The Toronto Raptors significantly retooled their team for a deep playoff run this season. So did the Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto’s opponent in the NBA Eastern Conference semi-finals.
Coming off their most decisive playoff win in franchise history – a five-game romp over the Orlando Magic – the second-seeded Raptors will face a much stronger playoff test in the 76ers. The series starts Saturday night in Toronto.
“There’s, I think, two similar teams – teams that added some pieces here late, made some changes in the off-season, but still have a couple of guys hanging around from last year’s team. It should be a great series,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “I know there’s a lot of talent on the floor for both teams.”
After a string of playoff disappointments culminating in back-to-back sweeps at the hands of the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, Raptors president Masai Ujiri made some major changes in an attempt to improve his team’s playoff fortunes.
Franchise icon DeMar DeRozan was sent to San Antonio in a trade that brought star forward Kawhi Leonard to Toronto. The trade was a huge gamble, as Leonard was coming off a major injury that limited him to nine games last season. He’s also an unrestricted free agent after this year and there has been speculation he’d be interested in moving back to his native California.
So far, the experiment has worked. Leonard has been a playoff beast for the Raptors, as has Marc Gasol, acquired from Memphis at the trade deadline. Danny Green, also acquired in the Leonard trade, has proven to be an excellent defender and capable three-point shooter. They are starting to mesh with all-star guard Kyle Lowry, the only starter remaining from the Raptors team that was swept by the Cavs last season, and forward Pascal Siakam.
“I think we’re getting better,” said Siakam, who is blossoming into a bona-fide star in these playoffs. “We have a lot of additions to the team in the middle of the season. We’re just working hard to kind of jell together and figure things out. I think we’re doing a pretty decent job.
“Obviously we can always improve, but it’s starting to click a little bit, whereas like we understand what each other does and just knowing each other’s spots, and continue to help each other, especially on defence.”
The Sixers are also starting to come together after big moves during the regular-season that brought Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to Philadelphia. After dropping Game 1 of their first-round series at home to Brooklyn, the Sixers made the necessary adjustments and won the next four games.
Much like the Raptors, the Sixers’ starting five – which also includes all-stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and sharpshooter J.J. Redick – have had limited chances to play together. The building of chemistry has also been negatively affected by Butler missing games with back spasms and Embiid hobbled by a sore left knee.
“We have a team that is slowly coming together,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown told The Associated Press. “They don’t have the luxury of lots of games and lots of context to share upon. And so you have Jo, you don’t. You have Jimmy Butler, you don’t. These guys have been great on trying to form a team.”
Toronto will want to take full advantage of home-court advantage in the coming series. The Sixers have lost 13 straight games at Scotiabank Arena since their last win there on Nov. 10, 2012.
But to do that, the Raptors will need to find a way to post a rare Game 1 win – a feat they couldn’t even accomplish against an Orlando team that they clearly outclassed. Orlando’s 104-101 win in the series opener dropped Toronto’s all-time Game 1 record to 2-14, including a dismal 1-8 mark at home.
Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said the Game 1 loss to Orlando served as a wake-up call.
“There’s a million things we could have done better to win that game,” VanVleet said. “Those guys played good, we didn’t. We just made a few small adjustments, but we just kind of ramped it up again a little bit.
“But I think that kind of woke us up for the rest of the playoffs to understand what we have to go out there and do so it was a big turning point for us.”
The two franchises have not met in the playoffs since Allen Iverson and the Sixers needed seven games to top Vince Carter and the Raptors in 2001. One of the Raptors’ Game 1 victories came in that series.