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Three things to Watch in Philadelphia 76ers vs. Toronto Raptors

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There are other good ones: Boston vs. Milwaukee, Houston vs. Golden State.

But no other second-round series is quite the measuring stick, nor comes loaded with the pressure of what a loss will mean this summer than Philadelphia vs. Toronto does.

Elton Brand, the Sixers GM, ended “the process” and traded for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris because Philadelphia wanted to win now. The Sixers pushed all their chips into the middle of the table, hoping that chemistry would develop quickly, winning would follow, and Butler and Harris would agree to stay when they become free agents in July. A second-round exit changes that equation.

Toronto also went all-in to win now, trading DeMar DeRozan and more away to get Kawhi Leonard and the chance to woo him for a year, to develop a relationship and bond, then to win and convince him to stay. The Raptors have rested Leonard’s body (he missed 22 games this season, most for “load management”), given Leonard whatever he wanted, yet nobody knows what the quiet is going to decide this July. However, a second-round exit after all of that could have Leonard packing his bags for Southern California.

This is as high-stakes as it gets in the second round, and this series is going to hinge on just a few things — like Philly winning a game in Toronto for the first time since 2012. Here are three things that will help determine the outcome of this series.

1) Watch the Marc Gasol on Joel Embiid matchup. The Raptors traded for Marc Gasol at the deadline just because of this matchup.

The numbers support Toronto’s move. Look at NBA.com’s matchup data and over four games in the past two years Gasol held Embiid to just 10-of-29 shooting (34.5 percent), and just 16.3 points per 100 possessions (about half Embiid’s average production). In two meetings this season when Gasol was with Memphis, Embiid had a dreadful 40.4 true shooting percentage and averaged 14.5 points and 15 rebounds a game (he averaged 27.5 points per game for the season).

Embiid’s knee and how well he moves are also remaining question marks.

Embiid is critical to Philly’s offense, the team was 5.4 points per 100 possessions worse this past season when he was off the floor (they have been better with him off the court in the playoffs, but that speaks more to Brooklyn and matchups than what will happen this series). The Sixers are going to have a hard enough time scoring on the Toronto defense, they need peak Embiid, getting buckets inside, throwing down dunks, dominating the glass, and drawing in defenders to open up shots and lanes for others. If Gasol can continue to keep Embiid in check, Philly is in trouble.

2) Which team can find an offensive advantage in what will be a defensive slugfest? If you’re looking for offense, wait for the Houston/Golden State playoff series. This series will not be that, it is two good defensive teams that have length and lock-down defenders that will cause matchup problems the other way. Scoring will be at a premium.

In two meetings this season (both before the trade deadline), Kawhi Leonard stole Ben Simmons’ lunch and bullied him all over the yard. Leonard remains one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, and Toronto can switch Leonard onto Jimmy Butler or any Sixers getting hot (outside Embiid). It’s not a one-man show, they also have long and active defenders in Danny Green and Pascal Siakam who can take guys like Tobias Harris or J.J. Redick and make their life difficult. Toronto was the fifth best defensive team in the NBA this season and is the second best so far in the postseason. They will take away driving lanes from a Philly team that already struggles with floor spacing, making good looks at a premium.

The reverse is true as well — Butler will get time on Leonard in what will be an old-school physical battle, making life hard for the guy Toronto turns to in the clutch. Simmons’ length will take things away for Siakam or anyone he is matched up on, Harris and Redick are solid team defenders, and Embiid is one of the best defensive centers in the game anchoring the paint.

Which team can hit contested, difficult jumpers? Which team will turn defense into some (relatively) easy transition buckets?

Which team’s coaching staff will come up with a way to free up their scorers best? Scoring will be at a premium and whichever team can find a way to break through a defensive stalemate will have a massive advantage.

3) Can Toronto’s bench win them the series? This year’s Raptors bench — Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby (if/when he returns from his emergency appendectomy right before the playoffs) — is not as good as the Raptors best-in-the-league bench from a season ago. The Raptors averaged 35.8 points a game from bench players this season, down from 41.2 last season, and the unit’s effective field goal percentage dropped by nearly 10 points.

