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.

Doncic calls Antetokounmpo ‘the best player in the NBA right now’

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It was a matchup of two of the NBA’s top five players and two guys high in the way-too-early mix for MVP this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Doncic carried the Mavericks again with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting plus 12 assists.

Antetokounmpo was a force of nature with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting plus 11 rebounds, plus he had more help around him leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

There is a mutual admiration society between these two players, and after the game Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the NBA. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo had praise for Doncic as well.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

We have many years of these two players testing each other, and someday it may be Antetokounmpo calling Doncic the best in the NBA.

Three things to know: The Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) The Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again

About that slow start in the Bay Area…

Over their last 11 games, the Golden State Warriors are 8-3 with a top-10 in the league offense and defense and a +4.5 net rating (fourth best in the league over that stretch). The latest win was Sunday’s destruction of the stumbling Timberwolves, 137-114, a game that saw the Warriors up by more than 20 in the first quarter and never truly threatened again.

“I think we’re starting to put it together and if we can keep building at this rate, you know, we’ll be poised for a run pretty soon here,” Draymond Green said.

All season long the Warriors have had Stephen Curry playing at an MVP level, carrying the team. So what has changed over the past few weeks that has the Warriors rolling? Three things.

First, Steve Kerr started staggering the rotation and separating Green’s and Curry’s minutes some, something he tried not to do much in the past. It’s one way Kerr dealt with the fact the Warriors’ bench has struggled (getting Donte DiVincenzo healthy helped as well). Curry now stays in for the entire first quarter, while Green gets his first rest about the five-minute mark, then Curry sits to start the second and Green returns to play with more of a bench unit (both stars finish the quarter together on the court).

“I’ve said for years Draymond is kind of the heartbeat of our team,” Kerr said. “He’s the guy who kind of makes everything go and he’s the motivator, he’s the bully, he protects his teammates on the floor, talks trash. But this guy is just so good at basketball.”

Second, the other way the Warriors dealt with the bench issue was Kerr scaled back the “two timelines” experiment. The idea was that the roles Otto Porter and Gary Payton Jr. filled last season could be filled by the young trio of James Wiseman, Moses Moody, and Jonathan Kuminga. That plan failed spectacularly. Wiseman is now down in the G-League, while Moody is out of the rotation. Kuminga is getting his shot — he played well against the Timberwolves — but has been up and down this season.

“I think we’ve settled into some roles, guys are comfortable now with when they’re gonna play who they’re gonna play with. So I think that’s been helpful,” Kerr said.

Third, Klay Thompson found his legs. He kept saying he needed more time, and whether it was a spark lit by Charles Barkley or Thompson getting off of social media and out of his own head, it’s worked. In his last 10 games Thompson is averaging 20.8 points a game and shooting 46.2% from 3. He is not defending like his old self (and may never again), but he’s back to being a No.2 scoring option on an elite team.

Green would throw in one more reason, the Warriors’ defense is back.

“Most importantly our defense has picked up which allows us to push the pace more,” Green said. “Like it’s one thing to push off makes, which we want to do, but when you’re pushing off a miss and getting a rebound then going, that’s tough to guard because it creates a lot of cross-matching.”

There was no magic bullet for Kerr to fire, it took a number of things to turn for the Warriors to get back to being themselves. But they have now, and the rest of the West should be worried.

2) Doncic says Antetokounmpo is “the best player in the NBA right now”

The Dallas Mavericks had no answers. Not that teams really ever do.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was a force of nature Sunday and dropped 30 with 11 boards on the Mavericks, leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

After the game, Luka Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the game. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo returned the compliment.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

Antetokounmpo and Doncic are two of the guys in the early MVP conversation, along with Curry, Jayson Tatum and a few others. It turns out, those first two also have a mutual admiration society going.

3) Clippers Ivica Zubac put up a monster 31 and 29 line against Pacers

No Kawhi Leonard, no Paul George, but the Clippers picked up another win on Sunday knocking off the Pacers 114-100.

Thank Ivica Zubac, who had a monster 31-point, 20-rebound game.

After the game, Zubac was made he fouled out before he could get his 30th rebound and have a 30-30 game.

Quietly, Zubac is having a fantastic defensive season for the Clippers, but like the rest of the team his offense has been up and down as they try to adjust to ever-changing lineups. That Clipper defense locked down the Pacers in the second half, plus Indy was just off shooting 9-of-42 from 3.

Zubac found his offense, the Pacers had no answer for him, and the Clippers have a win and improved to 12-9 because of it.

Curry drains 7 3-pointers, Nets start homestand with win over Blazers

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NEW YORK — Kevin Durant scored 31 points, Seth Curry added a season-high 29 off the bench and the Brooklyn Nets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 111-94 on Sunday.

Curry was 7 for 10 on 3-pointers and had his highest point total with the Nets and the most by a Brooklyn reserve this season.

“I’ve always felt like if I get good shots I’m going to make them at a high clip,” Curry said. “Our offense was flowing pretty well. Guys found me open early on to start the game and I felt pretty good, aggressive.”

Kyrie Irving added 22 points for the Nets. Ben Simmons took just three shots but had 12 rebounds and eight assists.

“Ben did a great job of getting downhill,” Curry said. “He’s a great passer (and) he knows how to find me out there on the floor.”

Jerami Grant scored 29 points for Portland. Jusuf Nurkic had 17 points and 14 rebounds, while Anfernee Simons added 15 points and Justice Winslow had 14.

The Nets have won four of their last six games, while the Trail Blazers, who are playing without Damian Lillard, have dropped five of six.

“Tough little stretch that we’re in right now,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said. “It is what it is. Every team goes through it.”

Brooklyn made 52.6% of its shots from the field overall, and 42.9% from 3-point range, in the second matchup between the teams in 10 days.

“It’s a make-or-miss league,” Durant said. “It’s about baskets.”

With the Nets leading by four entering the fourth, Curry scored Brooklyn’s first eight points of the quarter. Royce O'Neale‘s free throw gave the Nets a 93-87 lead and following a Portland turnover, Curry made a 3 that extended the advantage to nine.

Nurkic sandwiched a hook shot and free throw around two free throws by Irving to cut Brooklyn’s lead to 98-90. However, after a timeout, Durant hit a 3 to push the lead to 101-90.

Brooklyn led 58-57 at halftime, and 84-80 after the third quarter.

T.J. Warren targets Dec. 2 for return to court for Brooklyn Nets

2022-2023 Brooklyn Nets Media Day
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T.J. Warren was a breakout star in the bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers.

Warren has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot.

The Nets signed him this season hoping he could get healthy and provide some depth off the bench at the four. We’re about to find out if that can happen on Dec. 2, with Warren targeting his return then Toronto, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Nets have not confirmed this timeline. However, coach Jacque Vaughn has recently talked up Warren’s workouts and hinted that a return is getting close.

A healthy Warren could be a big boost for a Nets team looking for more of a spark off the bench.