelle. He protects the rim like the fate of humanity depends on it. Ultimately, he single-handedly has the ability to elevate the Sixers’ defense to an elite unit. Marc Gasol will likely try to draw Embiid out of the post. It will be challenging, but Joel has the awareness to recover and send help at the rim.

Joel has to be at his Defensive Player of the Year candidate level on that end. If he is, his importance will be entirely evident to all who bear witness. I’m telling you, it’s special to watch. While there are other Sixers whose upside vs. downside could swing the series, it is Joel Embiid who is capable of being the best player on the court. He gives the Sixers a real chance.

1. The Case for Kawhi Leonard

Reynolds here, back at the controls. Please remember: Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor, and you can read my case for him as the number one player in this series here.