By Norm Elrod
(CBS Philadelphia/CBS Local) — Hey, 76ers fans, welcome back to the second round of the NBA Playoffs. Let’s pause here, before we look at the formidable Toronto Raptors, and just acknowledge how nice it feels to have a repeat playoff contender.
Okay, that’s enough of that.
The 76ers, as everyone knows, just dispatched with the Brooklyn Nets in five games. After a Game 1 wake-up call, the Sixers generally took care of business over the next four. Storylines emerged, as they always do, with the biggest being Joel Embiid’s sore knee. It started as a distraction, shrouded in mystery leading up to the first game. It ultimately only kept him out of one game, but certainly affected his play throughout.
Even with Embiid at less than 100%, the 76ers weren’t going to lose this series with him on the court. They adjusted. Still, the long-shot Nets deserve a ton of credit for making the playoffs and then stealing a game. Look for them to be back and hungrier next season. The Raptors, however, far outclass the Nets right now, and they’re focused on the NBA Finals. The 76ers-Raptors series starts Saturday night in Toronto.
Philly fields one of the best starting fives in the NBA, when they’re healthy and on the same page. And the offense flows through their all-star MVP center. If Embiid’s game is limited, either through injury or strong defense, he has to work harder for his shots, and the team’s dynamic changes. Someone else has to step up as a scorer. Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, JJ Reddick, and even Ben Simmons have that potential. They just have to recognize the situation and fill the role. None of this is a secret.
The Raptors present the 76ers with a tough matchup for a whole host of reasons: Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, their deep bench, their playoff experience… I could go on, but I won’t. One key matchup will determine the outcome of this series: Embiid vs. Marc Gasol.
The Raptors were the NBA’s third-best team since the All-Star break in terms of defensive efficiency and may be the best defensive team left in the playoffs. They’ve shown this strength in the teams’ four head-to-head games, winning three and limiting the 76ers to 107 points in those games. Embiid mostly fared well, averaging 26.25 points, which factors in a 10-point dud of an outing in December. Gasol, a three-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year, didn’t play for the Raptors in any of these games.The Raptors traded for the Memphis Grizzlies center on February 7, after the regular season series ended.
Gasol and Embiid did match up in the two Grizzlies-76ers games. Embiid scored 14 points on 4-15 shooting in the first and 15 points on 4-13 shooting in the second. He was a combined 0-8 from behind the arc. Reddick led the Sixers in scoring both games with 20 and 24 points, which certainly didn’t replace Embiid’s decreased output.
Gasol, with his length, bulk and agility, matches up well with Embiid, certainly better than the Nets’ Jarrett Allen. As an experienced defender, he’s quick enough to disrupt The Process away from the basket and keep him from building up a head of steam heading toward it. He’s also strong enough to not get pushed around.
Gasol contributed 18 and 12 points in the teams’ two matchups, while pumping in five of 10 from three-point land. And that brings up another aspect of this matchup. Gasol is a solid secondary scorer, who will take and make his outside shots. He’s shooting 36.3 percent from three on the season. That means Embiid will have to chase him all the way out to the three-point line. Tiring him out on defense, will make the already hobbled big man less effective on offense.
The 76ers and Grizzlies split their season series in low-scoring affairs, but that’s less important than the lack of a backup plan if and when Embiid is neutralized. To be fair, Philly has since traded for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, boosting their starting lineup and depleting their bench. But those two have been somewhat inconsistent when forced to take charge.
For the 76ers to get past the favored Raptors, they’ll need Embiid to shine against a tough defender in Gasol. Barring that, Butler and/or Reddick will have to take over as leading scorers. We’ll see.