The Toronto Raptors took the season series against the Philadelphia 76ers 3-1, with two of those wins coming post-trade deadline with James Harden on the Sixers roster. They did that despite Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby missing three of the four games. And guess what? None of that really matters.
The NBA playoffs are a different beast with more preparation and game planning, shorter rotations, different schemes, and most importantly, more physicality. As I wrote about last week, defenders are given significantly more freedom to bump and grind with offensive players in the playoffs, both on the perimeter and in the post, making blow-bys less common and leading defences to collapse less often. It’s why scoring and efficiency both tend to drop off dramatically in the playoffs, and why players with one-dimensional scoring arsenals are so often hit with a reality check.
That has certainly been the case for a couple of key Raptors in past postseasons, with both Pascal Siakam and VanVleet struggling to score against different, more aggressive and in-tune schemes. In fact, a great example came against the 76ers in 2019, when VanVleet was taken completely out of the rotation due to his inability to get any shots off against the Sixers’ lengthy defenders (he scored a total of 14 points in 118 minutes). Siakam dropped 29 points on just 15 shots in Game 1 with Tobias Harris defending him, then struggled to score once the Sixers put Joel Embiid on him from Game 2 onwards.
Things have obviously changed in the three years since, both for the Raptors and the Sixers, with only the four players mentioned above still on their respective teams, as well as coach Nick Nurse. But I thought it would be worthwhile to go back and watch that series to see what could be taken away from the last time these two teams matched up in the playoffs, including what has changed and what has stayed the same for each team. It’s an imperfect sample, of course, but so are the regular-season games where VanVleet and Anunoby were missing or where James Harden was still a Brooklyn Net.
Riding the highs and lows
“It was a wild series, right?" Nurse says about 2019. "I think that both teams were pronounced dead about three times in the series. And it went all the way to Game 7 to the last second. So, there was so many close games and so many blowouts in the same series. And I guess that was kind of my point earlier: get ready, man. It's gonna be some wild swings and be ready to accept them the way they are and get back to work.”
We talk a lot about staying even-keeled over the course of the playoffs, and the Raptors were able to do that in 2019 thanks in large part to Kawhi Leonard’s stoic demeanour. But lurking beneath the surface was an entire organization that understood that what happens in Game 1 might be different than what happens in Game 4, and that what happens in Round 1 might be different than Round 2. And they approached the playoffs with that in mind.
In fact, nobody better exemplifies how quickly things can change than VanVleet, who went from unplayable against the Sixers to one of the most important Raptors against both the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, starting the second half of games by the time they won the championship. And his example is one that several of the young Raptors will have to take with them if they hope to make any noise in the playoffs, let alone in the first round against the Sixers.
“He certainly learned a lot in that series," Nurse said about VanVleet. "He finished out the next two pretty tough. It’s kind of a little bit what I’ve talked about twice already: This is the playoffs and this stuff happens. There may be a game or a series when you’re not all that. You’ve got to bounce back and you may be the next series. Those are some of the things that unless you’ve been through it, hit your radar as a young player, you think: ‘It’s not going to happen to me. I’m not gonna be that guy.’ It might."
The young Raptors are going to have to understand that the playoffs are an entirely different environment — one where the highs and lows are both magnified, and can get to you if you’re not careful. But they’re also a learning opportunity, as they can stretch on for months and allow you to develop different parts of your game.
“My advice to them is just, through all the madness and crazy stuff that's going to be going on throughout the course of the game, all the adversity that you're going to fight, just manage to stay level-headed and stay poised, never get too high or too low, always try to be at even keel,” Thaddeus Young said about the wisdom he is imparting to the Raptors.
The good news is that this young Raptors team has been surprisingly composed this season, never losing more than three games in a row, fighting its way back into games after being down big, and finishing the season on a 14-4 run during its most important and pressure-filled stretch. They’re also playing with house money, already far surpassing everyone's expectations of them, and the pressure will be on their opponents.
