Bill Gorman, Sports Talk Philly Contributor
Note – this is the third in a four-part series to preview the 76ers return to NBA action, see part one here and part 2 here, and part 3 here
We have now reached the final segment of our 76ers Bubble Preview. The first three parts featured Indiana, San Antonio, Washington, Orlando, Portland and Phoenix. This week we will be taking on the Toronto Raptors and the Houston Rockets
Pre-stoppage record: 46-18 (2nd in East)Key players: Pascal Siakam (23.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.6 APG) Kyle Lowry (20.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 7.6 APG), Fred VanVleet(17.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 6.7 APG), Serge Ibaka (15.8 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.4 APG)
Toronto comes into the Orlando bubble as a legitimate title contender. Not just because they won the 2019 NBA title, but because they have an excellent roster and one of the best coaches in the NBA in Nick Nurse. Of the 76ers’ eight opponents in the seeding games in Orlando, these Raptors, along with the Houston Rockets, present the greatest test.
Offensively, the Raptors can really come at you in waves. Pascal Siakam, in his third year out of New Mexico, has taken the leap from “sturdy 3-and-D guy” to a legitimate offensive threat, replacing Kawhi Leonard as the team’s lead option. Kyle Lowry has always provided a steady hand in running the offense, and can be counted on to provide plenty of offense from the perimeter. Fred VanVleet, like Siakam, has flourished in an expanded role, providing playmaking and strong outside shooting. Nurse gives this team a variable offense that can adjust to its opponents’ defensive schemes, and though it relies a lot on three-pointers (7th in the league in attempts), the Raptors are really good at hitting them (6th in the league at 37.1%), with six of their regulars averaging 38% or better with at least 3.3 attempts a night.
All that said, where the Raptors really shine is on the defensive end, sitting 2nd in the NBA in defensive rating (105.2 points/100 possessions). Lowry and Siakam continue to be menaces on the perimeter while Marc Gasol is still one of the league’s better interior defenders. Nurse has been known as a particularly creative defensive coach since his time in the G-League, so it is no surprise to see how variable his teams are defensively, switching seamlessly between man and zone concepts depending on the opponents’ lineup. The Raptors are so good defensively that you might even see them change defensive concepts in mid-possession, and they are cohesive enough to pull that off.
Pre-stoppage record: 40-24 (fourth in West)
Key players: James Harden (34.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 7.4 APG), Russell Westbrook (27.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 7.0 APG), Robert Covington (12.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG)
This just might be the most interesting games for the Sixers out of their eight seeding games. It is going to be the clash of old school versus new school in terms of roster construction.
At the trade deadline this year the Rockets decided to shock the NBA and trade away their starting center and pick up no big men to replace him. They run the smallest lineup in the league and base their game around playing fast and shooting a lot of three-pointers. It will be interesting to see this matchup of a super small lineup versus the Sixers' lineup of size of length.
The Sixers are going to have their hands full in this game. Not only with trying to slow down the backcourt of Harden and Westbrook, but chasing around all of Houston's shooters on the perimeter. Guys like Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, and Ben Simmons are really going to have to play strong on the outside on defense.
On the other side of the ball, this should be a big game for Joel Embiid. There is nobody on the Rockets' lineup with the size or strength to slow down Embiid at rim. Taking advantage of the size mismatch is going to be a huge key for the Sixers if they want to win this game.
It will be interesting to see if Joel Embiid will be able to stay on the floor defensively with the Rockets spending all their time on the perimeter, but he should be nothing but dominant on the offensive side of the ball.
Whichever team controls the pace will most likely walk away with the win in this game. If the Rockets get off to the races and turn the game into a track meet and shootout the Sixers are going to struggle playing catch-up. But if the Sixers can keep the game at their pace and let Embiid do his work down low they should walk away with the win.
It is going to be old-school versus new-school in this game, should be an interesting and fun game to watch for basketball fans.