Game 1 Team Totals: Raptors 114.3, 76ers 108.8
Season Series: 3-1 Raptors
Net Ratings in Regular Season: Raptors 3rd (+5.8), 76ers 11th (+2.6)
It’s been a long time since the semi-finals of the Eastern Conference were this stacked. Just like the Celtics vs. Bucks series (check that out here!), the matchup between the Raptors and 76ers is loaded with star power and has the potential to go seven games. There’s not much history between these two teams in recent years and they haven’t met in the playoffs since the days of Allen Iverson and Vince Carter going toe-to-toe, but this has the look and feel of a classic matchup after both teams went all in at the trade deadline — the 76ers mortgaged their future picks/assets to bring in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris who are both expected to demand top dollar this summer, while the Raptors acquired Marc Gasol who could really handcuff them in 2019-20 in terms of cap flexibility with a $25M player option.
Toronto obviously has much more at stake though, as a failure to reach the Eastern Conference Finals would all but guarantee that Kawhi Leonard moves on to one of the Los Angeles teams this summer. No pressure, right?
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at how these teams fared against each other in the regular season:
Oct. 30: Raptors 129, 76ers 112
Dec. 5: Raptors 113, 76ers 102
Dec. 22: 76ers 126, Raptors 101
Feb. 5: Raptors 119, 76ers 107
Unfortunately, we can’t scrutinize those games too much when you consider that the Raptors and 76ers didn’t meet after the trade deadline and because Kawhi Leonard sat in one. But since Toronto is favored and won the season series 3-1, it’s only fair to start with them.
You can make an argument for Joel Embiid, but Kawhi Leonard is perceived as the best player in this series and that’s what my belief is too. After going through the regular season on cruise control with countless “load management” DNPs, Leonard is healthy and rested and looked the part in Round 1 vs. the Magic when he dropped 27.8 points on 55.6% from the field and 53.8% from the 3-point line. That also includes two games at less than 100 percent when he battled through an illness. Incredibly, Kawhi is 13-0 against the 76ers for his career (h/t John Schuhmann of NBA.com), but the 76ers do have plenty of options to make life difficult.
While it’s likely we see Ben Simmons shift onto Leonard quite a bit, it would make more sense for Jimmy Butler to get the first shot at guarding him. Butler had some success doing just that in the regular season, as the 76ers held the Raptors to one point per possession when Butler was lined up against Kawhi. Regardless of who the 76ers throw on him, Kawhi has the best winning percentage (75.4%) of all-time among other NBA greats (h/t Bryan Kalbrosky of HoopsHype) and is going to get his no matter what.
While most of the attention will be on Kawhi in this series, Pascal Siakam was nearly just as impressive in Round 1. When you look at his month-to-month progression this season, it’s terrifying how fast he has improved and there’s a strong case to be made that he’s the NBA’s newest superstar. For a player that has only been playing basketball for seven years, that’s just absurd. He put up 22.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.6 triples in the first round, hitting 53.3% from the field and got whatever he wanted in the paint with his trademark spin move. It’s not a knock on Kyle Lowry to call Siakam Toronto’s second best player, and coach Nick Nurse is certainly treating him that way and considers him the second option for Toronto’s offense — that explains his 24.1 usage rate in the first round. The 25-year-old is a safe bet to go off in this series with so much of Philly’s attention centered on slowing down Kawhi.
As for Lowry, he caught some heat in the first round and his zero-point dud in Game 1 vs. the Magic stands out like a sore thumb, but Lowry’s impact goes far beyond scoring. He’s crucial to the offense for his playmaking with 8.6 dimes per game vs. Orlando, and he brings it on defense too. The advanced stats certainly show just how important he is to the Raptors, as his +30.1(!) net rating led the team in the first round despite scoring just 11.4 points per game. The emergence of Siakam and the depth of Toronto kept Lowry’s usage rate below 18% in the first round, so while his fantasy value has taken a hit, his real life value is still there. He’ll likely see a combination of Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler on defense, or whoever fares the worst against Kawhi.
I took a shot at Marc Gasol at the opening of this article, but it’s more about what he’s owed for 2019-20 and his age rather then his current production. Gasol turned Nikola Vucevic into Kosta Koufos in the first round, shutting him down and limiting him to just 11.2 points on 36.2% from the field. That’s just sick defense on a player who put up 20.8 points on 51.8% shooting during the regular season.
