Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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Make no mistake: The Toronto Raptors were always going to be the better team going into this playoff series with the Philadelphia 76ers. They’re deeper, they’re healthier, they’re more balanced and more athletic. They were better on both sides of the ball this regular season, and they have way more playoff experience on the whole than Philly. There was no convincing argument before this matchup for the Sixers being a decisively better team than the Raptors, and a good deal of convincing arguments for them being notably worse.
So how were the Philadelphia 76ers gonna be able to win this series? Well, their best players were gonna have to play really, really well.
The Sixers might not be a better team than the Raptors, but they do have the potential to be one. The flipside of the Raptors being the more fluid, more experienced team is that the Sixers starting five is still improving, still figuring themselves and each other out -- and if they were able to do so in time, their best is arguably a higher upside than the Raptors can match. (Unless their two best players consistently combine for over 70 points on over 70% shooting, in which case our ceiling could be as high as the Sistine Chapel and it probably wouldn’t matter.) The path to victory for the Sixers is our best guys outplaying their best guys.
This isn’t a particularly new revelation, of course -- we’ve been saying some version of this since the Sixers made their pair of all-in trades to make our lineup more top-heavy than U2’s The Joshua Tree. But I do think we got lost sometimes screaming about Brett Brown playing Boban over Bolden, or Furkan over Zhaire, as if the difference between any of them made the difference in Game One. That stuff matters, of course, but only if the game is within reach in the first place; if your starter gets shelled for eight runs by the end of the fourth, it suddenly doesn’t become all that relevant whether or not you have lockdown relievers for the eighth and ninth. Undermanned to begin with and with Mike Scott walking booted until further notice, we have nothing but bad options for the back end of our rotation. But they’re not why we lost this game by double digits.
And neither are most of our starters, really. It was a relatively mixed bag for most of those guys: J.J. was bricklaying in the first half but exploded in the third and competed on defense throughout, Jimmy Butler had some nice moments sharing the ball but missed shots and couldn’t hang with Kawhi defensively, Tobias battled on the boards and helped keep us in it early with his scoring, but was brutally overmatched on offense late. Ben Simmons fared the best, particularly compared to predictions of his being manhandled in this series, though he was perhaps passive at times -- he only missed once but also took eight total, only turned the ball over twice but racked up just three assists. But while we could certainly use more from all four dudes, none of them were wildly outside their range of expected performance. We should get this level of performance from our No. 2 - 5 guys and still have a chance of winning.
What gives us zero chance of winning, however, is Joel Embiid going 5-18 for 16 points while Kawhi Leonard explodes for 45. Fears of Raptors center Marc Gasol being a matchup nightmare for Embiid were fully realized in Game One: JoJo was unable to go through or around the stocky, sound veteran, and with the exception of a brief run with Gasol out of the game in the late first, was playing off his equilibrium all night. Meanwhile, Leonard simply delivered one of the best games of his career, particularly offensively, where he made an impossible succession fo tough shots early, setting up for him to essentially have his way with the Sixers defense late. Leonard has always been a problem for the 76ers, but this was absurd even by his 13-now-14-and-0-vs-Philly standards: Few if any teams in the league would’ve had a chance against him last night if he was playing at that level.
Forget about Kawhi for a minute: He won’t play like this all series, and if he does, that’s probably a wrap for us regardless. Almost doesn’t matter, anyway, since Kawhi doesn’t have to play at an all-world level for the Raptors to win this series. That’s the benefit of playing on the deeper, healthier, more balanced, more athletic and more experienced team: You don’t need to look like an MVP candidate every night for your team to have a pretty good chance to win.
But Embiid does. As previously established in this space, even with his matchup difficulties in this series -- and it’s not just Gasol, it’s the Raps’ size and skill and quickness across the board, presenting new challenges for him at every half-court checkpoint -- Jo’s still our primary advantage in this series. Simmons doesn’t have the offensive tools yet to take over a game possession by possession in a series like this. Jimmy Butler can’t impose his will against a team this long and strong. Hot-and-cold is the best you can reasonably expect from J.J. You can play mismatch basketball with Tobias in spots, but he’s simply not good enough at exploiting those for it to make the difference in a series this tough. The bench… yeah, no. We can ask for more from all those guys than we got last night, but not much more. For the Sixers to win this series, Embiid needs to dazzle, on a level at least approaching what Kawhi did last night.
Can he do that? I think so. We saw it in the Nets series, and for stretches this regular season. We’ve never seen it consistently against a team of the Raptors’ caliber, but I don’t think that’s all that unreasonable for a 25-year-old barely in his third healthy season -- players that green generally don’t have it figured out, until they do. And that’s the good thing about the playoffs: It’s not a regular-season game against the Celtics where JoJo has to wait two months for another crack at getting the better of Al Horford and Aron Baynes. He’s got at least three more games over the space of the next week to solve the cryptogram.
It’s not on him alone to do it, though. As much as Brett Brown needs to figure out questions about his rotation -- what the best of his bad options at backup center is, who needs to sap up the minutes vacated by the absent Scott, if a little extra PT can be stolen for his starters without leaving them sapped by crunch time -- the biggest question facing our coach for the rest of this series is how he can put Embiid in a better place to succeed than he was in last night. Is it a matter of clearing more space for him in the middle by flanking him with better shooting? Can they play deep pick and roll with him in the paint using Simmons as the screener? Do they need to establish him as a threat beyond the arc to open up driving lanes? I don’t have the answers, and though he likely has some thoughts, neither does Joel. Those are on Brett to come up with.
On The Ringer’s NBA Group Chat podcast, friend of the Ricky Chris Ryan predicted that the primary narrative of this series would be Raptors coach Nick Nurse coaching Brett Brown out of a job. Certainly, this will be the biggest test he’s had so far: scheming with an undermanned and highly imperfect crew to beat a team that when humming, seems to have no flaws in its design, no cracks in its facade. And while it’s unfair to stake Brett’s job on winning the series -- no coach should really ever be fired simply for losing as the underdog -- it’s not unreasonable to say that if he can’t figure out how to elevate the play of the greatest Sixer of the 21st century to a level beyond “ineffectual,” we do have to raise some serious questions about whether or not he’s the man to lead the Sixers to Broad Street glory.
But let’s not panic about this yet. Let’s remember that the Sixers looked similarly hapless in Game One against the Nets -- a matchup that, while extremely annoying for Philly, was not nearly as disadvantageous as this -- but that they bounced back in Game Two, and for the rest of the series, due in no small part to adjustments made by both franchise player and coach. Again, Joel Embiid turned out to be not only the best player in that series, but very possibly the best player in the entire first round. That’s the ceiling we’re working with when it comes to the big man: best player in the NBA. As long as he’s around and carrying that potential, the Sixers will have a shot in any series.
And to reach that potential, eventually he’s going to have to face down a challenge like these Toronto Raptors and rise to it. All the truly great ones do it eventually, and I think we have every reason to believe that Joel is one of those. Will it come in this series? Maybe, maybe not. If it does, the Raps will be the team on their heels soon enough. And if it doesn’t, the Sixers will lose.