Three things the Toronto Raptors must do to upset the Philadelphia 76ers

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The Toronto Raptors absolutely can win this series — I predicted they will.

Philadelphia has the better record and the best player in this series in Joel Embiid, plus arguably the second-best player in James Harden (more on him later). But this matchup may be the best one for Toronto and their unorthodox style of play — they are an intriguing defensive matchup and there are places for them to attack the 76ers’ defense.

A 4/5 series “upset” is not usually shocking, but if Toronto pulls this off it will be a punch to the gut of Philadelphia after it thought it moved into contender status after trading for Harden mid-season. There will be changes in Philly if they are on vacation before the calendar flips to May.

Game 1 is Saturday at 6 p.m. ET. Here are the three things the Raptors need to do to win the series.

1) Add to James Harden’s legacy of playoff disappointments

Trading to pair James Harden with Joel Embiid was supposed to be the final piece to the puzzle — a dominant perimeter player that meshed with Embiid’s inside game. A duo would turn the 76ers into an unstoppable force. How was anyone going to defend a Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll (or pop)?

But after a sizzling start tearing up the Knicks’ “defense,” Harden has been good, not great, as a 76er. He’s averaged 21 points and 10.5 assists a game as a Sixer with an impressive .608 true shooting percentage, but in big moments and games it has still been all about Embiid carrying Philly.

Toronto is especially well suited to frustrate Harden.

OG Anunoby likely gets the initial assignment, but Harden is not going to be able to force a switch to a favorable matchup against the Raptors because everyone is long and athletic — Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, Gary Trent Jr. (he can try the undersized Fred VanVleet, but he is an All-Defensive Team level player and pest, that is no easy matchup). Raptors coach Nick Nurse is unquestionably drilling “do not foul” into his wings’ heads, and if they can do that while taking away his drives, or at least limit his ability to score at the rim. That forces Harden into stepback 3s, and he hasn’t been as efficient with those as he was in Houston.

If Harden can’t get to the line like he wants, it could be a frustrating series for him, and if it’s frustrating for him the 76ers become the Embiid show.

2) Not let Joel Embiid win the series on his own (and win the minutes he sits)

Embiid is not going to win the MVP award this season, but he played well enough to (it’s not that the media hates him, even if he ruins his steaks, it was just one of those years). He averaged a league-leading 30.6 points a game and pulled down 11.7 rebounds a night, plus he is an improved passer and an elite rim protector. He does it all.

If Philadelphia is going to win this, Embiid has to have a monster series.

Toronto does not roll out a traditional big-man center to match up with Embiid, but it does roll out a number of athletic 6’9″ players who are long and bothersome. How Toronto coach Nick Nurse chooses to defend Embiid — he is one of the most creative Xs and Os coaches in the league — is one of the interesting questions of this series.

Embiid will put up numbers, and don’t be shocked if Toronto is willing to play the “let Embiid get his but shut everyone else down” game. The Raptors have the personnel to make life difficult for Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris and the rest of the 76ers roster — Philly needs big series from its support players.

This season has continued a long-running trend for the Sixers: They have a +7.5 net rating when Embiid is on the court and a -4 net rating when he sits. And Embiid needs to get some rest during this series to play at his peak. Toronto’s depth and style — they hit the offensive glass hard when Achiuwa and Chris Boucher play together — are poised to maximize those non-Embiid minutes. Paul Reed has had his moments and Philly will need more of them — and more from Harden and the role players — when Embiid sits, or those minutes could decide the series.

3) Win a game in Philadelphia and force the 76ers to win one without Matisse Thybulle

When the series shifts north of the border, Philadelphia will be without All-Defensive Team player Matisse Thybulle, their best perimeter defender by a country mile. Thybulle has chosen not to get vaccinated. Canadian regulations require a lengthy quarantine period for non-vaccinated entrants to their country, which means Thybulle is out for the road games in this series.

That is a massive blow in this series — the 76ers’ defense is 4.2 points per 100 possessions worse when Thybulle is off the court this season. He is also their best matchup against Siakam, who averaged 22.8 points and played at an All-NBA level this season (Siakam may just miss making the All-NBA teams, but he will get votes and be close). When these teams played just over a week ago in Toronto, Siakam went off for 37 points (and could have had 40+ easily if his 3-pointers fell at a normal rate).

Without Thybulle, Philly will have to win in a shootout north of the border, which is a difficult ask. The Sixers need to own home court, and if Toronto can get out in transition, get some easy buckets and win one at the Wells Fargo Center, it will change the dynamic of this series.

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.

Draymond Green wants to play 4-5 more years, ideally with Warriors, not stressed about contract

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Jordan Poole got a contract extension from the Warriors this summer. So did Andrew Wiggins.