Gasol hasn’t faced Embiid in a Raptors uniform yet, but he gave The Process all he could handle when he was with the Grizzlies. Per 36 minutes, Embiid averaged just 9.9 points, 14.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.6 blocks and 4.1 turnovers with just a 21.0 usage rate when matched up with Gasol (h/t Mike Gallagher of Rotoworld). If you thought Al Horford had Embiid’s number, Gasol has his Paypal info, street address and has a permanent residence inside his head. Just don’t expect much from Gasol on the offensive end, as he had a microscopic 11.5 usage rate vs. Orlando and averaged just 8.4 points.
Danny Green rounds out the starting five for Toronto, an invaluable part of the team for his ability to space the floor (2.0 triples per game in first round) and to switch onto positions 1-4 on defense. As for the bench, we’ll likely see an 8-man rotation for the most part while OG Anunoby remains sidelined. That means Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell will round out the rotation, with Patrick McCaw and Jeremy Lin mixing in occasionally depending on game flow. Toronto’s bench has a huge edge over Philly’s, especially if they’re missing Mike Scott, another reason why many favor the Raptors in this series.
Let’s start with Mr. Game-Time Decision. The health of Joel Embiid’s knee dominated the storylines in Philly for the last month or so, but he still put up 24.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.0 steals in Round 1 on 50.7% from the field. Want to know the best part? He did that in 24 minutes per game. Even on one leg, Embiid is an All-NBA talent who will need to be at a level we haven’t seen before for Philly to come out of this series as victors. The Raptors are going to let Embiid shoot perimeter shots all day, so he’ll need to resist that temptation and dominate down low. But like you saw earlier, it won’t be easy against Gasol — Embiid is shooting 10-of-29 from the field over the past two seasons when Gasol guards him (h/t Derek Bodner of The Athletic).
Ben Simmons put up a 17/7/6 line in the first round with 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks, but his defense against D’Angelo Russell stood out the most. Coach Brett Brown said he’ll throw a number of players at Kawhi, but Simmons and Butler will get the most reps on the Raptors forward. On the other hand, it will likely be Kawhi who guards Simmons and that spells trouble for Philly. With Kawhi guarding him this season, Simmons posted a 1.1 assist to turnover ratio and shot just 46.7% from the field. To go even further, Simmons averaged 22.7 points per 100 possessions on the season but that number dropped to 15.9 against Kawhi. Arguably the top perimeter defender in the game, Simmons is going to have his work cut out for him against Kawhi and that’s why I think we’re going to see Jimmy Butler run a lot of offense in this series.
We got a taste of that in Round 1, as Butler even operated as the backup PG, replacing a struggling T.J. McConnell. Butler averaged 22.8 points in four games vs. the Raptors this season, so expect him to be assertive from the jump after a relatively quiet first round (15.8 points).
Getting Tobias Harris going in this series will be key for Philly as well. In two games with the Clippers, Harris struggled against Toronto, hitting just 9-of-28 from the field with Pascal Siakam and Danny Green spending the most time guarding him. We all know what J.J. Redick brings to the table on offense as one of the NBA’s deadliest sharpshooters, but the Raptors will try to turn him into a liability by attacking him at every opportunity.
Things start to get ugly real fast when we look at Philly’s bench though. Mike Scott has brought energy, toughness, defense and shooting to Philly’s bench, but it’s unclear if he’ll be healthy enough to play in Game 1. James Ennis is probably next in line in terms of importance, and he’s starting to find his rhythm after battling an injury to close out the season — he’s played 20+ minutes in back to back games with a combined 18 points. Boban Marjanovic will probably get the first shot at the backup center minutes over an unproven Jonah Bolden, but the matchup off the bench against Serge Ibaka is far from ideal. I'd expect the Raptors to pick-and-roll him to no end as well.
The 76ers boast one of the top starting lineups in the NBA, with their starting five posting a league-leading +62.2 net rating in the playoffs after shredding the Nets. As for Toronto, their starting lineup is sick as well with a 2nd place net rating of +46.3. Toronto has home-court advantage, the best player in the series in Kawhi Leonard and a much deeper bench, so I got to pick the Raptors in seven games.