As the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers begin their first-round NBA playoff series this weekend, it will be a delicious mix of the fresh with the familiar.
It will be a return to “normal” playoffs for the Raptors, finally the first postseason with true home games for the Raptors since their 2019 championship campaign, complete with fans partying outside the arena en masse at Jurassic Park.
The new-look Raptors will be the lower seed this time – unlike when they made the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons. Imagine a postseason that begins with the Raptors on the road, one where Kyle Lowry isn’t on the team, shouldering the heftiest chunks of blame or praise after every game.
The 76ers and Raptors have met in two well-remembered playoff series previously that each stretched to seven epic games. The first, in 2001, pitting Allen Iverson against Vince Carter. The second in 2019, when Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating shot sent the Raptors to the Eastern Conference final and became the most epic moment in franchise history. The remaining Philly players surely still ache from that memory.
The 76ers and Raptors comprise the Eastern Conference matchup between the No. 4 and 5 seeds – the Raptors getting in thanks to a huge second half to their season. Fred VanVleet will play a starring role in this series, so to will the Cameroonian sensations on both rosters.
Pascal Siakam has been fantastic since the 2022 all-star break, following a tough run in the 2020 NBA playoff bubble and Toronto’s 2021 season in Tampa. His countryman from the Central African nation, Joel Embiid, is a leading contender for the NBA’s most-valuable-player award.
“They have the leading scorer in the NBA. … So it’s gonna be everyone’s job to kind of help with him and make sure that, you know, we’ll keep him in check. But yeah, it’s gonna be tough,” Siakam said of Embiid, who averaged 30.6 points a game this season.
Philly’s 7-foot big man has been giant this year, but hasn’t always had his finest outings against the Raptors. He was a major factor in just one of the seven games in the 2019 series, when he scored 33 points, had 10 rebounds and five blocks in Philadelphia’s 21-point Game 3 win. The speaker inside the arena in Philly that night thundered with an ominous “EMBIID!” each time he scored, and he celebrated by extending his arms to fly like an airplane. But for the series, he averaged only 17.6 points as the Raptors sent 7-foot centre Marc Gasol to stifle him.
“It was a wild series,” said Nurse, reminiscing just briefly on that topsy-turvy Philly series from three years ago. “I think that both teams were pronounced dead about three times in the series, right?”
There is no Gasol this time for Toronto. No Serge Ibaka either. The Raptors have no seven-footer, but they do the job with a great many men who all happen to stand 6 foot 8 or 6 foot 9.
Who earns the job of defending Embiid? That’s unclear, but it won’t be the job of any one Raptor, or with the use of one particular defensive scheme. Siakam and OG Anunoby are likely to battle him. Non-starters such as Precious Achiuwa or Khem Birch may help.
Asked how Embiid has grown since the Raptors last faced him in the playoffs, Nurse says Philly’s big man has gotten better and better at countering defensive coverages the more he faces them. Embiid’s assuredness is very clear.
“I think he’s done a great job of a number of things – getting in position, getting the ball, staying faced up more,” Nurse said. “He’s shooting ultra-confident in every shot he takes, whether it’s a post-up, or it’s an elbow, or it’s a one-legged fade away, or it’s a three-pointer, step-back three, whatever.”
Philly’s addition of all-star James Harden at the trade deadline was fascinating. He’s a dynamic talent that hasn’t lived up to all the hype just yet as a 76er, but accounting for the pick-and-roll with Embiid is sure to keep the Raptors busy as they prepare this week.
The Raptors were fortunate to face Philly twice in the last month, so those memories and strategies are fresh. Nurse and his staff are still kicking around ideas, reviewing film, studying tactics they used and how Philly countered.
“It’s going to be a slugfest,” Nurse said.
Siakam giggled at that term.
“That’s a little crazy, right?” Siakam said. “I wouldn’t call it a slugfest, but it’s gonna be fun and intense.”