PHILADELPHIA—Danny Green wasn’t ready for his Moses Malone moment, so I guess I’ll be the one to say that. Take the Sixers in five. And don’t think twice.
As for Green, I don’t blame him for going all out when someone asked him about the growing perception that the Sixers are ripe for an upset in their first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. The first rule of any post-season game is to seize the heights of motivation. In Toronto, Nick Nurse can’t be thrilled that his team has become a fashionable upset pick in recent days. The idea of the Raptors as playoff sleepers reached a conventional enough point that Shaquille O’Neal made headlines by picking the Sixers in a sweep.
Green, who won a title in Toronto in 2019, wasn’t going to be the one to pour cold water on that kind of hype.
“They would give anybody a tough streak whether they play us or not,” the veteran winger said Wednesday after the Sixers completed their second practice in preparation for Saturday’s playoff opener. . “Of course it’s going to be a tough series. They’ve beaten us more games than we’ve beaten them in the season for a reason. They’re a very good team. We have to take them seriously. They’re nobody who to sleep on, no matter who they’re playing… I think they give everyone a different and weird game because of how long and how good they practice.
All of this is true. As far as team basketball goes, the Raptors are a formidable game. The Sixers achieved as many during the regular season, going 1-3 in their four-game series and losing the two games Joel Embiid and James Harden played. The Raptors are young, athletic and deep, and they also happen to be one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference. Their 14-5 record in their last 19 games included an 8-1 record against teams that finished the regular season among the top eight seeds in their conference.
But there’s a reason the Sixers will enter the series as a 2-1 favorite in Vegas sportsbooks. Their road to the NBA Finals might be a tough one, but that’s mostly because of the potential matchups that await them in the second and third rounds. Talent is prevalent this time of year, and the perception of the Sixers appears to be in the midst of a drastic overcorrection. Did the Harden-Embiid pair fall short of the high expectations that accompanied the mid-February trade that brought them together? Sure. But will they be the best tandem on the court during the series? Without a doubt.
More often than not, playoff basketball is as simple as that. The dip surrounding the Sixers’ odds stems primarily from a handful of variables that one week of practice should be enough to neutralize. First, their transition defense has been mostly abysmal this season. According to CleaningTheGlass.com, the Sixers are allowing 131.1 points per 100 transition plays. Only three NBA teams ranked lower. In the Raptors, they will face an opponent who was one of the best transition teams in the league during Nurse’s four years as head coach. In a similar vein, the Raptors rely heavily on second-chance points in their half-court offense, with a 28.4 percent offensive rebound rate that ranked second in the NBA this season. Conversely, the Sixers struggled with their defensive rebounding throughout the season, ranking in the bottom half of the league in this category.
Cause for concern? In the Sixers’ two losses to Toronto down the stretch, they were outscored by an astonishing 32-12 margin on the offensive glass. Obviously, that’s not a good look. But it’s also the kind of thing the Sixers have four practices to deal with.
“We know as a group we have things we need to work on,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said after practice Wednesday. “A lot of it is continuity. A lot of it is spacing. We know exactly what we have to do.
And therein lies the argument for the Sixers. When they faltered this season, it’s not a question of talent. In Embiid, they have the NBA’s champion scorer, a true MVP-caliber center who will leave the Sixers with the best player on the court for all but eight to 10 minutes of every game. In Harden, they have a playoff-tested veteran who can make his case as the second-best player in the series, even if he’s not the dynamic isolation scorer we saw in Houston. In Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris, they have a few players with the scoring chops to exploit the attention the Raptors devote to disrupting the Embiid-Harden combo. As long as the Sixers are using this week to make all of those parts work with the right script, the problems posed by the Raptors are entirely surmountable.
Don’t get me wrong: Toronto has talent. Fred VanVleet is one of the most underrated guards in the league. The same goes for OG Anunoby, a two-way force that any team in this area of the playoffs would consider lucky to have. But if it’s fair to have lowered your championship expectations based on what you’ve seen in the regular season, a loss to the Raptors in the first round would still be considered a monumental surprise. For now, however, the matter boils down to the benefit of the doubt. As long as you extend the Sixers by a reasonable hand, you should find them a tough bet.