Sixers vs. Raptors Series Preview: Things to Pay Attention to, Key Team Stats, X-Factors, Prediction

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

The Philadelphia 76ers finished the regular season at 51-31 and will enter the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers are set to face off against the rival Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs. Toronto took three out of four regular season matchups. Their length and physicality will present a tough matchup against a bigger, more star-driven Sixers roster.

The series kicks off on Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Before then, here is a preview of the series containing key things to pay attention to, important team stats, x-factors and a prediction for how the series will play out:

4 key things to pay attention to:

1. Harden's burst and ability as a scorer

James Harden has struggled as a scorer since debuting with the Sixers after the All-Star break. He has lacked the burst and explosive first step that has allowed him to be one of the best scorers in the league out of isolation situations. Over his last 17 games, he is averaging 19.7 points while shooting 36.3 percent from the field and 29.1 percent from three-point range. His shooting struggles and lack of explosion are likely the result of either a hamstring injury, him losing a step or him holding something back in reserve for the playoffs. The Sixers will come a lot closer to finding out the answer beginning in the first round against the Raptors.

The week off Harden will receive between his last game of the regular season on April 9 and Game 1 against the Raptors on Saturday could potentially lead to some improvement in his play. The Sixers traded for him at the trade deadline and gave him the following two weeks post-trade to rest and rehab his hamstring. He came out of that mini-break in the season on fire, scoring 26.8 points per game on 59.2 percent shooting from the field in his first four games in a Sixers uniform.

Regardless of how much Harden impacts the series as a scorer, the one thing he is guaranteed to provide is his passing ability. He averaged 10.5 assists per game in 21 games since becoming a Sixer, although the team will likely need more than just assists from him if they are to win the series.

2. Embiid handling the Raptors tough defense

The Raptors are uniquely equipped to be able to defend Joel Embiid around the paint or in the post. They can swarm him with double or triple teams, and their long length presents major problems for Embiid when combined with the attacking defensive style Raptors' head coach Nick Nurse likes to use against Philadelphia.

"Toronto is the only team that really just doesn’t allow me to [have the ball in my hands]," Embiid said on an episode of the Zach Lowe podcast last April. "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."

The key for Embiid in this series will be to make quick decisions with the ball in his hands. The Raptors will likely look to take him away by forcing the ball out of his hands and making the Sixers rely on their supporting cast. The Sixers will need to have crisp ball movement while taking advantage of the open shots created along the perimeter from all the double and triple teams facing Embiid. Of note: The Raptors have given Embiid issues offensively, but he still averaged 29.0 points and 11.3 rebounds in three games against them this season.

3. Bench stepping up will be key to handling Thybulle's limited availability

The Sixers will have to receive production from throughout the roster, especially in games in Toronto. The team will be without defensive standout Matisse Thybulle for all the road games in the series (a maximum of three games) due to Canada's Covid vaccination policy.

Head coach Doc Rivers adjusted the starting lineup by starting Danny Green in Thybulle's spot, something it looks like they will do throughout the series even when Thybulle is available to play.

"Just for continuity’s sake," Rivers said after the win over the Indiana Pacers last Saturday. “And I do like that it’s tough for teams to game plan on their trapping. I like being able to do either one. The surprise of that is good.”

Having Green in the starting lineup allows the Sixers to surround Embiid with four shooters, something that has proven to be a successful formula throughout Embiid's career. Green, over the final three games of the regular season, shot the ball 52.6 percent from beyond the arc.

In the games where Thybulle is unavailable, the Sixers will be forced to dig a bit deeper into their rotation. Expect to see increased minutes for Shake Milton and possibly a little bit of Furkan Korkmaz or Isaiah Joe sprinkled in throughout the series. Milton, after missing a big chunk of the season due to injury, has regained his stride the last few weeks. Over his last 12 games, he is averaging 9.1 points (48.3 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from three-point range), 2.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.

The Sixers will be worse defensively in the games Thybulle is unavailable, but their best shot at counteracting his loss is to make up for it offensively. If Green and Milton continue to play the way they have heading into the playoffs, the Sixers should be in decent shape handling the games without Thybulle.

4. How will Rivers handle the backup center minutes?

You might wonder why the backup center minutes are so important for the Sixers in this series. Embiid will likely play at least 35 minutes per game, leaving just around 10 to 15 minutes per game with him off the court.

The backup center minutes have bitten the Sixers in the playoffs in prior seasons, ironically also against the Raptors. In the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Raptors in 2018-19, Embiid had a plus/minus of plus-90 in the series. The Sixers as a team were a minus-109 in the 99 minutes he sat throughout the series. Greg Monroe, the team's backup center at that time, could not even put together two solid minutes in a crucial Game 7, finishing as a minus-9.

