How the Sixers are turning the Raptors' principles against them
There was a strong consensus that the first-round tilt between the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors would, at the least, be a long and competitive series, though opinion was split on who would win. So far, the proceedings have been extremely one-sided, with Philly holding serve at home by an average margin of 17.5 points.
Simple misfortune played a role, to be sure; the Raptors lost dynamic rookie Scottie Barnes to an ankle sprain near the end of Game 1 and saw two more rotation players (Gary Trent Jr. and Thaddeus Young) lose all semblance of utility due to an illness and a sprained thumb, respectively. The Sixers already have more top-end talent, so an uphill climb for the Raptors became even steeper after that significant blow to their depth.
But the talent mismatch doesn't tell the whole story of Games 1 and 2. Neither does the officiating, even though the free-throw disparity between the two teams has unsurprisingly (and, in a couple instances, justifiably) incensed Raptors players, coaches, and fans. Toronto had certain advantages it was expected to impose on this matchup. There's a reason plenty of pundits predicted the Raptors to push the series the distance or outright win it, despite Philly rostering by far the best player on the court in Joel Embiid. More surprising than the Sixers being up 2-0 is how they got there: by turning all the Raptors' principles against them and swinging Toronto's presumptive tactical edges in Philly's favor.
To win the regular-season series between the two teams, the Raptors needed to overcome a significant deficit in shot-making and half-court offense. They did so by winning all the little battles in the margins that they made a point of controlling all season: They worked the Sixers on the offensive glass, turned them over a ton, and ran them ragged in transition, all while tamping down the individual production of Joel Embiid and James Harden with multiple layers of help defense.
But across the non-garbage-time portions of Games 1 and 2, the Sixers rebounded a higher share of their own misses than the Raptors did, got out in transition far more frequently than their reptilian foes, turned the ball over on just 11% of their possessions, and posted an ungodly 139.2 offensive rating.
The real shame for the Raptors is that their biggest weakness - the ability to score against a set defense - has actually been a strength so far in the series. During the regular season, their first-shot half-court offense ranked 26th, producing just 91.3 points per 100 possessions. Thanks to the drop-busting pull-up shooting of Fred VanVleet and the mismatch-hunting iso-scoring exploits of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, that number is up to 110.1 in the playoffs. (For context, that's nine points per 100 better than the Hawks' league-best regular-season mark.) The Sixers have been better in that department, but only slightly (112.3).
The disparity has shown up in transition instead, in the exact opposite way that we all anticipated. The Raptors played a higher percentage of their offensive possessions in transition than any team but the Grizzlies this season, while the Sixers, prone to walking the ball up the floor and setting up grinding post possessions, finished bottom 10 in transition frequency. Take a look at how that's flipped:
The Sixers, by their own admission, came into this series focused on keeping the Raptors out of transition and off the glass. The clarity and precision with which they've executed that game plan has been extremely impressive.
From the opening tip in Game 1, Philly laid the groundwork with a concerted gang-rebounding effort, creating a shell around its own basket that the Raptors were unable to penetrate:
The Sixers also made a point of sprinting back in defensive transition - though it helped that they canned over 50% of their shots, rebounded a bunch of the ones they missed, paraded to the free-throw line, and committed just one live-ball turnover during the competitive portion of the game. Toronto simply didn't have many opportunities to run.
The Raptors did win the offensive rebounding battle in Game 2, but it came at a cost. They resorted to low-percentage gambles that the Sixers were able to capitalize on with numbers going the other way. Pay attention to how far behind the play Chris Boucher (first play) and Anunoby (second play) put themselves on these no-hope crashes:
For months, the Raptors have chased their own misses like bloodhounds and suffered basically no consequences. During the regular season, they pulled off the rare twin feat of finishing second in offensive rebound rate and first in limiting opponents' transition opportunities. But the Sixers, led by the irrepressible blur that is Tyrese Maxey, are tilting the risk-reward balance of Toronto's crash-happy approach. The Raptors looked unprepared for and almost shellshocked by the pace Philly played with at home.
