The 4-5 series in the Eastern Conference between the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors has the potential to be one of the best of the postseason. In one corner, Philly enters with arguably the two-best players in the series with Joel Embiid and James Harden, but as we’ve seen on numerous occasions over the years, Toronto has the incredible ability to do whatever it takes — no matter how unconventional — to win games and advance in the postseason.
These two teams have squared off on the biggest stage before, with the Raptors famously beating the Sixers in seven games en route to an NBA championship in 2019. But with both teams undergoing radical transformations since then, here are three things that could decide which squad ends up moving on.
Can the Raptors slow down Joel Embiid at all?
The way the Raptors have built their team is legitimately quite fun. The team has 11 players between 6’7 and 6’9, and have eschewed having a more traditional big man. This has led to them being one of the most chaotic and flexible defenses in all of basketball — their defense is first in the league in turnover percentage, while they are ninth in defensive efficiency.
There are scant few teams in the league that have any sort of answer to this weird, funky, hilarious, and captivating defense that Nick Nurse has built. Unfortunately for them, Philadelphia has one of those guys in Joel Embiid. It is hard to guard Embiid under most circumstances, but that’s exacerbated when a team lacks a dude who can really battle with him physically, especially now that he’s able to respond to efforts to double and triple-team him by finding open teammates on the perimeter.
It’s possible that Toronto’s best plan is to accept that Embiid is going to torment them and hoping they can limit the damage he can cause until Paul Reed or, far more likely, DeAndre Jordan comes in, as the Sixers’ backup center position has once again been thrown into disarray due to their parting of ways with Andre Drummond in the James Harden trade. Or maybe Nurse, in his never-ending quest to try literally every single thing that has ever been done on a basketball court, can find one or two things that slow Embiid down — look for Toronto’s stellar transition offense to do whatever they can to turn games into track meets with the hopes of making the big fella winded and getting more backup 5 minutes than anyone anticipated.
Which James Harden shows up?
James Harden is really, really good. The issue is the Sixers don’t need him to be really, really good — they need him to be one of the best basketball players on earth. His 21 points per game on 40.2 percent shooting while connecting on 32.6 percent of his threes since coming to the City of Brotherly Love is simply not good enough, and his sudden inability to score at the rim raises serious questions about the health of his hamstring.
It stands to reason that some of the pessimism among basketball pundits heading into this series stems from the fact that Toronto’s army of stingy, switchy defenders is going to make Harden work for every single thing he’s going to try and get. When he gets into the lane, there is a chance he is going to be met by Scottie Barnes, whose aptitude as a free safety-like defender is rare for rookies.
Of course, while his reputation in the playoffs is not exactly sterling, Harden’s coming into the postseason with a week of rest and the kind of running mate in Embiid who can take a whole lot of pressure off of him, while Tyrese Maxey’s ability to make stuff happen with the ball in his hands means Harden won’t need to attack over and over. Perhaps that’s not a good thing, and Harden needs the ball as much as possible to find his rhythm, but if the Sixers get the guy they traded for earlier this year instead of the guy they’ve gotten so far, they’ll find themselves in a really good spot.
Can the Raptors carve up the Sixers’ perimeter defense?
Toronto’s half-court offense hasn’t always been stellar this year — Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are a dangerous 1-2 punch, but the Raptors have been at their best when they can get out and run. To be clear, Philly’s transition defense is not particularly good, and it’s possible that Toronto’s plan is to get out and run as much as possible, but it’s equally possible that the Sixers respond to this by having Embiid and Harden embrace the art of the grift and take up permanent residency at the free throw line, mucking things up in such a way that no one has any fun watching them as they win games at the charity stripe.
If that happens, though, Toronto can take some solace in knowing there are ways to attack Philadelphia’s perimeter defense. The team’s best perimeter defender, Matisse Thybulle, can only play home games due to his vaccine status. With him out, the Sixers will have some combination of Maxey, Harden, Danny Green, Shake Milton, and Furkan Korkmaz as its guards and wings. That’s not exactly the Bad Boys Pistons on that end of the floor, and while Embiid can cover up a whole lot of issues if they’re able to attack the rim, that is putting a whole heck of a lot on him. And if VanVleet or Siakam can penetrate and force the Sixer defense to scramble, they’re adept passers who can find open men on the perimeter.
Getting out in transition is going to be Toronto’s bread and butter — as it should be, both because they are quite good at it and because that might be their best way to wear Embiid down. But whether it’s someone attacking or the team zipping the ball around to guys like VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., or OG Anunoby on the perimeter, they have the pieces to attack the Sixers in the half-court.