It’s been a season of surprises for the Toronto Raptors. The narrative surrounding the team at the start of the year was filled with uncertainty and often times negativity, as many projected the ceiling for this group was a play-in tournament appearance.
Fast forward to now, and the Raptors have finished the regular season in fifth in the Eastern Conference. They got an all-star in Fred VanVleet, an all-NBA level season from Pascal Siakam and a Rookie of the Year contender in Scottie Barnes. Gary Trent Jr.’s career has continued on an upswing with a terrific season, OG Anunoby has been great when healthy and the Raptors bench has improved massively since the start of the season with the acquisition of Thaddeus Young and the resurgence of Precious Achiuwa.
The exciting thing for Raptors fans is that they’re playing with house money. This season has already been a success regardless of what happens in the weeks to come.
Everything Toronto has done this year has exceeded expectations, and now they have a first-round date scheduled with the #4 seed Philadelphia 76ers, who despite having extreme top-level talent are not in the best of form and could be susceptible to an upset.
In this article we will preview the series and predict the Raptors chances of advancing.
Regular Season Head-to-Head
The Toronto Raptors won the head-to-head season series vs the Sixers this year, defeating them in three out of their four meetings. Admittedly, regular season results aren’t very indicative of what you can expect in a playoff series, especially when looking at games that happened several months ago.
There are some recent results to go by however, as the two teams faced each other twice in the last three weeks of the season. The Raptors won both meetings, with the most recent victory giving an insight on how Nick Nurse may approach the series. Toronto forced Embiid to do things on his own in the first three quarters, before upping the pressure and making life hell for him in the fourth, and it worked.
The exciting thing for Raptors fans is that despite the four regular season meetings Nurse hasn’t shown his hand. As one of the top coaches in the league in terms of game planning and implementing new systems, there’s no telling how Nurse will approach things when Game 1 tips off on Saturday.
The Raptors have had to deal with a lot of injuries this season most notably to Anunoby and Siakam. With an already thin bench, the injuries to key bench pieces have been detrimental as well, and it’s a testament to this Raptors team that they were still able to finish 48-34 with all of these setbacks.
The good news for Toronto is that heading into these playoffs they are completely healthy. During the short stints this season where they’ve had their full starting lineup (VanVleet, Trent Jr., Anunoby, Barnes, Siakam), the Raptors are 15-6. That lineup will be the projected starting five heading into game one, although you never know with Nurse at the helm.
The 76ers on the other hand have had to deal with a little drama in terms of who’s available in the first round. Philadelphia are essentially full strength heading into the postseason as well, but COVID complications have come into play and entered the mainstream media conversation. Matisse Thybulle will be unavailable to play any games in Canada during the series due to not being fully vaccinated (reportedly hasn’t taken the second vaccination shot). The border rules state that unvaccinated players are unable to enter, and so the 76ers best perimeter defender will be forced to miss at least two games of the series, and possibly three if it makes it past game 5.
Thybulle is not one of the Sixers first offensive options, but he does a lot for this team on the defensive end, and his presence will be sorely missed in front of the raucous Toronto home crowds.
The Harden Effect
It’s common knowledge that the best player in this series is Joel Embiid. He’s a frontrunner for the MVP, and without a doubt will be the most dangerous player on the court in all seven potential games. The interesting discussion is who the second-best player will be, and the amount of pressure there will be on James Harden to be that guy.
Down the stretch of the season, Siakam was much more efficient than Harden and that won’t be able to continue if the 76ers want to escape a possible upset.
The Beard has been a disappointing addition on the whole for Philly, who gave up a lot to acquire his services. He’s been good in terms of playmaking, but something is off in terms of his offensive explosiveness, and he hasn’t been able to deliver the type of MVP scoring performances that they were hoping to get when they made the trade.
Harden has struggled mightily from the floor, and was held to 3/12 shooting the last time he played the Raptors. Toronto have so many long, athletic wings that can be rushed out to him, and it greatly affects his ability to get to the basket. Another big part of Harden’s game is creating separation around the perimeter, but the length of the Raptors wings are going to make it very difficult to get that space to get clean looks.
A lot of his game may come down to whether or not the refs swallow their whistles in the playoffs, as both him and Embiid are notorious for getting a bulk of their work done at the line.
