The Philadelphia 76ers are battling the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoffs. The 76ers, as the four seed, hosted the five-seed Raptors in Philadelphia for games 1 and 2, winning by significant margins in both. The series now shifts north of the border as Toronto welcomes the Philadelphia 76ers for games 3 and 4. Statistics support confident 76ers fans as historically, NBA teams up 2-0 in a playoff series win 92% of the time. But if you look closely, there may be a few cracks in the comfort armor—a bit of hare in this seven-game tortoise-hare marathon. Let’s examine what, if anything, Philly has to worry about.
Recap: Games 1 and 2
This is an excellent X’s and O’s series between two NBA championship coaches. Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors and Doc Rivers of the Philadelphia 76ers represent the only current playoff matchup between coaches who have won an NBA title.
In Game 1, All-Star Fred VanVleet drew quick early fouls, and the Raptors succumbed to an offensive onslaught by 2nd-year guard Tyrese Maxey. Maxey had a monster game of 38 points which was a career playoff-high.
In Game 2, Toronto brought physicality. It was a different level of play as Toronto held leads for long stretches in the first half. You could tell Philly felt a difference as superstar center and MVP candidate Joel Embiid was shown grimacing in pain on many occasions. Philly built a lead heading into the fourth quarter, and it nearly evaporated as Toronto narrowed the gap. Toronto still has remnants from their championship team in 2019, including Coach Nurse, VanVleet, and former All-Star forward Pascal Siakam. This same group has come back from being down 2-0 in the playoffs before.
If you’re a Houston fan, there is a lot to admire in the makeup of the 76ers roster. You have James Harden, of course. He became a superstar as a Houston Rocket but lamented each playoff exit. Three coaches and three superstar sidekicks later, Harden demanded a trade and got one to the team he requested, the Brooklyn Nets. Not even a year later, he is now plying his trade in Philly alongside former Rockets general manager and current Sixers executive Daryl Morey.
You have Joel Embiid, whom many compare to Rockets Hall-of-Famer, Hakeem Olajuwon. He is having an MVP season as he leads the league in points per game in the regular season.
The Sixers have a great inside-out combo which is reminiscent of the mid-90s Rockets championship teams. Those Rockets traded mid-season for superstar shooting guard Clyde Drexler and went on to win big. What the 76ers look like in these next few games will say much about their championship hopes. Here are some things to look for as the series progresses.
What to look for in Game 3
- You cannot underestimate the threat of injuries. Harden and Embiid were banged up in game 2, and the turnaround to game 3 is quick. In one sequence last game, Harden and Embiid crashed into each other, leaving Harden writhing on the floor, holding his neck. Embiid was holding his forearm area and had to check out of the game momentarily.
- We are still in a pandemic, and Canada’s policy is that you must be vaccinated to play. This affects 76ers defensive star Matisse Thybulle as he will not be with the team in Toronto. His unvaccinated status leaves his team a rotation player short. There were more minutes for the young guys but a lot of pressure on Harden and Embiid to carry the team.
- Speaking of a pandemic, did you know that the Toronto Raptors played the 2020-2021 season in Tampa, Florida? That’s right. The unpredictable nature of the evolving disease led the NBA to keep the Raptors in the US so they could maintain a season. With the 2020 playoffs being played in the Orlando bubble, Toronto fans get their first playoff taste since the 2019 championship run. Expect an electric atmosphere as Toronto welcomes the Philadelphia 76ers for games 3 and 4.
- James Harden, for all of his seasonal brilliance, tends to be lessor in the playoffs. At least the eye test will say that he gets more fatigued in playoff games and gets fewer free throw whistles from the referees. If the Sixers find some adversity, will he be able to right the ship?
The Philadelphia Audition
You can consider these playoffs as the audition for the 76ers to maintain James Harden’s services long-term. With James Harden being a free agent this summer, these games will say a lot about his relationship with the team and what it could look like moving forward.
Some Playoff Housekeeping
- As much as they say the NFL playoffs are king, ratings are also up for the NBA.
NBA playoffs opening weekend most-watched in more than a decade. https://t.co/oE0uzfqzl9— Sam Amico (@AmicoHoops) April 19, 2022
- The decision for which games go to NBA TV is always interesting. Those games generally get less of an audience as they are squeezed in as one of three games shown each weeknight in round one. The other two games are primetime on ESPN or TNT. So far, the NBA has leaned into featuring the number one seeds versus the eighth seeds and relegating rising stars like Donovan Mitchell and Ja Morant to NBA TV status. It’s hard to tell whether that is good for the brand because the exciting Play-In Tournament generally brings a more fatigued team into the playoffs. Maybe not what the NBA is looking for in terms of competitiveness in primetime. Game 3 between the Sixers and Raptors is on NBA TV.
- For the uninitiated, the first round of the NBA playoffs is somewhat spread out in terms of games for each team. They are not played every other night like rounds 2 and 3 are. If you are a team that is favored or an older team that could use the rest, you want to close out your first-round opponents in four or five games. This could maximize the rest days between series.
One crazy stat
- The most intriguing series seems to be the Celtics versus Nets series. Celtics won game one on a game-winning shot by Jayson Tatum. But let me tell you about something even more intriguing. Did you know that NBA superstar point guard Chris Paul has lost 13 of his last 14 playoff games when Scott Foster is the referee? That is very Undertaker to Chris Paul’s WrestleMania in terms of streaks. How does this happen? Can it be a coincidence? The one Scott Foster playoff victory since 2013 happened last year when the Suns beat the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals. Paul did not play in that game due to health and safety protocols. The Suns lost to the Pelicans last night, and many are pointing to Foster as the culprit. I know what my next Vegas bet will be.