Our three beat writers and one of our columnists predict the outcome of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the 76ers and Toronto Raptors.
The best-of-seven series will begin at 7:30 Saturday night in Toronto.
The 76ers were able to rely on talent and use their height advantage to beat the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. This round against the Raptors will be much different.
Toronto boasts two All-Stars, Kawhi Leonard and Villanova product Kyle Lowry. The Raptors also have Pascal Siakam, a front-runner for most improved NBA player. And they acquired another former All-Star in center Marc Gasol before the Feb. 7 trade deadline. Gasol has been a matchup problem for two-time All-Star Joel Embiid.
In addition, the Sixers have to overcome the tendinitis in Embiid’s left knee, a lack of cohesion and a subpar bench. Beatingt the Raptors will be a tough task even though Embiid, All-Star point guard Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick form the league’s second-best starting lineup, behind the Golden State Warriors.
Prediction: Raptors in six games.
The tables have turned. The clear favorite in the first round, the Sixers head to Toronto as the underdog.
Despite the fact that the Raptors and Sixers have not played a game since the trade deadline, which changed the look of both teams, Toronto has a couple of things that Brooklyn did not have in the playoffs’ opening round and that can’t be ignored: a lockdown defender to guard Ben Simmons, and a strong, tough post presence that can cause problems for Joel Embiid.
Kawhi Leonard had the upper hand against Simmons in the past, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think he will let up at all defensively in a postseason matchup. Additionally, while Embiid made easy work of dominating the paint against the Nets, that won’t be the case against the Raptors. Marc Gasol, one of the trade-deadline additions for Toronto, has had success slowing Embiid.
To put it simply, the Sixers are going to have to work harder for everything in this series. If Mike Scott’s injury doesn’t linger and the Sixers’ short bench can stay intact, I think they can put up a fight. But I don’t know if it will be enough to win in the end.
Prediction: Raptors in seven games.
This series comes down to two matchups: Kawhi Leonard guarding Ben Simmons, and Marc Gasol on Joel Embiid. Both favor the Raptors.
We all know the stats: In three games this season that Leonard played against the Sixers, Simmons had 27 assists and 24 turnovers. The one Sixers-Raptors game that Leonard missed, Simmons went to town — with 26 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, one turnover and a plus-26 rating in a 126-101 home win Dec. 22.
The Raptors traded for Gasol after they finished this year’s four-game series with the Sixers. In two games this season against Memphis when Gasol was there, Embiid averaged just 14.5 points and shot 28.6 percent from the field.
More important, Gasol has become more of a facilitator. It will be interesting to see if he can pull Embiid away from the basket and open up the inside for the Raptors.
Simmons and Embiid have to play over their heads for the Sixers to win. Another problem for the Sixers will be stopping emerging star Pascal Siakam.
Toronto has plenty of options, plus home-court advantage. That should be enough.
Prediction: Raptors in seven games.
For the Sixers to win this series, they would need to be a team that they haven’t been yet. This is especially true if the prognosis for Mike Scott is as unpromising as it sounds. Even before Scott’s foot injury, the Sixers’ depth concerns were likely to become a bigger story given the Raptors’ ability to run Boban Marjanovic off the court with a smaller lineup. Now, the Sixers could be without their only consistent three-point shooter off the bench.
The recipe for success is plausible. Joel Embiid needs to play the way he did from the middle of the third quarter of Game 4 through Game 5 against the Nets. Ben Simmons needs to limit his turnovers, Jimmy Butler needs to be the creator off the dribble that he was against the Nets. Perhaps most importantly, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick need to have one of the best three-point-shooting series of their careers.
Even then, the problems the Raptors pose when matching up against the Sixers defense could be the difference. Pascal Siakam has emerged as a legitimate scoring threat, and the Sixers do not have an obvious defender to stop him.
At minimum, what you’d like to see out of the Sixers is another step in the direction of contention: growth from Simmons, confidence from Harris, control from Embiid. If all that happens, it would offer plenty good reason to think that a full offseason of targeted roster enhancement on the veteran and mid-level markets and a full regular season of playing together will get the Sixers to a point that they can actually win this sort of series.