Of course, the Sixers also scored at a robust rate in the half court, and they did so by leveraging Toronto's penchant for helping (and in many cases overhelping) in the middle of the floor. That's a tactic the Raptors employ to sow chaos and create turnovers, but also to help compensate for a lack of rim protection. It typically leaves them vulnerable to corner threes, but Philly made them pay in larger part by attacking from the wings, stationing Maxey and Tobias Harris in those slots, and having them extend advantages after their defenders slid over to the nail to protect against drives.
Those two repeatedly gashed the Raptors as second-side attackers and play finishers, either splashing catch-and-shoot triples or zooming through diagonal gaps and collapsing the second layer of defense:
Maxey has understandably gotten most of the plaudits (averaging 30.5 points on 85% true shooting will do that), but in many ways, Harris' performance has been the more revelatory development. This is a player with a well-documented habit of overthinking, over-dribbling, and record-scratching out of open threes who's now making instantaneous decisions, mapping the floor, and firing away with a lightning-quick trigger.
It's not like they're just capitalizing on edges created by Embiid, either. Maxey's had zero issues breaking down the Raptors' point-of-attack defense from a standstill, and Harris is a perfect 3-for-3 in isolation. Their combined scoring punch helped produce perhaps the single most surprising stat of the postseason so far: The Sixers are plus-12 in 22 minutes with Embiid on the bench. (Whittle that down to the 13 minutes Embiid's been off while Maxey's been on, and Philly is plus-20 with a 177.8 offensive rating.)
That said, the Raptors could arguably make things a lot easier on themselves by paying less attention to Harden. Wanting to load up on one of the greatest offensive players ever is understandable, and star-stopping is elemental to Nick Nurse's defensive philosophy. But this version of Harden isn't the scoring threat he once was, especially inside the arc. He's 4-for-15 from 2-point range in the series. That's partly because of the help he's attracting and partly because he lacks the burst to blow by defenders or finish consistently when challenged at the rim.
Shading extra bodies toward him at the top of the floor feels like letting him off the hook; it allows him to access his passing (the one element of his game that hasn't declined at all this season) and takes pressure off of him as a scorer. Harden deserves credit for getting off the ball early rather than pounding the air out of it, but the Raptors are making a lot of those decisions for him.
Here, for instance, there was just no need for Precious Achiuwa to help this aggressively from the wing when VanVleet was still firmly attached to Harden coming off a screen and Young was dropped back in the paint:
Even more galling, all that help in the middle hasn't produced its desired effect. The Sixers have taken 32.9% of their shots within 4 feet of the basket (higher than their regular-season rate) and scored on 71% of those at-rim attempts. Maxey and Harris have combined to shoot 12-for-12 inside the restricted area, while Embiid has gone a mere 7-for-10.
Embiid hasn't gotten much mention here yet because his excellence is a given, but he has made adjustments of his own to help break Toronto's defense. Most importantly, he's busting his tail down the floor to get early seals and establish deep position before the Raptors can load up on him in the fashion we're used to seeing. These buckets won't show up in the transition numbers, but they are just as much a product of end-to-end hustle:
Sure, it helps that the officials haven't let the ever-physical Raptors defense get away with many of the bumps and grabs that are instrumental to stopping the best post scorer in a generation if you don't roster a player taller than 6-foot-9. But Embiid is causing tons of problems for Toronto beyond his frequent trips to the stripe.
Take it all together, and you see the shape of a great game plan drawn up by Doc Rivers and his staff, executed to near-perfection by a Sixers team that looks like it's flipping a switch. You also see a lot of uncharacteristically poor defensive execution from the Raptors. That doesn't mean things won't change, or that this series is anywhere near over. At minimum, the Raptors can reasonably expect the Sixers won't keep hitting 52% of their above-the-break threes.
But shooting regression alone won't level the scales. So far, the Sixers haven't just been the more talented team; they've also been the more prepared and tactically sound team. The Raptors only have it in their power to correct the latter. If they don't, this series will be over in a hurry.
Joe Wolfond is a feature writer for theScore.
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