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Tuesday, April 19, 2022

What Have We Learned After the First Two Games of the Philadelphia-Toronto Series?

The Philadelphia 76ers routed the Toronto Raptors in each of the first two games of their playoff series, winning 131-111 in game one and then winning 112-97 in game two. I picked Toronto to beat Philadelphia in six games, but it is obvious now that the Raptors face an uphill climb just to get back in the series; some commentators say that the home team winning the first two games is "just holding serve and the series does not begin until the road team wins a game," but the reality is that a team that wins the first two games of an NBA playoff series wins the series 92.4% of the time: history shows that to have a realistic chance to win a series a team must at least split the first two games. Playoff history in general and the specific way that the matchups have played out so far in this series indicate that the Raptors are in trouble.

All of that being said, the 2019 Toronto Raptors are one of the few teams to come back from a 2-0 deficit, beating the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals en route to winning the championship; that victory looks even more impressive in retrospect, because the Bucks won the NBA title just two years later. The 2022 Raptors have the same coach (Nick Nurse) and three of the same rotation players (Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby) as the 2019 Raptors--but, of course, the absence of Kawhi Leonard in 2022 is a big difference. When healthy, Leonard is the "dynasty killer." Also, the 2022 Raptors are currently without the services of Scottie Barnes, one of the leading Rookie of the Year candidates and perhaps the second best all-around player on the team.

Why are the 76ers up 2-0, and what--if anything--can the Raptors do to get back in the series?

1) The most valuable player in the series thus far has been Joel Embiid. This is not just about the numbers, which are actually subpar by his lofty standards (25.0 ppg, 13.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, .5 bpg, .452 FG%), but about his impact at both ends of the court: on offense, he is commanding double teams that are creating wide open shots for his teammates (the 76ers are shooting .516 from the field, including .484 from three point range), and on defense he is shutting down the paint, forcing the Raptors to rely on jump shots (the Raptors are shooting .456 from the field, including .371 from three point range). During the regular season, the Raptors went 3-1 versus Philadelphia--including 2-1 when Embiid played--but in the first two games of this series the Raptors fouled too much, rotated poorly to shooters, and thus they got the worst of both worlds: Embiid put the Raptors in foul trouble while scoring from the free throw line, and Embiid's teammates scored very efficiently (see below).

In the opening moments of game two, the Raptors played very aggressively and very physically, challenging Embiid at both ends of the court and taking a quick 11-2 lead, but then Embiid began drawing fouls, the Raptors stopped making shots, and the 76ers took control. 

The Raptors must put more pressure on the 76ers' ballhandlers to make it difficult to feed Embiid, they must do everything possible to deny Embiid opportunities to catch the ball in the paint, and they must defend the paint without fouling but also without giving up so many wide open shots. These are not easy things to do, but they are things that we have seen the Raptors do this season.

Embiid's conditioning and health are better now than at any other time during his playoff career, but a team must win 16 playoff games to be crowned champion. Can Embiid stay healthy and not wear down as the playoffs progress? The version of Embiid we saw in games one and two has a combination of size, strength, and skill not seen in the NBA since prime Shaquille O'Neal, but O'Neal established his legacy by winning four championships and not just by winning two first round home games.

2) Tyrese Maxey has been the leading scorer in the series (30.5 ppg on .688 field goal shooting). He has benefited from all of the defensive attention attracted by Embiid--which is called "gravity" when Stephen Curry is involved--but he has also demonstrated the ability to create his own shot, particularly in open court situations (and even in those situations he benefits from Embiid, because Embiid's defensive impact has fueled the 76ers' fast break). 

3) Tobias Harris seemed to suffer the most after James Harden's arrival in Philadelphia, but he has averaged 23.0 ppg on .640 field goal shooting in the first two games of this series. Harris scored at least 20 points in just four of his last 28 regular season games before scoring 26 and 20 versus Toronto. 

4) James Harden, rumored to be on the verge of being given a long-term contract valued at more than $200 million, has been the 76ers' fourth leading scorer in this series (18.0 ppg) while shooting .346 from the field. He is leading the team in assists (10.0 apg), steals (2.0 spg), and turnovers (3.0 tpg). Harden will never be the first option on a championship team, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that he is unlikely to ever be the second option on a championship team--but, perhaps he can be the third or fourth option on a championship team, with Embiid carrying most of the weight, one or two accurate shooters benefiting from the double teams Embiid draws, and Harden distributing the ball while reducing his shot attempts (and thus minimizing the damage caused by his perennially poor playoff shooting). I still can't picture the 76ers beating Miami, Boston, or Milwaukee (in whatever order you prefer to rank those three teams) in a seven game playoff series, but the 76ers seem to have enough to get by Toronto with Harden serving as the fourth option. How many championships would Harden have now if he had been willing to remain the third option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?

