2022 Playoffs: East First Round | 76ers (4) vs. Raptors (5)

Series preview: Sixers, Raptors seem primed for a lengthy series

Joel Embiid and James Harden look to carry Philadelphia to the semifinals, but a young and overlooked Toronto squad could prove a tough out.

Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid will be the focal points in a series that could easily go the distance.

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A few months ago, when the Philadelphia 76ers were without a trade partner for the absent Ben Simmons, there was a worry that they were “wasting” a great year from MVP candidate Joel Embiid. But the Sixers didn’t just find a taker for Simmons, they landed a former MVP in the deal. Now, James Harden can help Embiid make the most of this season, while Embiid can help Harden make up for postseason shortcomings of the past. 

With Harden and Embiid on the floor in the regular season, the Sixers outscored their opponents by 15.9 points per 100 possessions, the fifth best mark among 719 two-man combinations that played at least 500 minutes. But Philly had bench issues and Harden had some rough performances as the Sixers went 7-6 with him in uniform against teams that reached the playoffs or the Play-In. That included 8-for-24 shooting in two losses to their first-round opponent. 

Toronto is feeling good about its chances winning the season series 3-1, but can it stop Kia MVP candidate Joel Embiid?

The Toronto Raptors have recovered from a rough season in Tampa and a 14-17 start to this season to go 34-17 since Dec. 31 and earn the 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. That included a 7-2 mark against the top four teams in the East, including those two wins over the Sixers. Toronto has a terrific ensemble cast, led by the two guys — Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam — remaining from their championship rotation. The Raptors play aggressively on both ends of the floor, and they have what it takes to make things difficult for the Sixers.  

Three things to watch 

1. Will the Raptors play small? On average, the Raptors aren’t small. Seven of their nine rotation players are 6-foot-7 or taller, and Nick Nurse hasn’t been afraid to employ lineups that don’t include either of the two true guards (VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr.). But none of those seven guys are taller than 6-foot-9 or within 45 pounds of the 7-foot, 280-pound Embiid. And when the Raps have been fully healthy, they’ve started Siakam at the five. They were never fully healthy against the Sixers, with VanVleet and OG Anunoby each missing three of the four meetings, and Siakam and Scottie Barnes each missing one. But they did have some success (outscoring the Sixers by 11 points) in about 28 minutes with Siakam or Chris Boucher as their biggest guy on the floor.

2. Matchups don’t mean as much with the Raptors. Barnes is the Raptor who defended Harden the most in the regular season and will likely get the assignment in Game 1. And whether or not the Raptors start someone bigger than Siakam at center, the Sixers’ offense will be less about individual matchups and more about how Philly deals with a Toronto defense that will swarm the ball whenever Harden or Embiid get near the paint and force the Sixers to move the ball. In their four regular season meetings, the Sixers recorded assists on 70% of their field goals, their highest rate vs. any Eastern Conference opponent. But they also committed 17 turnovers in their most recent loss in Toronto.

3. The Sixers’ bench could determine the series. In each of their two post-All-Star losses to the Raptors, Joel Embiid recorded a positive plus-minus, with the Sixers outscoring Toronto by 15 points in his 75 total minutes. But Philly was outscored 61-36 in Embiid’s 21 minutes on the bench. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because the Sixers were outscored by 109 points in 99 minutes with Embiid off the floor in their 2019 conference semifinals series against the Raptors. Both teams have changed a lot since then, but Philly (having traded Andre Drummond in the Harden deal) still has the same issue, with no clear option at back-up center. The Sixers will have even less depth in the games in Toronto, with the not-fully-vaccinated Matisse Thybulle unable to enter Canada.

Number to know

7.0 — The Raptors were the only team that ranked in the top five in both turnover rate and opponent turnover rate, finishing third in the former (12.8 per 100 possessions) and first in the latter (16.2 per 100). With that, they had the league’s best turnover differential by a healthy margin, committing 3.4 fewer per game than their opponents. The Raptors also had the league’s second biggest offensive-rebound differential, grabbing 3.0 per game more than their opponents.

With those two advantages, the Raptors averaged 7.0 more shooting opportunities (field goal attempts or trips to the line) per game. That was the biggest differential for any team in the last 23 seasons, and that’s how they were able to win 48 games with a discrepancy in regard to the most important thing in basketball: Shooting. The Raptors ranked in the bottom five in effective field goal percentage and in the middle of the pack in opponent effective field goal percentage.

The Sixers had a higher effective field goal percentage than the Raptors in all four of their head-to-head meetings this season. But Toronto won three of the four games, averaging 10 more shooting opportunities per contest. The Raptors committed five fewer turnovers (42-47) and grabbing 29 more offensive rebounds (57-28) than the Sixers over the four games.

The pick 

It would not be a surprise if Raptors pull off the upset. They’ve been terrific over the last few months, and they’ve had head-to-head success against Philly. But if the Sixers can take care of the ball (they’ve been one of the league’s most improved teams in that regard this season) and keep Toronto off the offensive glass to a certain degree, the Raptors will have a tough time scoring. Nurse will certainly give the Sixers some different looks defensively, but no matter what defense the Raptors are in, they’ll have a tough time keeping Harden and Embiid off the free throw line. Doc Rivers should be able to extend Embiid’s minutes, and Toronto doesn’t have a real answer for the big man. Sixers in 7. 

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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