By Cole Parkinson
Westwind Weekly News
After climbing their way past the play-in tournament and into the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors were all set to take on the Philadelphia 76ers. The Raptors were able to secure a 48-34 record in the regular season and now turn their focus to the biggest games of the year.
It would be hard to argue the Raptors were one of the biggest surprises in the NBA this year for many people. While Raps fans felt this team would be more than capable of making it into the postseason, many talking heads in the States expressed belief they would be a bottom feeder that would be back in the lottery for the second straight year. It’s funny how often the Raptors are slept on in the U.S. every single year.
The team was on the road all season last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the fact they were near the bottom of the league really shouldn’t have been a surprise. But their roster was still really good, and this season they once again boasted an extremely talented team — sure, it’s a young squad, but the Raptors have a strong coaching staff led by Nick Nurse that knows how to win in the NBA. While they may not have that bonafide number one superstar like other teams, there’s not a single weak cog in the system when it comes to the Raps’ starting five.
Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes were all incredibly influential in the team’s success this season. Siakam led the team in points per game at 22.8, while VanVleet averaged 20.3, Trent Jr. at 18.3, Anunoby at 17.1, and Barnes had 15.3. And just look at the minutes they guys put up this season— all five were over 35 per game. So, if there is a weakness for the Raptors, it’s the fact there is a decline after those five, but I’d argue the vast majority of teams in the NBA would also identify that as a weakness.
So, on April 14 and the first round beginning in a few days, let’s take a look at how the Raptors match up against Philly. In the regular season, the Raptors took three of four against Philly, but that really doesn’t mean much. And while the Raps do have recent success against them (Toronto defeated Philly 4-2 en route to their NBA Championship in 2019), both teams look completely different this time around.
The biggest advantage the 76ers have over the Raps is Joel Embiid. I don’t know if anyone single-handedly on the Raps can stop him for four straight wins, so it will take a team effort to slow down the 76ers big man.
The 76ers also have James Harden, who at one point was one of the best scorers in the game. While he hasn’t shown that with his brief time with Philly yet, he may just turn it on come the first round. If Harden turns back the clock, that will present another defensive challenge for Nurse and the Raptors. The good news is the Raps have shown all year that they possess a great defence.
Another thing to watch out for is the fact the 76ers will be without Matisse Thybulle when the games shift to Toronto due to the fact he’s not fully vaccinated. Thybulle is a great defender and the Raps may be able to capitalize on that when on home court. And while this is a positive for Toronto, let’s not pretend this is unfair. The Raptors played all last season in Miami and no one said a thing. Plus, if Raptor players weren’t vaccinated, it would go the same way. If Thybulle doesn’t want to get vaccinated, fine, but that’s not the Raptors’ fault.
I do actually like the Raptors’ chances in this series. I feel like they thrive on being the underdog come playoff time and they certainly are that in this series. With the starting five for Toronto, I think they can match up against anyone and have a shot. While it may be a long shot they make it to the Finals, would anyone north of the border be surprised to see this team win a few rounds? I don’t think so.
Shaq said a few days ago the 76ers would sweep Toronto…which is honestly hilarious. I honestly see no way that happening with how the season has gone for Toronto. Nurse has been one of the best coaches in the NBA over the last few seasons and I guarantee he has a great game plan to attack Embiid. While the games are obviously played on the court, who would honestly take Doc Rivers over Nick Nurse in a playoff series in 2022?
I like the Raptors in six in this series. I see it being a long series and if it went seven, I wouldn’t be shocked. This feels like a series where the Raptors once again show they’re better than what most talking heads in the states think. They’ve done it before and I say they do it again in round one.