But it’s still better than Philly’s bench. By a longshot.

Philly’s starting five — Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris, Embiid — was a ridiculous +62 points per 100 possessions against Brooklyn in the first round. However, they only played 12.3 minute per game as a unit (remember Embiid also missed one game due to his sore knee). When the Brooklyn bench, led by Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, got on the floor, the tide turned.

Philadephia’s best bench player, Mike Scott, is out for at least Game 1 with a sore heel. That means a lot of T.J. McConnell, James Ennis, and Boban Marjanovic for as long as he can stay on the floor before the Raptors play him off. None of that is good for Philly.

Against Toronto, look for Brown to lean on his starters more, maybe up to 20+ minutes a game (depending on what Embiid can handle with his knee). Brown did a good job with rotations and getting those starters out there at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters — against the Nets second unit — and it had tremendous success. Toronto will be prepared for that.

The Sixers need to dominate when their starters are in and the bench groups (staggered with starters) need to just hold the fort. Whether they can against a Raptors bench that knows its role is another question.

PREDICTION: Toronto in five. Maybe the Sixers can take this series seven games, they have the raw talent. They need Embiid to play at an MVP level to have a shot in this series. However, Philly’s lack of depth limits Brett Brown’s options to adjust when things do not work, while Nick Nurse has much more variety at his disposal. Toronto will make adjustments Philadelphia cannot match, and that will decide the series.

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.

Spurs playoffs hopes remain alive with 123-105 win over Rockets

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The Spurs aren’t out of it yet.

Keldon Johnson had 24 points and 11 rebounds, and San Antonio kept alive its chances of becoming the first team in NBA history to make 23 consecutive playoff appearances with a 123-105 victory over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday.

San Antonio has won three straight and five out of seven since arriving in the Florida bubble.

DeMar DeRozan added 23 points. Jakob Poeltl finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Johnson said his mindset since the season restarted has been to fill in whatever role is asked of him.

“Whether it’s hustling, running the floor – just doing whatever I need to do to help us win,” he said. “Help from my teammates has definitely helped the game slow down for me.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Johnson is playing with the confidence they saw when they drafted him 29th overall last year.

“That’s what he does,” Popovich said. “He’s a high-energy guy. He’s very physical. Very competitive. Very coachable. He’s just a winner.”

The Western Conference is guaranteed to have a play-in for its final playoff spot, with Memphis beginning the day with just a half-game over Portland and one game ahead of Phoenix and San Antonio.

The Spurs will need help to be one of the teams playing this weekend for the final spot in the Western Conference, but made sure they couldn’t be eliminated Tuesday with their win.

Russell Westbrook had 20 points and seven turnovers in his first game back in the lineup for Houston after missing two games with a bruised right quadriceps. Jeff Green had 17 points. Ben McLemore added 16.

The Rockets played without guards James Harden (rest) and Eric Gordon (ankle).

The Spurs took control in the second quarter, outscoring the Rockets 35-24. San Antonio led by as many as 29 points.

San Antonio built a 19-point lead in the first half. DeRozan set the tone with 15 points in the opening 24 minutes, with Lonnie Waker IV, Poeltl and Johnson each scoring 10.

Regardless of whether the Spurs make the playoffs or not, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is proud of how his young players have stepped up in during their time in the bubble.

“Part of it is you have to be realistic,” Popovich said. “I don’t think our chances of winning the championship were great at the beginning of this, nor are they now. If that’s a fact, then you need to do everything you can to develop and be prepared for next season.

“The development has been off the charts. We’re thrilled with it. So it’s a win-win no matter what.”

Popovich said it would be “thrilling” to get some help and have a chance to extend their season, but he’s not using it as a measuring stick for the season.

“We’ve already accomplished what we thought we were capable of accomplishing, that’s what’s important. If we got in now it would be icing on the cake.”