7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: 76ers -6.5, Over/Under: 218
After a rousing opening weekend, the playoffs rage on as the Philadelphia 76ers look to take a commanding 2-0 lead over the Toronto Raptors in Game Two of their First Round Series from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Though it was only one game, it appears that the Raptors (48-34, 5th in Eastern Conference) are beginning the postseason in the same manner that they began the regular season, which did NOT inspire much confidence north of the border. Indeed, Toronto wasn’t expected to even be in this position, for coming into the campaign they were very much a team in transition. Some of their more pessimistic fans may have even called it rebuilding, which is exactly what happened as they parted ways with the last vestiges of their NBA Championship-winning side from 2019. A meager 9-13 through the month of November, (Head Coach) Nick Nurse and (General Manager) Masai Ujiri looked like they were ready to kick off a fire sale, with (2018-2019 Most Improved Player) Pascal Siakam (22.8 PTS, 49.4% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 74.9% FT, 8.5 REB, 5.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.6 BLK, 20.3 PER) reportedly on the trade block following a disappointing start to the season. However, something funny happened in Ontario: the team started winning. So, what in the name of Vince Carter got into the dinosaurs, you ask? Well, for all intents and purposes, this turnaround starts with Nurse, who should absolutely be among the leading candidates for Coach of the Year honors. The 54-year-old managed to overcome his troops’ offensive deficiencies by doubling down on the defensive end of the hardwood, where the mastermind has deployed nearly every defense under the sun, from halfcourt traps to exotic zones to box & ones that you may recognize from your local YMCA. Granted, it certainly helps that he has the personnel to do it, with the Raptors proving to be every bit as tenacious defensively as their namesake; on the season, Toronto ranked tenth overall in defensive rating (110.5), seventh in points allowed (107.1), second in offensive rebounding percentage (28.4%), second in both steals (9.0) and turnovers (15.8), along with first in the league in turnover percentage (14.4%). (Tough Guard) Fred VanVleet (20.3 PTS, 40.3% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 87.4% FT, 4.4 REB, 6.7 AST, 1.7 STL, 0.5 BLK, 17.3 PER) remains a Pitbull in the backcourt, while (emerging Guard) Gary Trent Jr. (18.3 PTS, 41.4% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 85.3% FT, 2.7 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.7 STL, 14.7 PER) has proven to be a pleasant surprise since arriving via midseason trade with the Trail Blazers. Furthermore, (Rookie Forward) Scottie Barnes (15.3 PTS, 49.2% FG, 30.1% 3FG, 73.5% FT, 7.5 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.7 BLK, 16.3 PER) has flourished as the season has progressed, with the Fourth Overall Pick in last summer’s NBA Draft becoming an indispensable part of Nurse’s gameplan. Simply put, the 6′-9″, 227-lb Florida State product can guard virtually every position on the court, with his length allowing him to disrupt passing lanes, deter drives to the rim, and clean the glass. 39-21 since the beginning of December, Nurse’s charges rose to fifth in the East, and weren’t about to sweat their first-round meeting with the Sixers, whom they bested in three of their four encounters this season, including a recent 119-114 upset little over a week ago; few teams have managed to slow down Philly like Toronto has, who have held them to just 106.3 points, while battering them on the boards (+11.3) and racking up nearly ten steals per game (9.8). With all the pressure firmly placed on their opponent’s shoulders, some brave prognosticators were even picking the dinosaurs to pull the upset in not just Game One, but the series as a whole. Unfortunately, Saturday night’s affair did NOT play out as such, with the visiting Raptors getting properly shellacked in a 131-111 rout in the City of Brotherly Love. This one was over quickly, as the hosts raced out to a 35-27 lead in the first quarter that ballooned to s big as twenty-four points in the second half. Basically, everything that worked for Nurse & Co in their previous four meetings worked against them in this particular matchup; the 76ers shot over 50.0% from the field, outscored them by twelve points from beyond the arc and another ten from the charity stripe, while getting bested on the glass (39-36), and forcing just FOUR turnovers, including ONE steal. Simply put, this group isn’t constructed to win games when they can’t create extra possessions for themselves, particularly in transition, which was the case on Saturday night. Siakam led the effort with twenty-four points on 9-of-18 shooting (50.0%), three rebounds, and seven assists, while (versatile Forward) O.G. Anunoby (17.1 PTS, 44.3% FG, 36.3% 3FG, 75.4% FT 5.5 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 14.8 PER) adding another twenty points on 9-of-15 shooting (60.0%) and seven boards. VanVleet posted eighteen points and six assists, but the biggest news came when Barnes’ night ended prematurely due to an apparent foot injury, prompting the rookie to be helped off the court. Needless to say, this is a MAJOR blow to the Raptors in this series on both ends of the hardwood, for they cannot afford to lose his offensive production or let alone his presence on defense.
