The second round of the playoffs are on the immediate horizon, and two NBA powerhouses will be meeting in the post-season for the first time since 2001.
The Philadelphia 76ers and and the Toronto Raptors are coming off the back of two convincing first-round victories against the Brooklyn Nets and Orland Magic, respectively, and each series was all said and done in a matter of five games.
Ways to win
While the season series between the 76ers and the Raptors finished up 3-1 in Toronto’s favour, the playoffs are an entirely different beast, and this series may well be all-but decided in the opening two games at the Scotiabank arena.
Both teams have been notoriously good at defending their home court in the regular season, but it’s on the road that the Sixers will need to prove their playoff worth. If Philly can steal that elusive homecourt advantage with a win in Toronto, it could well tip the balance of this series in their favour early on. But losses in those first two games on the road could increase the amount of pressure on the Sixers tenfold.
In the regular season, Toronto sat comfortably with the third-best away record in the NBA. The 76ers have experienced a rather different story. They could only muster 21 wins on the road in comparison to Toronto’s 26, but crucially, the Sixers haven’t won away in Toronto since November 10, 2012, experiencing 13 losses since that sole victory more than six years ago.
The Raptors can assert their dominance in this series early. No one embodied this dominance more than Kawhi Leonard when matched up against the Sixers. Philadelphia was handed its 13th consecutive loss in Canada after a 36-point outing from the small forward to go along with five steals and 5 of 6 shooting from beyond the arc. This scoring output was bettered that night by the Sixers’ Jimmy Butler, who ended the game with 38 points and 10 rebounds.
This wasn’t enough for the Sixers to avoid a loss, but scoring of this ilk will likely continue in this series.
Toronto Raptors – Marc Gasol
He may not be the standout player for Toronto – that title is clearly reserved for the say-little-score-lots Kawhi Leonard – but Marc Gasol, specifically his defensive capabilities, could be the most important factor coming into this series. Against Orlando, he limited its All-Star Nikola Vučević to just 11.2 points per game coming off of a regular season where he had averaged 20.8 points and shot 51 percent from the field. When Gasol was on him for the majority of the first round, his percentage plummeted to a measly 36 percent.
Joel Embiid is somewhat of a different and all round more challenging player to guard. His performance against the Nets in the first round helped propel them to a convincing series, in which he averaged 24.8 points and 13.5 rebounds per contest. But Gasol will be a trickier matchup than the combination of Jarrett Allen and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, and the big Spaniard showed how he can be problematic for the charismatic Cameroonian. At Memphis earlier in the season, Gasol helped hold Embiid to averages of 14 points on 34.4% from the field to go along with 4.4 turnovers per game. Stats like these are sub-par for Embiid who has been dominant all season long, and his defense on the All-Star center could be paramount to the Raptors gaining an early advantage.
If Gasol can stop JoJo from getting into his groove, things could cause problematic for Philly.
Philadelphia 76ers – Ben Simmons
Before the slander from you die-hard NBA fans comes in, hear me out.
Ben Simmons has had it rough in the first round. Not statistically of course. In fact, stats are something that weigh heavily in his favour with numbers of 17.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 7.6 assists per game to go along with vastly improved defensive metrics 1.2 steals and blocks per outing this post-season.
In the first round, Simmons played against a man by the name of Jared Dudley. For those of you who don’t know him, the name Jared Dudley is actually one of an NBA player, not a fictional character from Looney Tunes. Nevertheless, Dudley got under Simmons’ skin as his performances against the Nets varied massively. Thankfully for Simmons, he seemed to improve after a Game 1 loss to forget, after finishing with 9 points to his name and looking fairly timid. His next two games featured a triple double and a 31-point playoff-high in Game 3.
When Simmons is on song, the Sixers look like a different team entirely. His aggression on the fast break is less effective in the slower playoff pace, but if he can replicate his performances in the latter stages of the first round, the Sixers have a great chance of progressing.
Raptors in 6
Toronto will have enough to edge it out, but it’s all on those first two games. If the Raptors take them, then it’s theirs to lose. Kawhi Leonard’s playoff experience will prove invaluable to the Raptors’ success and I’d bank on him showing up in the crunch time to halt this young Sixers squad in its tracks.
Feature photo – Bill Streicher / USA TODAY Sports / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington