Eastern Conference semifinals preview: Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers

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The second-seeded Toronto Raptors and third-seeded Philadelphia 76ers both won their first-round series in five games on Tuesday, defeating the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets, respectively. The two franchises have not met in the playoff since Allen Iverson’s Sixers defeated Vince Carter’s Raptors over seven games in 2001.

How they got here

Toronto: After losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a third straight time in the playoffs last spring, the Raptors rejoiced with LeBron James’ departure to the Western Conference, and then upgraded from DeMar DeRozan to Kawhi Leonard in preparation for another swing at the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance.

Leonard came as advertised, playing at an All-NBA level when the organization wasn’t managing the load on a leg that kept him out for much of last season. The trade for Leonard also brought veteran Danny Green, who helped form one of the league’s deepest and most versatile wing rotations, with contributions from Most Improved Player favorite Pascal Siakam and second-year small forward OG Anunoby, whose emergency appendectomy cost him the team’s first-round series.

The midseason addition of former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol bolstered a frontcourt that already featured Serge Ibaka, allowing new head coach Nick Nurse to field lineups big and small, both full of shooters at every position. Likewise, All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry and backup Fred VanVleet ensure that Nurse can employ a tough — and tough-minded — general on the floor at all times.

Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard both have a chance to be the best players in the 76ers-Raptors series. (Getty Images)
Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard both have a chance to be the best players in the 76ers-Raptors series. (Getty Images)

The result was another near 60-win campaign, the East’s second seed and a first-round date with the Magic. Toronto’s Game 1 loss was an ugly reminder of the franchise’s playoff foibles, and another Lowry disappearance did not help, but the Raptors recovered to stomp out Orlando on the strength of Leonard and Siakam — a pair of long and athletic swingmen seemingly made for the modern NBA.

Philadelphia: Despite a five-game loss to the undermanned Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals a season ago, the Sixers returned as one of the most promising young teams in the NBA, armed with budding superstars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, both of whom submitted All-Star campaigns this year.

Simmons stagnated a bit, continuing to average in the neighborhood of a triple-double (17-9-8) while failing to progress as a shooter, but Embiid established himself as a bona fide MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He is as close to a dominant throwback center as there is in the pace-and-space era.

In the quest for a third star to pair with their young guns, the Sixers swung big for two — Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, both of whom can create offense and defend multiple positions. Those midseason acquisitions came at the potential expense of team chemistry and definitive expense of Philadelphia’s depth. The Sixers jettisoned willing role players Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Landry Shamet, among others, for two players who need touches to be fully realized.

Still, there are few lineups more talented than Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Harris and J.J. Redick, still one of the NBA’s deadliest shooters 13 seasons into his career. We’ll have more on them later, but talent alone carried them to another 51 wins and a second straight conference semifinals appearance, even if it did not come easy.

Philadelphia’s Game 1 loss to Brooklyn raised familiar questions about the fit of their stars, whether or not Simmons can truly impact a competitive playoff series and Embiid’s longevity. The 7-footer is battling tendinitis in the same left knee that cut his rookie season short. It cost him Game 3 of the series, and his conditioning is clearly not what it needs to be against superior teams, even if he played through pain to post monster double-doubles in Games 4 and 5 against the Nets.

The Raptors acquired Marc Gasol for a matchup like this one against Joel Embiid. (Getty Images)
The Raptors acquired Marc Gasol for a matchup like this one against Joel Embiid. (Getty Images)

Head to head

None of the four regular-season meetings between the Raptors and 76ers was decided by single digits, and Leonard rested in the lone lopsided victory that went Philadelphia’s way. Likewise, the two Atlantic Division rivals played all four of their games before trade deadline deals sent Harris to Philly and Gasol to Toronto.

In other words, we should use caution applying any head-to-head lessons we learned from the regular season to this series. Markelle Fultz started their first meeting on Oct. 30, which goes to show how much can change in an NBA season.

The averages of Embiid (26.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, three assists and two blocks) and Simmons (16.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists on 62.8 percent shooting) against the Raptors were what you would expect, and Philadelphia got 42.7 combined points per game from Butler and Redick in three games apiece against Toronto. That the Sixers still dropped three of four to the Raptors is of concern.

Toronto got contributions up and down the roster, which makes making sense of their head-to-head meetings all the more difficult, while also speaking to their depth advantage. Know this: Leonard was exceptional against Philly, averaging 30.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, four steals and 2.7 assists in 34.6 minutes per game. Jonas Valanciunas and Ibaka also played big roles, so it will be interesting to see how Gasol performs opposite Embiid after being acquired for the Lithuanian in February.