If the Raptors can hold Harden to the type of numbers they did in their last meeting, it will be a very big advantage for Toronto, turning the two-headed monster of Philly into a one-man show.
The Good Nurse
Coaching matchups are always crucial in the NBA playoffs, and this series may contain the biggest mismatch across the entire league.
Despite the championship history of Doc Rivers, he has not been able to find success in the postseason for a long time, often coming up short and blowing the most 3-1 series leads of any coach in NBA history. Nurse on the other hand has a title of his own, and has proven himself as one of the smartest coaches in the league. The defensive schemes he creates can shut down almost any superstar, and with the 76ers being so reliant on their stars that could cause trouble.
There’s little to no doubt that Nurse will be coaching circles around Rivers for the majority of this series. Nurse can adapt quickly both in-between games and in the middle of them, while Rivers has struggled to give his team an identity. Fans in Philadelphia are already calling on him to be replaced, and those comments may turn screams once this first round series concludes.
Nothing is off the table for Nurse, and so it’s hard to predict what he’ll do. This is the same coach that employed a Box-And-1 defensive scheme on Steph Curry 3 years ago, and that’s a strategy that is really only used in high school basketball.
What’s for certain is that Nurse is going to throw a lot of different looks at Embiid and Harden, and make life as difficult as possible for them.
If the 76ers win this series it’ll certainly be about the star power on the court, because they are severely out-matched in the coaching battle.
Who’s the Guy?
Team basketball is beautiful, and it’s how the Raptors have made it this far. The possibilities are usually endless when you play as a team, but that may not always be the case in the NBA Playoffs. Like it or not, you need someone to be a star at this time of year if you want to progress, and the Raptors are going to need someone to be that guy.
For most of the year it was up in the air on who that player could be, but it’s become very apparent as we near Game 1; Siakam has that title.
Siakam has put together an all-NBA caliber season, and was especially impressive down the stretch where he was legitimately one of the best players in the league. He doesn’t have to outplay Embiid, but he does have to be the second-best player in this series for the Raptors to advance.
Thankfully for Raptors fans, this is a great matchup for him. Philadelphia doesn’t really have anyone they can throw at Siakam that’s both big enough to wear him down and fast enough to keep up. Siakam has been able to get to his spots at will against the Sixers in the past, and he showed that in their last meeting. The last time the Raptors played Philly Siakam finished with 37 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. The numbers don’t have to be that crazy, but if Siakam can come anywhere close to those numbers for even a percentage of the games in this series, the Raptors will have a great chance.
Of course, it doesn’t come down to just him. VanVleet will need to be in clutch command of the offence for things to work. It might not be at the same rate, but Barnes will have to continue to impress on both ends of the floor. Anunoby will have to be a defensive stopper and will play a big role in shutting down Harden. Trent Jr. will need to provide valuable offense for the Raptors if they’re going to be able to keep up with the 76ers in terms of scoring. The bench (in particular Young and Achiuwa) will need to come in and provide valuable minutes to give the starters at least a little bit of a rest.
All of these things are important, but they also don’t matter if Siakam doesn’t continue his play. Siakam is going to have to be the guy, and if he is, the Raptors have to like their chances of pulling the upset.
Prediction / Expectation
The Raptors season will be remembered as a success regardless of what happens against Philadelphia, but they have a chance to turn even more heads with an underdog win.
They may not be huge underdogs, especially considering a #4 vs #5 series is usually considered to be the most even, but the Raptors have overachieved greatly this season. The Sixers on the other hand are a team that was assembled to be contenders, and a first-round loss to the re-tooling Raptors would be a disaster for them.
This matchup favours the Raptors. The issue is that the 76ers have the best player, and often times the best player is enough to carry you, especially in the early rounds. This series seems like a lock to go the distance and end with a winner-take-all game just like the previous two meetings between these franchises.
If it goes to game seven, you’d probably favour the full-strength Sixers on their home floor, but the Raptors have been a great road team this season and it’s becoming very clear that you can never count them out. This series is destined to be one of the best first round battles across the league, and will likely result in the Raptors getting some much-deserved respect.
Saying that the series will go the distance and be the best league-wide is a bit of a cop-out though, especially when you promise a prediction in the introductory segment of the article. So, it must be done.
Raptors in 7.