Imposing your identity
Now that we’ve gotten some of the intangibles out of the way, let’s talk about how these teams match up stylistically, and how each of their styles tend to transfer to the playoffs.
The Raptors like to play fast, using their hyper-aggressive defensive scheme to force turnovers at a league-high rate to fuel a transition offence that scores at a top-5 mark. The Sixers, on the other hand, don’t turn the ball over very often, and they like to slow the game down and play methodical half-court basketball, especially with Harden on the floor. They also like to slow the game down in the form of getting to the free-throw line, doing so at a league-high rate, with Embiid and Harden ranking No. 1 and 3 in free-throw attempts per game, combining to average 20.7.
But there are reasons to believe both teams will have trouble imposing their preferred style on this matchup.
For the Raptors, the game always slows down in the playoffs, with teams putting the ball only in their best players’ hands and being more careful to avoid turnovers. Plus, the Sixers will make a point to send multiple bodies back in transition defence after missed shots to avoid giving the Raptors easy fast-break points. The Sixers haven't done this well this season, though, achieving the rare feat of being the worst-ranked offensive rebounding team and also a bottom-four transition defence team, which basically means they’re lazy. They won’t be in the playoffs, so while the Raptors will still get stops and turnovers with their aggressive schemes, they will have a much harder time executing in transition when everyone is sprinting back.
However, the Sixers are likely going to have a hard time playing their preferred style. They won't draw as many fouls due to the “playoff whistle” and the referees’ tendency to avoid calling touch fouls or non-basketball fouls. And the Raptors will likely do everything they can to speed them up, sending full-court pressure and double-teams to get the ball out of Harden and Embiid’s hands and make their role players make decisions with the ball.
Sometimes you’ll even see the Raptors press up on a ball-handler to encourage them to drive and force rotations for the purposes of speeding up the possession. The Raptors will do that because they know that if it’s a slow, methodical half-court game, that plays into the Sixers’ strengths, where they have the fifth-most effective half-court offence compared to the Raptors' 26th.
The X-factor stylistically will be offensive rebounding. Namely, do the Raptors continue to punish the Sixers on the glass like they did all season, where they were the No. 2 offensive rebounding team in the league? And if they can, do the Sixers in turn start sending bodies of their own to the glass, where the Raptors are still a below-average team when it comes to defensive rebounding? Of course, that would open up more transition opportunities for the Raptors, and the Sixers haven’t played that way all season, so it’s unlikely they change now.
All in all, Toronto needs to win the possession battle if it has any hope of winning the series. Going back to 2019, the Raptors were a very effective fast-break team in the regular season, and that dried up against the Sixers, forcing them to lean heavily on Leonard in the halfcourt. But now the Raptors are a fast-break team and an offensive rebounding team, and unless the Sixers can stop both, they could be in trouble.
The battle of Cameroon
We’ve beaten around the bush long enough. It’s time we talk about the most important matchup of the series: Embiid vs. Siakam.
This is where it helps to go back to 2019, where Embiid guarded Siakam from Game 2 onwards and limited him significantly. The Sixers are a very different team now with fewer wing defenders to throw at Siakam, but their contingency plan is the same: Stick Embiid on Siakam, have him drop back and protect the rim (where Siakam shoots 67 percent) and use their lengthy wing defenders on the Raptors' perimeter players.
That’s not a bad plan. In fact, it might be their best. The Sixers could really bother the likes of VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. by sticking bigger wings like Matisse Thybulle on them, forcing them to get off the ball and act as spot-up options. But the Raptors have been best all season with Siakam running the offence, and while he struggled against Embiid in the past, this is a different Siakam.
Just like VanVleet went back to the lab to speed up and extend his three-point shooting in order to be effective against big teams like the Sixers after 2019, Siakam went to the lab to round out his game. He talks a lot about being an “all-around player,” and has become extremely difficult to scheme for because of it.
