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The Sixers Look Like a Contender Again

Remember the enthusiasm after the James Harden trade? It’s back after Philadelphia’s steamrolling of Toronto through two games. The full-force 76ers are reminding everyone just how powerful they can be.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Raptors forced more turnovers than any other team in the NBA during the regular season, ranking second in transition frequency and third in fast break points per game. They went after their own misses voraciously, finishing second in offensive rebounding rate and second-chance points per game. This was the recipe for success that Masai Ujiri, Nick Nurse, and Co. cooked up—the wager they made in building a roster replete with long-limbed, athletic havoc-wreakers but short on size, shooting, and shot creation. If they could generate enough extra possessions, they could tilt the math. All they needed to do was create enough chaos.

Through the first two games of the 2022 NBA playoffs, though, the Raptors haven’t created much mayhem at all. The 76ers have imposed order on them, overwhelming them en route to a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven series—and, in the process, turning what many pundits tabbed as a potential Round 1 upset into a reminder of just how dominant Philly can be when everything’s clicking.

Toronto might’ve been drawing dead on Monday anyway. The Raptors were missing Rookie of the Year finalist Scottie Barnes, sidelined by a sprained ankle suffered when Joel Embiid stepped on his foot late in Game 1, and had another starter, shooting guard Gary Trent Jr., waylaid by a non-COVID illness that Nurse said probably should have kept him out. But we’ve seen a short-handed Raptors team give a favored opponent fits before—like, for example, two weeks ago, when they beat these Sixers without Fred VanVleet or OG Anunoby—and we’ve seen the Sixers struggle to seize opportunities like the chance to put even more pressure on a wounded quarry.

What Philly did in Game 2, though—weather an early storm to blow the Raptors away, 112-97—is what a favorite’s supposed to do. Find a weakness, lean on it, leave no doubt that you’re the superior side … and leave the other guys wondering what the hell they can do to get on the board and back in the series.

The most remarkable thing about Game 2 might be that Philly trailed at the end of the first quarter; the most remarkable thing about that is the Raptors somehow held the lead despite Embiid taking 12 free throws in those first 12 minutes. (Embiid would finish 12-for-14 at the line, making him 21-for-25 through two games—a steady march to the stripe that has Nurse frustrated. Just before the final buzzer, he chatted about it with Embiid; the MVP finalist said after the game that he advised the coach, “respectfully, to stop bitching about calls.”)

Toronto hung in early behind hard driving and hot shooting from VanVleet, who came out firing with a 15-point opening frame. Even with Embiid drawing whistle after whistle, the general approach looked more like what the Raptors had envisioned entering the series: active double-teaming forcing Embiid to play in traffic, preventing him from facilitating for others. It resulted in only four combined shot attempts for James Harden, Tobias Harris, and Game 1 star Tyrese Maxey in the first quarter, with as many Sixer turnovers as they’d committed in all of Game 1 (three). It was an impressive start in response to this weekend’s shellacking, but a start is all it’d be: Philly blitzed Toronto by 25 points over the next two quarters, restoring Game 1’s across-the-board dominance.

The Sixers have long flailed whenever Embiid sits; you might remember the Raptors outscoring Philly by 109 points in his 99 minutes on the bench during the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Sixers took control of this game by ripping off a 15-4 run early in the second quarter with Embiid resting, though, and through two games, they’re plus-12 in 22 minutes with Paul Reed taking Embiid’s spot at the 5. (BBall Paul for president.)

Philly has consistently found good looks when Harden and Maxey screen for each other, allowing Harden to hunt “the right switch” to attack—namely, on smaller defenders VanVleet and Trent Jr.—and giving Maxey the chance to explode through gaps in scrambled coverages.

Harden and Maxey screened for one another 49 times in 21 games together during the regular season, according to Second Spectrum. With VanVleet not his usual All-Defense-caliber self due to a lingering knee injury, the ailing Trent Jr. limited to just 10 ineffective minutes in Game 2, and young backup Malachi Flynn another friendly target to hunt, they’ve already screened for one another 27 times in this series. Expect that number to rise in Game 3—unless Nurse can find an answer to actions involving both of Philly’s high-scoring guards.

There are plenty of other answers he has to find, too, because outside of the first quarter, and an OG Anunoby–led 20-2 run early in the fourth that still didn’t get Toronto within single digits, Philadelphia has effectively torn up the Raptors’ season-long recipe.

The Sixers are taking care of the ball, turning it over on just 10.5 percent of their offensive possessions, well below the 16.4 percent that the Raptors forced during the regular season. They’re controlling the defensive boards, limiting Toronto to offensive rebounds on 27 percent of its misses, down from 31.1 percent. And when the Raps crash the glass but don’t come up with the ball, or commit a live-ball turnover, Philly is ramming it down their throats on odd-man rushes for a whopping 1.92 points per transition possession, which is kind of like if you took the most efficient offense ever and doubled it:

Maxey, in particular, has been shot out of a cannon, with 18 fast-break points through two games—only two fewer than the Raptors as a team. Philly’s 51-20 edge in fast-break points is bad, bad news for Toronto, because it means not only that the Sixers are running the Raps ragged off of every miss … but also that the Raps aren’t getting the stops they need to get out and run themselves.

The Sixers have been devastating on offense through two games, shooting 53.8 percent inside the arc, 48.4 percent outside it, and 85.9 percent at the free throw line. Toronto has had no answers for Embiid, who patiently played off the pass in Game 1, but bulldozed his way through every Raptor defender in Game 2 on the way to 31 points and 11 rebounds. Maxey’s been brilliant in his first postseason as a starter, averaging 30.5 points on 69/57/100 shooting splits and dishing eight assists in Game 2. Harden has continued to struggle inside the arc, lacking the burst to beat Toronto’s on-ball defenders on the perimeter and penetrate into the paint, but he’s 5-for-11 from deep with a 20-to-6 assist-to-turnover ratio.

This is how the Sixers offense looked in those heady early days right after the Harden trade—except that Tobias Harris is totally in rhythm, too, averaging a smooth 23 points and 8.0 rebounds on 64/75/80 shooting. The league’s best offense averaged 117.6 points per 100 possessions this season; the Sixers are averaging 139.2 points-per-100 against a top-10 defense that many pundits picked to give them tons of trouble. Thus far? Not so much; everything’s working for Philly. (Shit, Danny Green even dunked!)

That doesn’t necessarily mean trouble won’t find them. The series is about to travel to Toronto; ace Sixer defender Matisse Thybulle, though, won’t. Barnes, such a vital cog in the Raptors machine on both ends of the court, could come back. The Raptors have been resilient under Nurse, bouncing back from 0-2 deficits to get even twice before—when they beat the Bucks in the 2019 conference finals, and when they took the Celtics the distance in the bubble—while the Sixers lost an early-series lead just 10 months ago. If Embiid doesn’t get quite the same whistle, if Nurse can find a schematic way to short-circuit that rolling Philly offense, if Pascal Siakam and VanVleet can power through their massive minutes to improve upon Monday’s 14-for-43 shooting, and if Anunoby (26 points on 10-for-14 shooting) can lighten their creative workload, then the Raptors still may well have a shot at making this a series.

That’s where Philly has left the Raptors, though: awash with “ifs.” The Sixers have so far had the three best players in the series, the more fluid and versatile offense, and, when their main lineups are on the floor, by far the stingier defense. They’re the more talented team and, through two games, the more prepared and poised one, too. They’re straight up outclassing the Raptors—bringing suffocating order to Toronto’s preferred brand of chaos, and pushing a dangerous opponent closer to the dim reality of a disappointingly early offseason.