Kawhi Leonard will not play against the Sixers on Saturday, Raptors coach Nick Nurse told reporters Friday night.
Leonard returned this season after missing nearly all of the 2017-18 campaign and has yet to play in back-to-back games, and that’s not going to change this weekend.
That alone gives the Sixers more of chance to pick up a win, though bragging rights will be harder to come by if they beat a short-handed Raptors squad that’s missing its best player.
The 76ers, though positioned in the top tier of the Eastern Conference, have yet to prove that they can hang with the NBA’s best. The next two games could be their best chance at a confidence boost.
The Raptors will be in Philadelphia on Saturday and the Sixers will be in Boston to face the Celtics on Christmas Day. From the outside, it would seem that the Sixers are slated for consecutive losses against teams that they have yet to beat this season, but key injuries and rotation retooling could benefit the Sixers.
In the Sixers most recent matchup against the NBA-leading 25-9 Toronto Raptors, the most glaring difference between the teams was Toronto’s depth. With multiple threats, including Leonard, to throw at Ben Simmons, who was overwhelmed and unable to establish himself on the offensive end, and the tandem of Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka getting the better of Joel Embiid, the Raptors wore the Sixers down before pulling away late in the game.
On Saturday, the Raptors will not have the luxury of the depth or star power that has carried them to this point. Leonard will not play and Valanciunas was ruled out on Dec. 20 for at least four weeks (left thumb surgery). Ibaka missed Wednesday’s game against the Pacers and Friday’s game against the Cavaliers and his availability moving forward is questionable. Without Valanciunas and Ibaka the Raptors have looked to Greg Monroe to fill in which will be a welcomed matchup for Embiid.
Additionally Toronto could be without Philadelphia-native Kyle Lowry on Saturday. Lowry has not played since Dec. 12 dealing with a thigh contusion that has also led to spasms. He’ll surely be wanting to return to the lineup to play in his hometown against one of the East’s contenders, but Toronto coach Nick Nurse told reporters this week that it seems unlikely that Lowry could return before Christmas.
Coming into Philly after a game against the Cavaliers on Friday in Toronto, on the second night of a back-to-back, the Raptors could be without a handful of players, three of which (Leonard, Ibaka, Valanciunas) combined for 80 points in their Dec. 5 meeting with the Sixers.
The Sixers most recent loss in Boston was on opening night of the 2018-19 season. That loss coming after the Celtics knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs has left a bad taste in the Sixers' mouth.
They’ll have a chance at redemption on Christmas Day in Boston where the Celtics could be without some major players.
A left knee injury has kept Al Horford sidelined since Dec. 8 and though he is progressing and reassessed every day, it’s looking less likely that the veteran will be playing on Tuesday. On top of missing Horford, the Celtics were dealt a blow early this week when Aron Baynes broke a finger and was ruled out for the next few weeks.
Sixers fans will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief not having to watch Baynes who seems to become an increasingly dangerous three-point threat when he plays against the Philadelphia squad.
On top of that, another Philly native might be missing a matchup against the Sixers. Celtics forward Marcus Morris missed his second consecutive game on Friday night against the Bucks with right knee soreness. Morris was downgraded from questionable to out on Friday, leaving the door open that he could possibly return against the Sixers, but if he does, it likely won’t be at full strength.
In addition to the injuries the Celtics are dealing with, they are still working through lineups and rotations trying to find the right balance. After a rocky start to the season, they were able to string together an eight-game win streak before losing consecutive games on Dec. 15 against the Pistons and then on Dec. 19 against the lowly Phoenix Suns.