Photo credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
One of the common talking points among Toronto Raptors fans as the season wound down was that — if they got into the playoffs — they would be able to upset a top seed or at least make it a very tough time for said top seed.
Well, there’s no higher seed than the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference: the Philadelphia 76ers.
For those who haven’t kept up with the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the Sixers disposed of the Washington Wizards in five games and it would have likely been a sweep had star big man Joel Embiid not suffered a knee injury in Game Four.
No one should have expected the Wizards to do any more than steal a game from the Sixers, but the question needs to be asked: how would the Raptors have fared if given the same opportunity?
“But Bradshaw, what if the Raptors got up to the 7th seed?” Although that would have been unlikely, reader, if that scenario would have happened, you can read my breakdown ahead of their first meeting with the Brooklyn Nets where I looked at how they could defend the Big Three.
Disclaimer: I am not the biggest fan of these hypotheticals. The Raptors chose to sit their guys out at the end of the regular season, not go for the play-in and the chance to be the 7th or 8th seed. This is more so going to be a look at how the Raptors played against the Sixers when they were at somewhat full health and still trying to win.
Season series overview
The Raptors played three games against their division-rival Sixers and went 1-2 in those games.
The first meeting was the Raptors’ third game of the season and a 100-93 loss in Philly. Both teams had all of their important players healthy, but naturally there were some differences between then and now. Aron Baynes started and played a little over 22 minutes and Alex Len (now on the eighth seeded Wizards) played around 21 minutes.
Their second and third meetings were a two-game miniseries at the end of February which, obviously, the teams split. The Raptors won the first game 110-103 and the Sixers won the second 109-102. Kyle Lowry missed both games with a thumb injury and Seth Curry missed the second game with an ankle injury.
All three games were relatively low scoring, as one would expect between two of the best defensive teams in the East, and each game was decided by single digits.
Let’s dive a little deeper into those games to see what we can take away from how the Raptors defended the Sixers and attacked them offensively.
Slowing down the big fella
Any analysis of defending the Sixers starts with MVP finalist Joel Embiid. He averaged 33 points, 12.2 rebounds and over 12 free throw attempts per 36 minutes. He was flat-out phenomenal.
But those three games against the Raptors? Embiid had a very tough time getting going.
Embiid shot 16 of 50 (32 percent) from the field, by far his lowest total against any team this season. His 52.6 percent true shooting percentage was his third worst this season, the two lower came against teams he only played a single game against.
The Raptors are notoriously difficult for Embiid and he acknowledged as much on ESPN’s Zach Lowe’s podcast.
“Toronto is the only team that really just doesn’t allow me to [have the ball in my hands], every single time we play them as soon as the ball is in the air they have 3 guys in me and won’t leave me alone.”Joel Embiid on The Lowe Post
Not that I’d doubt Embiid in this instance, but watching the film and, uh, he’s not wrong!
As soon as Tobias Harris makes the pass, Pascal Siakam shows a very hard double on Embiid. Once the big man is on the ground, it’s over.
This shows great awareness from Norman Powell. He sees that Embiid catches the ball with his back turned and knows he’s in a vulnerable position for a potential steal. It’s an aggressive move that could have ended with Embiid finding the open corner shooter and making it a 16-point lead but it paid off.
Embiid cut his turnover rate from 14.1 percent last season to 12.5 percent this year, but the Raptors forced 13 turnovers from the 27-year-old. That was the most any team forced from Embiid this season.
Forcing those turnovers and not letting Embiid get the ball in the high post also means he starts to look for his shot elsewhere. Embiid shot nearly 38 percent from behind the arc this season, easily the highest mark of his career, but it’s still the area you’re most comfortable letting him take shots from.
In their first meeting, Embiid shot 1/6 from three-point range and the Raptors were more than happy to give him those looks. Overall, he shot only 30 percent from three against the Raptors, one of his lowest marks against teams he played multiple times.
Even when they weren’t sending aggressive double teams, the Raptors were very active with their hands and swiped at the ball any time Embiid put it on the deck and tried to score. Their aggressiveness, doubling and swiping led to some very uncomfortable looking attempts.