Draymond Green did not — and he punched Poole and was away from the team for a time.

All this has led to speculation about the future of Green in Golden State. He has a $27.6 million player option for next season, but he could become a free agent this summer. With the Warriors’ payroll through the roof — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are on max extensions, Poole and Wiggins just got paid, and contract extensions for Jonathan Kuminga and the rest of the young players are coming — there are questions about how long Green will be in the Bay Area.

In an open and honest interview with Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Green talked about everything from his relationship with Poole after the punch to his future. Here are a few highlights:

“I want to play another four or five more years. That would be enough for me.”

“You can look around the NBA right now. There are five guys that’s been on a team for 11 years-plus. We have three of them [along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson]. It’s a very rare thing. There’s 470, 480 players in the NBA? There are five guys that’s been with his team for 11 years plus. That’s amazing. So, you don’t just give that away. So, absolutely I’d be interested in that.”

On rumors he wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers: “I never said that. People can say what they want. I’m also not really one to react much to what one may say. I react to things when I want to react to it. I don’t react to things just because somebody said it.”

Is he worried about his next contract: “No, not at all. I have a great agent [Rich Paul]. The best agent in the business. That’s why you align yourself with an incredible agent, because they handle the business. I play basketball. That’s what I want.”

I don’t doubt there is mutual interest in Green staying with the Warriors, the question is at what price. It’s not a max. As for the threat of him bolting, Green is still an elite defender and secondary playmaker, but it’s fair to wonder what the free agent market would look like for him. Green is not the scoring threat he once was, and his unique skill set is not a plug-and-play fit with every roster and system (does he really fit on the Lakers, for example).

The conventional wisdom around the league right now is that Green will opt into the final year of his contract with the Warriors — especially if they make another deep playoff run — because that level of money is not out there for him. That said, it only takes one owner to fall in love with the idea and send his GM out to get the deal done. The market may be there for him after all, or he may be open to the security of three or four years with another team but at a lower per-year dollar amount.

Green also talks about his relationship with Poole in the Q&A and makes it sound professional and business-like. Which is all it has to be, but it’s not the “playing with joy” model the Warriors are built upon.

 

Lakers reportedly leaning toward packaging Beverley, Nunn in trade

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While the Lakers have looked better of late winning 6-of-8 with a top-10 offense and defense in the league in that stretch, plus Anthony Davis continues to play at an All-NBA level at center.

That run — which still has Los Angeles sitting 13th in the West — came against a soft part of the schedule (three wins against the Spurs, for example), and is about to get tested with a few weeks of tougher games, starting with the suddenly healthy Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. While the Lakers have been better, nobody is watching them and thinking “contender.” Are they even a playoff team?

Which is why the Lakers are still in the market for trades. But Jovan Buha reports at The Athletic the Lakers realize moving Russell Westbrook and his $47 million may not happen, so they are focused more on a smaller deal moving Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn (with maybe a pick) to bring back quality role players to round out the roster).

The Lakers are leaning toward [a Nunn/Beverley trade] at this point, the team sources said. That would entail making a smaller move to marginally upgrade the roster while retaining the possibility of following up with a larger Westbrook deal later in the season…

Beverley ($13 million) and Nunn ($5.3 million) are both underperforming relative to their contracts. With the Lakers’ needs for additional size on the wing and a better complimentary big next to Anthony Davis, along with the roster’s glut of small guards, Beverley and/or Nunn are expendable. Packaged together, the Lakers could acquire a player or players in the $20 million range.

Trading Nunn and Beverley lines up with a couple of good options from the Lakers’ perspective. For example, the salaries work to get Bojan Bogdanovic out of Detroit, or it matches up with a deal for Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson out of San Antonio. However, neither the Pistons nor Spurs care much about adding veteran guards on expiring contracts in Nunn and Beverley, so it’s going to require the Lakers throwing in one of their first-round picks unprotected (2027 or 2029) and maybe a second-rounder to get it done. (With how well the Pacers are playing, it’s not a sure thing that a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade is still available.) The Spurs trade may be more appealing to the Lakers because Richardson and Poeltl are expiring contracts, so it doesn’t change the Lakers’ plans to use cap space to chase bigger names this offseason (Bogdanovic was recently given a two-year, $39.1 million extension).

These may not be the “move us into contender range” blockbuster Rob Pelinka and the front office hoped was out there, but either of those trades would make the Lakers better. It could move them into playoff-team status, and considering LeBron James turns 38 at the end of the month they can’t waste a year and retool next offseason.

The Lakers have made a number of miscalculations over the years, but they are all-in with this group now and have to find a way to maximize it, even if the cost is a little painful.

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers

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The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.