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.