Now that the Raptors’ every day rotation is healthy and whole, what are we to concern ourselves with down the stretch run of the season?
Well, obviously staying healthy is at the top of everyone’s lists. Despite some moments of slippage where Toronto’s defense has allowed opponents back into games or to build a lead — see Monday in Atlanta for an example — they’ve mostly looked exceptional since welcoming Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol back into the lineup.
Behind the concerns of losing anyone else for extended time, though, you have to start thinking about playoff seeding.
Now, worrying about seeding in January is maybe one of the biggest forms of self-harm an NBA fan can partake in. But we’re Raptors fans, damn it! We can’t help but worry, even when things are going great.
With that in mind, the team I do not want to play in the first round is the Philadelphia 76ers.
Have they looked underwhelming for most of this season? Sure. Memories of last year’s beat-’em-up series are still fresh, though, as a big bad Sixers team would surely be a tough out — not something you want to see in the first round of the playoffs, especially for a team with veterans who have racked up regular season minutes.
The best way to avoid that matchup is to fly higher into the standings. Winners of four straight, the Raptors can do just that if they keep this run going, as they sit just one game back of second place Miami in the Eastern Conference.
To keep it going, they’ll play the Sixers for the third time this season — let’s look at the game details and get into what to watch for.
Where to Watch
TSN, 7 PM ET
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Philadelphia — Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, Al Horford
Toronto — Dewan Hernandez (out - ankle)
Philadelphia — Joel Embiid (out - finger)
With Joel Embiid out of tonight’s game due to a mangled pinkie finger (if you haven’t seen it, don’t Google it), the Raptors’ eyes need to be on Ben Simmons as Philadelphia’s primary weapon. Averaging 21.7 points on 61.9% shooting over his last nine games, Simmons seems to finally be embracing a point guard role. Or, he’s just further proving that the fit with Embiid is dubious at best and that the Sixers will always be better with one or the other, rather than both. Your choice!
Of course, the Raptors nearly neutralized Simmons out of their playoff series last season, with hawking defense from Kawhi Leonard combined with a team strategy that forced him into the dunker spot while Jimmy Butler and Embiid shared primary attacking duties. Both teams have changed since then, but Toronto still has good personnel to handle Simmons — both in body and in smarts.
Expect this to be an important game for OG Anunoby on both counts, then. He lines up nicely with Simmons as a defensive matchup, and maybe a game with extended minutes will allow him to work through some of the offensive struggles we’ve seen lately.
This game features two teams that know how to share the basketball, and have improved in that department over recent weeks. Both the Raptors and Sixers are top five in the league in assist ratio — the number of assists created by a team per 100 possessions — over the last 10 games. For the Raptors, you can source some of this improvement to the return of Marc Gasol and his deft touch at passing and encouraging movement — though Toronto has long been a squad that shares to create the right shot when they’re playing well.
For Philadelphia, it goes back to Simmons taking the reins a bit, as less possessions are ending in Embiid post-ups or face-ups. It should make for an aesthetically pleasing game at the least, and one where a Raptors defense that can be on a string at its best will need as many minutes of maximum effort as possible.
The Raptors are coming off a Monday afternoon game where their bench saved them from a whole ton of early start apathy. If that created momentum for guys like Norman Powell (who we know is red hot), Terence Davis, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, it’ll be interesting to see how their bench minutes match up with the Sixers.
While Philadelphia still has the Raptor killer in Mike Scott, their depth has been a bit of a weakness beyond the seventh man in their rotation — a problem that dates back to when these two teams met in the playoffs.
That critical stretch were Nick Nurse inevitably goes with a full bench lineup will be telling in this game. Can that group’s hustle match up against one of the best defenses in the league? It’ll be fun to see that play out.