Likely starting lineups

Nurse settled on a starting lineup of Lowry, Green, Leonard, Siakam and Gasol in early March, and the Raptors have stuck with that quintet throughout the playoffs. They played 161 post-deadline minutes over 14 games together during the regular season, outscoring opponents by a healthy 12.2 points per 100 possessions, and they were even better in another 87 minutes with VanVleet subbing in for Lowry.

Those six players also played all of Toronto’s clutch minutes against Orlando. In a limited regular-season sample size, Toronto’s starting lineup played at an all-time level offensively, while the defense was merely the equivalent of a top-10 outfit this season. They were somehow better on both sides of the ball in the first round of the playoffs, outscoring the Magic by 84 points in 96 minutes over the five-game set.

Outside of rest and injury, the Sixers have held steady with their starting lineup of Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris and Embiid since the trade deadline. That group also played only 161 minutes together during the regular season, outscoring opponents by an even more impressive 17.6 points per 100 possessions. Both their offense and defense would have led the league if averaged over a full season.

Likewise, Philadelphia’s starting unit was a bear in the first round, outscoring the Nets by 71 points in 49 minutes over the four games in which Embiid appeared. That group likely would have closed the only competitive game of the series were Butler not ejected for engaging in a shoving match with Nets forward Jared Dudley.

As we mentioned already, the Philadelphia and Toronto starting lineups, as currently constituted, did not face each other in full for a single minute in the regular season.

The Raptors can throw an array of defenders in Ben Simmons' way. (Getty Images)
The Raptors can throw an array of defenders in Ben Simmons' way. (Getty Images)

Matchups to watch

Simmons vs. a relentless defense: The Celtics essentially played the reigning Rookie of the Year off the court in last year’s conference semifinals by planting long-armed defenders at the free-throw line. Brooklyn doesn’t have the same array of defenders as Boston, but Toronto does — and has a handful of wings capable of hounding him further from the basket. The Raptors mostly threw Leonard at Simmons during the regular season, but Anunoby, Siakam and Green also switched onto him. Even Lowry and Ibaka got their shot, and all had varying degrees of success against Simmons — no one more so than Leonard, who held Simmons to 17 points on 15 shots and nine turnovers against 10 assists over 115 possessions.

Embiid vs. Gasol: There are few players better equipped to defend Embiid than Gasol, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. He is strong and smart, and has held up against the Sixers star as well as anyone. The two have not met on their current rosters, but in four games between the Sixers and Grizzlies over the past two seasons, Gasol has defended Embiid for 178 possessions, holding the game’s most dominant center to 29 points on 10-of-29 shooting (0 for 9 from 3) and forcing nine turnovers. It is game over for Philadelphia if Gasol can keep that up in this series.

Kawhi vs. everybody: In his return to the playoffs for the first time since an ankle injury derailed what seemed to be a special singular performance against the Golden State Warriors in 2017, Leonard has teetered between very good and extraordinary. He combined for 98 points on 66 percent shooting and finished a plus-95 over 70 minutes in Games 2, 4 and 5 against Orlando. He shot 40.5 percent and was a combined minus-1 in Games 1 and 3. This is his opportunity to truly reestablish himself as one of the league’s three or four biggest game-changers, and he will have to do so opposite two capable defenders in Butler and Simmons.

How Toronto can win

Leonard is the best player in the series, Gasol limits Embiid, and Toronto’s waves of capable two-way players overwhelm Philadelphia’s lack of depth. It all seems plausible, especially if Embiid’s knee continues to bother him. Another star turn from Siakam and Lowry avoiding another playoff meltdown wouldn’t hurt, either.

How Philadelphia can win

Embiid is the best player in the series, the Sixers find ways to get Simmons the ball around the rim, and the Butler/Harris combo shoots with precision. Both teams ranked in the top 10 in both 3-point percentage and defending the 3-point line, and whichever team wins that battle will have a leg up. The Sixers fell to league average shooting levels once they dealt their depth for Butler and Harris, and they cannot afford both of them going cold in this series. Redick holding his own on defense and some contribution from stretch forward Mike Scott would certainly help.

Prediction: Raptors in six.

Eastern Conference semifinals previews: No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 4 Boston CelticsNo. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers

Western Conference semifinals previews: No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 4 Houston RocketsNo. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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