You’re more than ok letting Embiid take those contested shots. He sees the double coming and instead of trying to find a cutting Tobias Harris, he forces up a tough jumper.
Just to reinforce how good Toronto was at slowing down Embiid, he shot around 47 percent on all mid range jumpers, the best mark of his career, per Cleaning the Glass. Against the Raptors, he shot just 20 percent on similar frequency to his overall season numbers.
Obviously they didn’t fully stop Embiid, who shot 70 percent around the rim against the Raptors and got to the free throw line 42 times in three games (14 attempts per game).
That’s how Nick Nurse defended the Sixers (and most teams) though, try to slow down the star player and make everyone else beat you. Embiid still managed to have games of 29 points and 16 rebounds with four assists, two steals, and two blocks (first game) as well as 25 points, 17 rebounds with two assists and two blocks (second game).
As for the other two cogs in the Sixers offensive machine, Harris averaged 20.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and five assists on 59.5 percent true shooting while Ben Simmons posted 18.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game in the three matchups.
I’m not saying it would be an impossible task for the Raptors — and they certainly would have the personnel and scheme to slow down Embiid more than the Wizards did — but the Sixers offence is more diverse than in years past.
They still rely heavily on Embiid (plus-10.5 points per 100 possessions better on offence when he’s on the floor), but Harris had a legit All-Star caliber season and Ben Simmons is one of the best playmakers while also being incredibly hard to slow down when he decides to attack.
Trying to score
This is actually the part I’m less confident in for the Raptors.
They have a clear path to defend the Sixers, they’ve had success doing so, and they can muck the game up at that end of the floor.
Offensively though, I think things would be very difficult.
Everyone and their mother should know the Raptors half court offence is not great and they don’t really have an on-ball creator to get their own shot. OG Anunoby was starting to get to that level, but we’ll get to him in a second.
The Sixers meanwhile, were the second best half court defence in the NBA, holding teams to 92.2 points per play.
Pascal Siakam in particular had a tough time cracking the Sixers defence. When guarded by Embiid or Simmons, Siakam shot 34.2 percent (12/35). Although Fred VanVleet managed to shoot just over 39 percent from three against Philly, he also shot 27.7 percent from two (5/18).
Granted some of those misses from Siakam came from threes that the Sixers were more than willing to let him take, but there were also moments like this.
With the Raptors half court offence being what it is, Siakam is left with the burden of trying to create offence from nothing at times. As much as I love Siakam’s overall game, that isn’t who he is and going against a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Simmons or a rim protector like Joel Embiid just makes things even more difficult.
Now, as has been written on this website on numerous occasions, Anunoby was developing into one of those wings that is able to create for himself as the season went on. He didn’t have as big of a role offensively in those meetings as he got to show later in the year.
He would present an interesting challenge for the Sixers, who would already have their hands full with Siakam, VanVleet, and Lowry.
I don’t want to take too much away from Anunoby, but I don’t know if I’d trust that part of his game against the likes of Simmons, Embiid, and Matisse Thybulle. He would have some good flashes against Harris or Danny Green, but I don’t think it’s an aspect that would swing the series or drastically change the Raptors’ fortunes offensively.
Fake series prediction
If the main goal of this was to see if the Raptors could have been more competitive or present a bigger challenge than the Wizards, I would say that is an easy yes.
Toronto has personnel more equipped to defend the Sixers’ star players than Washington and it isn’t particularly close. They’ve shown that they give the Sixers a very hard time and when healthy, it’s a very difficult matchup for Philly.
However, if the question is “can the Toronto Raptors upset the Philadelphia 76ers?”
That has to be a no from me, dawg.
The Sixers present a lot of challenges and even if you slow down the main one (Embiid), he’s still capable of putting up a 25-plus point double-double and wrecking you defensively as well. This is without mentioning that once you get past the Raptors top seven or eight players, it would be a very bad time for any member of the bench that was out there for an extended stretch.
It would be a highly entertaining series and they might even make the Sixers sweat it out, but they were the best team in the East for a reason.
Prediction: Philadelphia in six(ers).