No one really knows what to expect in the Philadelphia 76ers series versus the Toronto Raptors.
Once considered a favorite for the title, analysts across the NBA are not sold on the Sixers’ future, even past the first round.
The Raptors are a defensive nightmare, led by an elite coach in Nick Nurse, while boasting one of the deepest benches in the league.
The Sixers on the other hand, are an offensive juggernaut, led by scoring champion and MVP candidate Joel Embiid, and former scoring champion and MVP James Harden.
Success for either team is less about playing to their strengths, and more about exploiting their opponent’s weaknesses.
Matchup Overview and X-Factors for Philadelphia
The Raptors, while having an innovative and flexible coach, lack the top-end talent that the Sixers hold, with only two All-Stars on their team in Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, who received his last all-star selection in 2020. Scottie Barnes is a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year but is also just that—a rookie.
Also working to the benefit of the Sixers is the Raptors’ lack of height, who despite having only three players under 6-foot-5, don’t have a player 6-foot-10 or over.
It will be crucial from Philadelphia to take advantage of this and put the ball in the basket. In this series, the Sixers’ success will lie in the hands of James Harden and Tobias Harris.
For Harden, after being brought into the team at the trade deadline, he has had an up and down tenure with the team.
He’s brought incredible ball-handling and facilitating to the team, averaging over ten assists a game, but has surprisingly struggled with scoring, averaging 20 points, but shooting 42% from the field, and 32% from three.
Having struggled with a hamstring injury for much of the season, it could just be that he lacks the explosiveness that he usually plays with, however, he must adapt to the tools he has at his disposal.
It seems that his success will come in improving his spot-up shooting and off-ball movement, or just by focusing on ball-handling and efficiency and passing some of the scoring load to Tyrese Maxey and rotation guys like Danny Green, Shake Milton, and Georges Niang.
Tobias Harris has had just as rocky of a transition period as Harden. Having moved from the second scoring option to the third with the emergence of Tyrese Maxey earlier this season, he had to change his game once again after the addition of Harden.
In recent games, it seems that Harris has finally started to find his footing in his new role. While earlier in the season Harris was asked to take a more on-ball role, taking defenders off the dribble, which is not a strength of his. In recent games he has taken a backseat role, staying around the three-point line and quickly and decisively choosing to drive, pass, or shoot the three.
Even his post-ups, which any Sixers fan knows did not lead to many positive plays, have become significantly more efficient, no longer leading to low-quality shots and turnovers.
Sticking to this more successful style of play could be a massive factor for the Sixers, as Harris provides another player that defenders have to pay attention to.
What the Sixers have to do to win
Positive production from their scorers might get difficult for the Sixers during this series. What makes the Raptors so scary is that their defenders rotate with such ease. Nick Nurse is able to create an impressive variety of defensive schemes, the focus of which will surely be to shut down Joel Embiid, forcing him to take a heavily-contested shots or pass the ball.
The most time-tested way to beat defenses like this? Ball-movement.
With constant passes and off-ball movement by the players, zone defenses have difficulty making sure each player is covered, often leading to easy buckets and wide-open threes.
Especially with multiple players closing in on Embiid as soon as he enters the paint, shooters like Georges Niang, Danny Green, Harden, Harris, and Maxey are going to have to play at the top of their game, taking catch-and-shoot opportunities as soon as they are presented.
With most of them around 6-foot-7, Maxey (6’2), Harden (6’5), and Harris (6’9) might have some difficulty scoring off the dribble with ease, but with intelligent ball movement and play, and the correct usage of their near-unstoppable weapon in Embiid, the Sixers have all the tools to run away with this series.
Series Prediction: Sixers win series in 6 games.
The only thing holding the team back from a title is inconsistency.