Meanwhile, Game One’s watershed victory may relieve some of the pressure from the 76ers’ (51-31, 4th in Eastern Conference) shoulders but make no mistake that nothing short of a sweep or 4-1 series win will keep the boobirds in Philadelphia at bay. Indeed, BIG things are expected out of the Sixers in these playoffs, with loads of pressure on just about every prominent figure of the franchise. First and foremost, there may be no player in the Association with more pressure on his shoulders than (All-NBA Guard) James Harden (21.0 PTS, 40.2% FG, 32.6% 3FG, 89.2% FT, 7.1 REB, 10.5 AST, 1.2 STL 21.8 PER), who arrived in Philly midseason after essentially passive-aggressively forcing a trade out of Brooklyn following a drama-filled first half of the campaign. Once word got out that the 2017-2018 MVP wanted out of the Big Apple, (President of Basketball Ops) Daryl Morey moved heaven and earth to acquire the bearded one, whom he once traded for when he was the General Manager of the Rockets. Mired in their own prolonged drama centering around (All-Star Guard) Ben Simmons, who refused to play for the team ever again following a rather dreadful postseason exit, Morey relented dealing him away for pennies on the dollar for months, patiently waiting for an opportunity to land a superstar caliber player. The rest as they say, is history; in twenty-one games with the 76ers, Harden has averaged 21.0 points on 40.2% shooting from the field, including 32.6% from beyond the arc, along with 7.1 rebounds, 105 assists, and 1.2 steals. Granted, he’s had quite the effect on his new teammates on both ends of the hardwood, settling into more of a playmaker role offensively, though there have been persistent questions about his conditioning and his lack of explosion. One play he’ll blow by a defender, and then the next he’s relegated to trying to draw a foul. Furthermore, his apathy on the defensive end is slowly becoming a liability for what was one of the better units in that regard, but then again, this is precisely the player that Morey was getting. On his third team in less than three years and turning 33-years old in August, Harden needs to show up in these playoffs after a plethora of head scratching performances in postseasons past. Of course, there is also pressure on (All-NBA Center) Joel Embiid (30.6 PTS, 49.9% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 81.4% FT, 11.7 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.5 BLK, 31.2 PER) to deliver as well, particularly now that he has one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history as his latest running mate. The towering seven-footer carried the Sixers while Simmons boycotted the franchise, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including points (30.6), three-pointers (93), free-throws (654), assists (4.2), steals (1.1), and PER (31.2). Furthermore, he became the first Center since (Hall of Famer) Shaquille O’Neal (2000) to lead the league in scoring, while also finishing first in both free-throws (654) and attempts (803), further cementing his status as the frontrunner to land MVP honors. However, he too is looking to wipe away the bitter taste of playoff disappointment, including last year’s upset at the hands of the Hawks in the East Semifinals. And then there is (Head Coach) Doc Rivers, who despite being an NBA Champion and owning a 100-54 (.649) record in his two years with the franchise, has unfortunately become synonymous with postseason debacles; last summer’s capitulation to Atlanta marked the fourth time in his coaching career in which his side was upset by a lower-seeded opponent despite owning a lead in said series, which is a major reason why some are hinting that he may be relieved of his duties if Philadelphia doesn’t at the very least reach the Eastern Conference Finals. And it’s with all that said that the 76ers kicked off their postseason campaign against the Raptors, who as we stated earlier have had their number this year. Thankfully for everyone associated with the franchise, Philly DOMINATED in Game One, manhandling Toronto in a very one-sided affair. After struggling to solve their defense in the regular season, Rivers’ troops had no such problems on Saturday night, in which they erupted for 131 points on 51.2% shooting from the field, including 16-of-32 from downtown (50.0%), and a staggering 29-of-34 from the charity stripe (85.3%). Furthermore, they took excellent care of the basketball in committing just four turnovers, and by getting to the free-throw line they were able to control the tempo of the contest. It was a relatively subdued playoff debut for Harden, who finished with twenty-two points on 6-of-17 shooting (35.2%), but nonetheless shared the wealth with fourteen assists, while Embiid was even quieter with nineteen points on 5-of-15 shooting (33.3%), with much of his production coming from the tripe (9-of-11 FT). The supporting cast was another matter altogether, with (emerging Guard) Tyrese Maxey () exploding for THIRTY-EIGHT points on 14-of-21 shooting (66.7%), including 5-of-8 from three (62.5%), and (veteran Forward) Tobias Harris () adding another twenty-six points, six rebounds, and six assists to the cause. As Toronto focuses on slowing down Embiid and Harden, it’s imperative moving forward that someone else steps up, be it Maxey or Harris or anyone else. The former has really enjoyed playing alongside Harden, and how far this team advances in these playoffs may in fact hinge on how consistently productive the 21-year-old can be.