The Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors both went all-in at the trade deadline. The Sixers acquired Tobias Harris and then Raptors responded by trading for Marc Gasol. The moves were made with the intention of reaching The Finals out of what already was a competitive Eastern Conference.
Of the four teams left in the East, these are the two that we know least about, because they've each lacked continuity throughout the season. The Raptors played just 43 regular-season games with both Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard in the lineup, and the pair of All-Stars have played just 19 games total with Gasol. The Sixers, meanwhile, have played just 14 games with all five of their starters.
Both teams stumbled at the start of the first round, losing Game 1 at home. But both proceeded to find their footing and take care of business against the East's lower seeds. Toronto did it by allowing the Orlando Magic to score just 93 points per 100 possessions over the last four games. Philadelphia did it by scoring 119 per 100 against the Brooklyn Nets over the last four.
Neither team will have nearly the same advantages against this opponent as they did in the first round. These lineups are both incredibly talented … and big. There are fun matchups all over the floor and legit reasons to believe that either of these teams can reach The Finals. Alas, one of these two teams isn't going to make it out of the second round.
Three things to watch
1. How do the Raptors defend Embiid?All four regular-season meetings between these two teams took place before the trade deadline, when the Raptors acquired Gasol. But Toronto's new starting center played two games against Embiid before the trade, and Gasol's Grizzlies had some defensive success when the two matched up. In fact, the 8-for-28 (29 percent) that Embiid shot against Memphis was the worst he shot against any opponent that he faced more than once this season. Toronto will likely try to defend Embiid one-on-one so as to stay out of rotation. They'll also play him soft and invite him to shoot from the outside. On the other end of the floor, Gasol will need to make some shots to pull Embiid (and Boban Marjanovic) away from the basket and allow the Raptors' ball-handlers to attack the rim.
2. How do the Sixers defend Leonard? After the Sixers acquired Jimmy Butler, it was Butler who defended Leonard more than Ben Simmons, and the Sixers held Toronto to just a point per possession when Leonard-Butler was the matchup. Toronto will likely target J.J. Redick (via screens from Danny Green) in pick-and-roll, and it will be important for Leonard's primary defender (whether its Butler or Simmons) to get through those screens and in back in front of Leonard, who is probably the best one-on-one scorer outside of Houston. Leonard isn't the most willing playmaker, so Philly can be somewhat aggressive with help.
3. How big of an advantage is Toronto's bench? The Raptors have better reserves than the Sixers, especially if the bruised heel that Mike Scott suffered in Game 5 against Brooklyn is an issue going forward. But the Sixers will always have at least two starters in the game, and they've been starting the second and fourth quarters will all five on the floor, something not seen anywhere else. That could force Toronto head coach Nick Nurse to change his rotation, which usually has (and hasn't played well with) four reserves on the floor at the start of the second and fourth periods. The Raptors outscored the Magic by 72 points over their five-game series, but Toronto was a minus-13 in 25 minutes with Pascal Siakam on the floor without either Lowry or Leonard.
The number to know
62.2, 46.3: In the first round, the Sixers' starting lineup -- Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris and Embiid -- outscored the Nets by 62.2 points per 100 possessions in its 49 minutes together. With those five guys on the floor, the score was Sixers 141, Nets 70, with Brooklyn shooting just 28 percent from the field.
The plus-62.2 is the best mark among lineups that have played at least 25 minutes together in the postseason by a pretty big margin. But the second best mark belongs to the Raptors' starting lineup (Lowry, Green, Leonard, Siakam and Gasol), which outscored the Magic by 46.3 points per 100 possession in its 96 minutes together. Toronto outscored Orlando in every first quarter and won the third quarter by at least eight points in four of the five games.
Going back to the regular season, the Philadelphia starters have outscored their opponents by 27.9 points per 100 possessions in 210 total minutes, while the Toronto starters have outscored their opponents by 24.5 points per 100 possessions in 257 total minutes. Those kind of numbers don't come without strong play on both ends of the floor, but the Toronto group has been slightly better offensively, while the Philly group has been better defensively. These two teams substitute very differently (Philly typically goes to its bench earlier in the first and third quarters), but it will be a battle of super lineups in the first five or six minutes of each half, and something has got to give.
This should be one heck of a series between two teams that really need to win, given how much they've invested in this season by trading for players that will have the opportunity to leave via free agency this summer. Joel Embiid is a matchup advantage for the Sixers and looked more mobile in the last two games against Brooklyn than he did earlier in the series. But with Gasol, along with length and athleticism at the wings and at power forward, the Raptors match up well with Philly. Toronto also has home-court advantage, superior depth, and no concerns about the health of its best player. Raptors in 7.
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