The Sixers are running the risk of repeating the same mistake against the Raptors this season. Rivers needs to play Paul Reed at backup center to help avoid the non-Embiid minutes from being disastrous. DeAndre Jordan? Paul Millsap? Both of those players should not sniff the floor against the Raptors (or really any other team throughout the playoffs).

Reed was finally given an opportunity to prove he is an upgrade over Jordan and Millsap and he took advantage. Over the last three games of the regular season, Reed averaged 12.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals in 14.2 minutes per game. He might struggle with foul trouble, but the energy and production he provides off the bench make him a much better option than either Jordan or Millsap. The Raptors, a smaller team (their tallest player is 6-foot-9), are a good matchup for the 6-foot-9 Reed. Hopefully Rivers makes the correct decision against the Raptors.

Team stats to watch:

Raptors getting out in transition; Rebounding, rebounding and more rebounding

The Raptors love to get out and attack in transition. They finished third in the league in fast-break points per game at 15.8. The Sixers were a poor team defending in transition this season, ranking 28th in the league giving up 15.0 fast-break points per game. There is not much the Sixers can do to change this outside of making a much more concerted effort to get back quicker on defense.

The more concerning thing to watch out for is the Raptors' rebounding ability, especially on the offensive glass. Toronto does a good job hunting for offensive rebounds, and they have had success on the glass against the Sixers this season. The Sixers were out-rebounded, on average, 46.8 to 39.5 and 14.3 to 7.0 on the offensive glass in four regular season matchups this season. Toronto was even able to grab 20 offensive rebounds in a win over the Sixers on March 20.

The Raptors averaged a ridiculous 20.5 second-chance points per game against the Sixers in the regular season. Toronto was even able to grab 20 offensive rebounds in a win over the Sixers on March 20.

Tobias Harris after the team's practice on Tuesday discussed the team's focus on improving their rebounding heading into the series against the Raptors:

"In the games that we have played them, obviously the offensive rebounding. Rebounding as a whole has been our weak spot in those games. We know they’re a team that presents a lot of length on the court especially defensively, so we went over today, running our stuff, and being consistent, and having that pace to how we play. They have a lot of guys who crash. Traditional teams, most of them send one or two guys to the glass, but they send four or five at times, so it’s on all of us to make sure that we’re physical, we’re able to bump, but that’s a huge emphasis for us in this series. It was an emphasis for us in the regular season as well, we knew that the first time we played them, that’s what they like to do. We just haven’t been able to execute that to the best of our abilities, but, obviously, we have to be on point with that and that’s gonna be a huge key to this series."

Clearly keeping the Raptors off the offensive glass has been an emphasis for the Sixers throughout their practices leading into the series opener on Saturday. Will the Sixers, who have been a below average rebounding team all season, be able to make the correct adjustments to improve in that area after just one week of added focus? The answer to that question will go a long way towards deciding how far the Sixers go this year in the playoffs.

The X-Factor in the series:

Toronto has proven to have a good defensive strategy to force the ball out of Embiid's hands. Harden, at this stage and despite his still insane passing and court vision, is an unknown in terms of his ability to consistently score at a high level. Therefore, the Sixers will need their supporting cast to step up and play with confidence against the Raptors.

Tyrese Maxey will need to consistently be a big part of the offense. His ability to knock down threes and create his own offense will be huge in this series. Keeping him involved and aggressive throughout the series should be a priority for the Sixers' coaching staff.

Harris has had an up-and-down season, but he has made the adjustment to being the team's clear fourth scoring option. Over his last 18 games, he has averaged 15.1 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 44.0 percent from beyond the arc (4.7 attempts per game). Those numbers on the surface are low for him, but the more important thing to look at is his shooting efficiency. Playing as the fourth option means he will get less shots than he used to, but he can be a good player for the Sixers as long as he plays with confidence and has a quick trigger from three-point range.

A lot of the attention throughout the series will be on both Embiid and Harden. However, the performance of Maxey and Harris will likely be what makes or breaks this series. If they both can average at least 15 points per game, the Sixers should be in good shape to win the series.

Series prediction:

Everyone knows the game slows down in the playoffs. One of the things the Raptors have an advantage in is their transition offense. However, the game slows down in the playoffs and the Raptors offense, which struggles in the half court, will not get as many easy transition opportunities.

The Raptors match up well with the Sixers, but in Embiid the Sixers have the best player on the floor in this series. The combination of having the best player, the most star power and the game slowing down will all help give the Sixers an advantage against a more well-balanced Raptors squad. The series will definitely be close, perhaps too close for comfort, but in the end Philadelphia will pull away and win it in six games.

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