5) During the regular season, Toronto ranked seventh in points allowed (107.1 ppg) and eighth in rebounding (45.3 rpg) but in this series the Raptors are allowing 121.5 ppg while being outrebounded 40.0 rpg to 35.5 rpg. Barnes grabbed 10 rebounds in game one but was not able to play in game two, and no other Raptor is averaging more than 6.5 rpg in the series. These defensive and rebounding problems are primarily being caused by Embiid's presence, and it is not clear if the Raptors have answers to these challenges, particularly if Barnes remains unavailable.

6) Five Toronto players averaged at least 15.3 ppg during the regular season, but Barnes is out of action and Gary Trent Jr.--who has been impaired by a non-COVID-19 illness--is averaging just 4.5 ppg versus the 76ers.

7) Matisse Thybulle--who started 50 games for the 76ers during the regular season--has played less than 15 mpg during this series, and he will not be available in any games played in Toronto due to his COVID-19 vaccination status. At this point, it does not appear that his absence will have a major impact on this series, but it will change/shorten Philadelphia's rotation, which could matter if foul trouble and/or injuries take place during games three and four (or game six, if game six becomes necessary).

The top two priorities for Toronto are (1) Put more pressure on Embiid without giving up so many open shots to Maxey and Harris, and (2) either get more of a scoring contribution from Trent Jr. or else collectively get more scoring from the rest of the team.

The 76ers are obviously in command right now, but if the Raptors play up to their capabilities and win both home games then the 76ers will be under tremendous pressure in game five at Philadelphia. Embiid has yet to prove that he can sustain a high level of play during an extended playoff run, Harden is one of the worst playoff chokers of all-time, and Doc Rivers has coached multiple teams that blew large leads in playoff series, so if this series reaches 2-2 then there will be a lot for the 76ers and their fans to be concerned about.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:01 PM



At Tuesday, April 19, 2022 9:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"James Harden, rumored to be on the verge of being given a long-term contract valued at more than $200 million.... How many championships would Harden have now if he had been willing to remain the third option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?"

Isn't it rational in a capitalist society for him to have gone to play for non-championship teams where he'd be the big attraction, so as to maximize his earning power? He found buyers willing to pay a premium....


At Tuesday, April 19, 2022 9:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If Harden's primary goal was to maximize his earnings, then perhaps you are right. If his primary goal was to win a championship, then he would have "sacrificed" (I hesitate to use that word when so many people struggle just to obtain food and shelter) a few million dollars to maximize his opportunity to win a championship, which even players greater than he did (including Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, who took less than the max so that their teams could sign other players).

Harden would have earned generational wealth either way. If he ever publicly says, "I left OKC to get more money, and that mattered more to me than winning a championship," then I will praise him for being honest.

Also, he has found one main "buyer"--Daryl Morey, who brought him to Houston and now has brought him to Philadelphia. The Nets tired of Harden pretty quickly, and I doubt that they have any regrets that they will not be on the hook for over $200 million.

At Friday, April 22, 2022 2:02:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

I didn't watch the games due to timezone, but I've read coach Nurse is very upset with officiating. Is it really the case or is he just playing mind games?

At Friday, April 22, 2022 3:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I would say that it is a little of both. Embiid is given leeway to be physical, but he always draws a lot of fouls anyway so I am not convinced that he is being given more leeway than usual. His FTA/g and his fouls committed per game are not much different through three playoff games than they were during the regular season.

In general, the officiating during the playoffs--not just in this series--has been inconsistent from game to game. Some of the TV commentators have mentioned this, noting that it is difficult for players to adjust when the players don't know what will be called a foul and what will be let go.

On an unrelated but significant topic, note that Harden has cut down his three point attempts, increased his two point attempts, and he ranks fourth on the team in playoff scoring. He is not a bad fourth option, but he is miscast as a first option. It is amusing to see the "greatest scorer of all-time" (according to Daryl Morey) relegated to being the fourth option behind not only Embiid but also Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey.


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