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Sixers return to Toronto in a good groove | Off the Dribble

After a 4-0 stretch, the 76ers are 11-5 entering Monday night’s game against the Raptors.

Joel Embiid, right, fouling Pascal Siakam, left, during the Sixers-Raptors playoff series in May.
Joel Embiid, right, fouling Pascal Siakam, left, during the Sixers-Raptors playoff series in May.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

What a difference a week makes. After a 4-0 stretch, the 76ers are 11-5 and feeling pretty good about themselves entering Monday night’s game against the Raptors in Toronto.

The Sixers have had a balanced attack, with each of the five starters having been the leading scorer at least once this season.

Now, they go to Toronto for the first time since their 92-90, Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Both teams are playing as if they might meet again in the postseason.

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Different look, same success for Raptors

While the Sixers (11-5) were expected to be among the elite in the NBA, many predicted doom for the Raptors, coming off their first NBA championship. But Toronto (11-4) surprisingly has remained a viable contender in the Eastern Conference.

This, despite the fact that the Raptors lost NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to free agency. In addition, Philadelphia native Kyle Lowry remains out with a broken left thumb.

Still, the Raptors have prospered, and it’s mainly because the NBA’s Most Improved Player from last season, Pascal Siakam, might be up for the award again.

After averaging 16.9 points last season, Siakam is averaging 25.7 this season and is coming off a 34-point performance in Saturday’s 119-116 win over the Hawks in Atlanta. Last season in the series win over the Sixers, he averaged 19.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.

Guard Fred VanVleet, who struggled mightily in the Sixers series, averaging just 2.0 points, is another Raptor who could be up for most improved player. VanVleet averages 18.8 points. He and Siakam have been carrying the offense in Lowry’s absence.

Marc Gasol, who did so well defending Joel Embiid in the playoffs, isn’t the offensive factor he once was, but is still a defensive presence.

The Raptors also are the only team to hand the Los Angeles Lakers a home defeat this season.

In the Eastern Conference, the three main contenders are expected to be the Sixers, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. Could the Raptors join the party? It’s possible, and at the very least, Monday’s game will be a good barometer for the Sixers, who are 4-5 on the road.

Starting five

  1. I write about how Saturday’s defensive effort against Miami was the Sixers’ best since their opening-day win over the Boston Celtics.

  2. David Murphy writes that in Jimmy Butler’s return, the Sixers made an emphatic case that they are better off without him.

  3. Here were our best and worst awards from the Sixers’ win over Miami.

  4. I explored the issue of whether Ben Simmons can reach the next level. Brett Brown sure thinks he can.

  5. Brown hopes to be coaching in the NBA a long time.

The benefit of a blowout win for Embiid

The NBA schedule is unforgiving, and when a team can save a few minutes for key players, it’s always a bonus. That is why Saturday’s 113-86 win over the Miami Heat was good for the Sixers, since no starter played as many as 27 minutes.

This was the second game of a back-to-back.

The Sixers led by as many as 41 points, and the player it benefited most was Joel Embiid. He played only 25 minutes and 43 seconds. The night before, he was in foul trouble and limited to 27:36 in the Sixers’ 115-104 win over the San Antonio Spurs.

After the Spurs game, Embiid said that load management is B.S. and that he just wants to play.

That is all well and good, but the minutes do add up and any time they can be saved, especially in Embiid’s case, that is good.

This season, Embiid is averaging 29 minutes in 12 games. Last season, he averaged a career-high 33.7 minutes. Despite the drop in playing time, he is averaging 22.8 points, 11.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots.

Important dates: Next Five Flow

Tonight: Sixers at Toronto Raptors, 7:30 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia

Wednesday: Sacramento Kings at Sixers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia

Friday: Sixers at New York Knicks, 7:30 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus

Saturday: Indiana Pacers at Sixers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia/NBA TV

Dec. 2: Utah Jazz at Sixers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia/NBA TV

Passing the rock

Question: I read an article you wrote saying the New Orleans Pelicans will be back in the lottery. What’s funny is the Sixers aren’t doing that much better than Pelicans. You guys almost lost to the Knicks. Pels schedule last month was brutal can’t say that for Sixers. — @Mribuyhouses504.

Answer: Thanks for the question. This came last week, referring to our story on former Sixers guard JJ Redick, now with the Pelicans.

My only answer to this is that while the Pelicans have good, young talent and have yet to have first overall pick Zion Williamson suit up, they aren’t close to looking at the postseason. And check with me in April to see if the Pelicans are in the lottery or not.