In the case of Embiid guarding him, the most important improvement Siakam made is in the mid-range, where Embiid will give him space in order to protect the rim. In 2019, he barely shot mid-range jumpers (only 23 during the season and 28 in the playoffs), and couldn’t get his push shots and floaters to go over Embiid. Now, those are some of his most effective shots. If Embiid guards him, that shot will be there all series.
Otherwise, the Raptors can play Siakam off-ball and have him spot up from three, taking Embiid away from the paint completely. While it’s true that Siakam is shooting fewer threes this season, he has hit 48 percent of his corner threes, so that would be another option.
“For me, my feeling has always been that I can attack anybody,” Siakam said about the Embiid matchup. “It’s about reads and sometimes the read is going to be to pass it out or the read is going to be to attack him or the read is going to be to shoot. I can’t predict that.”
The other way that the Raptors can exploit that matchup is on the offensive glass. If Embiid has to come out to defend Siakam near the perimeter, it will open the glass for even more put-back attempts from the other Raptors.
In other words, the hopes of unlocking a decent half-court Raptors offence lays with Siakam, and the Raptors might need to put the ball in his hands even more than usual against the Sixers. The good news is that Siakam has been dramatically more efficient this season in games with a higher usage and more shot attempts, so while it’s a tall task, it’s one that he should be up for.
The wild cards: Harden and Achiuwa
There is always a wild card. In every series, there is a player or two who surprises everyone, including their own teammates, in a good way or bad.
In 2019 it was Ben Simmons. That was the first time we saw that he was afraid to get fouled and go to the free-throw line, passing open layups and standing in the dunker spot without helping his team on offence. Later in the series, the Sixers put the ball in Jimmy Butler’s hands, marking the start of a downhill spiral for Simmons.
For the Raptors, it was less of a player and more of a personnel decision: Nurse went big starting in Game 4, playing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol together in the frontcourt to match the Sixers’ length and they never went back. The Raptors have tried to play Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa together this season to alarmingly bad results, so I don’t expect that to be a big factor.
What I do expect to be a big factor is Achiuwa himself, and whether or not his three-point shooting can be sustained during the playoffs. After taking a total of one three-pointer last season, Achiuwa hit 35.9 percent of his 156 attempts, but teams still don’t guard him tightly on the perimeter until he makes a couple in their faces. The Sixers will likely leave him open and dare him to shoot, and he could make them pay and force them to adjust their defensive scheme if he does.
But if he can’t knock them down, what else is he doing on offence? Achiuwa’s off-the-dribble game has been unlocked by the shooting, but if that’s not going down, he will have a hard time finding a role on offence, which could mean fewer minutes to do what he is so good at: defend. The Raptors will need Achiuwa to limit the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, since he is probably their most stout defender on Embiid and can seamlessly switch onto Harden. But he’s a wild card because the shooting sample size is so small, and he will have to prove himself in the playoffs.
On the other side of things, Harden has looked terrible as of late, not just because he lost a bit of burst, but more importantly because he just looks afraid of shooting or driving, playing right into the Raptors’ hands by getting off the ball as soon as he sees an extra body. If Harden is the second-best player in this series behind Embiid, the Sixers should win.
But with a history of playoff disappointments, especially in elimination games, Harden has all the pressure on him and has struggled to succeed against the Raptors’ length all season. Can they defend him in single-coverage, having Anunoby or Scottie Barnes guard him while sending all the extra attention towards Embiid? Or will Harden make them pay and demand extra help himself?
What version of Harden we see is anybody's guess, which is what makes him the Sixers’ wild card.
The Sixers are the better team on paper, with the best player in the series. But Harden is a wild card and the roster lacks two-way depth. The Raptors have a much stronger identity, but they’re also significantly younger, so I anticipate some frustrating mistakes.
At the end of the day, this will come down to composure, with one team employing a coach in Doc Rivers who has blown three different 3-1 leads and has the most Game 7 losses in NBA history carrying a franchise that's all-in, while the other has Nurse and is playing with house money.
The Sixers are good, but they’re not scary. Raptors in 7.
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