The NBA playoff bracket is locked-in and the Sixers first round series with the Raptors tips-off tomorrow night at the Wells Fargo Center. In many ways, anticipation for this postseason run is similar to the past few, although nightmares of last year’s face plant, the subsequent Ben Simmons drama, and resulting James Harden trade certainly adds a unique layer of energy to these playoffs.
Unlike first round matchups in the past, Toronto isn’t the typical fish in a barrel simply trying to avoid a sweep. After finishing the regular season just three games behind the Sixers they’ll be eager to embrace an underdog status, and despite lacking the star-power traditionally required to pull of an upset, they have the sum of pieces (and coaching) to do so anyway.
Toronto’s blueprint for winning is simple: protect the ball (3rd in offensive TOV%), turn the opponent over (1st in defensive TOV%), and dominate the offensive glass (2nd O-REB%). This is a team hell-bent on winning the possession battle, and the reality is the Sixers aren’t efficient enough on either side of the floor (11th in both offensive and defensive rating) relative to Toronto (15th ORTG, 9th DRTG) to overcome a major shot attempt disparity. The Raptors outshot the Sixers by 54 attempts across their four regular season matchups, and it’s no coincidence that they also won the season series 3-1.
The rest of Toronto’s blueprint is predicated on stifling Embiid by whatever means necessary. At the risk of oversimplifying this matchup: if the Sixers manage to merely break even on the possession battle they won’t need Embiid to play at an elite level in this series; but if the Raptors can successfully impose their style and tip the scales on possession then Joel needs to be every bit his MVP-level self to avoid another early playoff upset.
Without further ado, here’s four predictions for the much-anticipated first round matchup:
1. Embiid shines as a playmaker, averaging 6+ assists per game
Ironically enough, the very reason voters favor Jokic over Embiid for MVP, playmaking, is the area where I believe Joel will shine the most against Toronto—or rather, that’s where he’ll need to shine if the Sixers want to avoid an upset in this series.
Embiid had this to say about the matchup:
“The way they defend me has never changed. They just play recklessly, sending 3 guys at me as soon as the ball is in the air. They made me better honestly, over the years, just playing against them and watching them. Definitely made me a better playmaker.”via The Philly Voice
Toronto starts a small-ball lineup with Siakam at the 5 spot, and lacks the requisite body off the bench to bang with Embiid down low. What they do have, however, is a handful of physical, albeit undersized bigs who’ll each take turns throwing their body at the big fella as the primary defender in what should be a steady dose of double teams.
Joel has taken small steps in improving his playmaking over the last few years, and his above comments show that he’s mentally prepared for Toronto to test that progress as well as any potential matchup. I’m banking on his developing appreciation for the finer points of playmaking to pay-off against the “final boss” of defensive tacticians, Nick Nurse.
2. James Harden struggles vs Barnes/Anunoby & switching bigs
James Harden’s brief Sixers tenure has thus far been marked by inconsistency, with the star guard mostly delivering as a facilitator (13.9 assists per 100 possessions) while shooting career-worst clips from the field (32.6% from three and 40.2% overall). A lingering hamstring injury might explain away his scoring struggles in the long-term, but for now this is a real concern that’ll only get worse as the playoffs unfold.
Unfortunately for Harden, there won’t be a reprieve against a Toronto team that boasts two of the most dynamic defenders in the playoffs in OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes, along with a bevy of switchable-bigs who can hold their own corralling him on ball screens. The Raptors might lack size to match Embiid, but they have no shortage of long, versatile, switchable defenders to give Harden absolute fits.
3. Shake Milton will be the x-factor off the bench
Shake has spent the last two seasons trying to recapture the spark of his breakout campaign in 2020—let’s not forget he shot 47% from deep across those final 28 games—and he’s finally showing signs of emerging from that slump, shooting 41.2% from deep and posting an impressive 38 assists to just 4 turnovers across the final 12 games of the year.
The absence of Thybulle on the road in this series puts heightened pressure on the rest of the bench to produce, and while Shake doesn’t substitute for Tisse’s skillset he’s in a prime position to replace his value to the rotation. If he can string together a few performances that prove crucial to a Sixers series victory then he’ll likely keep those minutes for good—an opportunity I believe Milton is poised to take advantage of.
4. Sixers in 6
The Raptors are well-coached, have the ideal blend of youth and experience for the playoffs, and can absolutely pull off the upset if Doc and Embiid are asleep at the wheel. With that said I’m predicting the Sixers to win this series in a scrappy six games. Embiid sounds eager to solve the puzzle of a Nick Nurse defense that has plagued him in the past, and I’m confident that the pieces around him will click into place against a roster that’s ultimately undermanned from a talent perspective.