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18 years ago the Toronto Raptors faced the Philadelphia 76ers in a classic Eastern Conference Semifinals that had two of the biggest stars in the NBA. The Raptors Vince Carter and the Sixers Allen Iverson. The series ended when "Vinsanity" missed the game-winning shot in game 7 that would have advanced Toronto to the east finals. It's still one of the most heartbreaking moments in Raptors history.
Ironically both teams will play each other with a trip to the Eastern Conference finals on the line. The Raptors were shell shocked against the Orlando Magic in game one thanks to a DJ Augustin game-winning shot. Toronto for the rest of the series took control and defensively handled Orlando allowing only an average of 89 points after game one. The Sixers just like Toronto got upset in game one but Philadelphia's offense was too much to handle as they averaged over 127 points in their 4 victories against the Nets. The Raptors though took the season series against Philly, winning 3 of their 4 meetings this season. Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard averaged 30 points in three meetings against the Sixers. Kawhi did miss their late December meeting in a blowout loss. Kawhi's absence did hinder the team, Toronto gave up 60 points in the paint and also allowed Philly to shoot 54 percent from the field. Though when he is healthy the Sixers can't stop him from scoring and his presence on the court has caused Philly to turn the ball over 20 times in the three games they faced Kawhi. “Playoff Kawhi” has shown up in a big way. Leonard exploded in game 2 with 37 points the blowout win and scored 34 points in 35 minutes in game 4. Leonard is also causing opposing offenses headaches with almost 3 defensive turnovers a game and had some nice blocks in the Orlando series. Kawhi Leonard was the Raptors MVP in the first round.
Free throws could play a factor in this series as the last two meetings Philly went to the line 76 times. Against Orlando, the Raptors only went to the line more than 20 times just once while Orlando three times went to the line more than 20 times and once over 30 times. The Sixers averaged close to the 30 free throw attempts in their series against Brooklyn. They shot 76 percent from the line overall in their first-round series. Sixers centre Joel Embiid was second in the league behind James Harden for free throw attempts with over 10 and was third with 684 free throw points. While Ben Simmons was in the top 15 with 452 free throw points. Toronto will need to stay out of foul trouble if they want to neutralize the Sixers and better their chances to win the series. The whistle could be in Philadelphia's favour.
Joel Embiid is one of the best centres in the league and this season the third-year player has not only had a great regular season campaign but has also been a beast in the playoffs. Embiid is averaging close to 25 points a game with just over 13 rebounds with a cool 50 percent shooting on the court. This season against Toronto, Embiid has been a force averaging 26 points, 11 boards and has a better three-point shooting percentage against Toronto 40% this year than he does in his career 31.5%. He also scored 37 points in their last meeting of the season. The Raptors potentially have the chance to slow down Embiid having Marc Gasol playing defence on him.
Gasol shut Vucevic, who had monstrous games against Toronto this season, was limited to 11 points and a terrible 36% shooting. In their 5 meetings lifetime, Gasol has averaged more points than Embiid and while Gasol has scored the most points (27) in a game between the two. Gasol wasn't playing for Toronto in their meetings against Philly this season but played Embiid twice this season as a Memphis Grizzly. In the two meetings, Embiid played close to 40 minutes but only scored 14 and 15 points. That's far lower than the 4th leading scorer is used to. Gasol also has been hitting threes against Embiid and could help the Raptors spread the floor and score points. Embiid’s shooting in both meetings was disastrous, hitting under 30 percent, and while Gasol's shooting hasn't been great either, Gasol isn't a big scoring option like Embiid is to Philly. Gasol's defensive abilities could give the Raptors a nice edge in this series.
The Raptors Kyle Lowry had a game one to forget but came back with a 22 point performance. Lowry's scoring is down in this year's playoffs but Lowry has done a good job of distributing the ball and getting his teammates involved in the play. Lowry doesn't need to be scoring a bunch of points anymore especially with the emergence of Pascal Siakam. Lowry is averaging the most assists in his career in the playoffs and is still scoring well over 50 percent within the 2 point area. He isn't always flashy but his grittiness is something that helps the Raptors.
Pascal Siakam came to play against the Magic and was a big factor for the Raptors in the first round. Siakam averaged 22 points, 8 rebounds, and shot over 50 percent from the field. Sikam was tough to defend and brought his offense to another level. He had a double-double’s in games 2 and 3, including a team-high 30 points and 11 rebounds in game 3.
Philly has one of the best starting lineups in the game and has another player who will be a newcomer in this meeting, Tobias Harris. Harris is having one of the best seasons of his career averaging close to 19 points and 8 boards. Harris will be a good secondary option for the Sixers. Jimmy Butler's scoring dropped a little bit, going under 20 points for the first time since the 2013 season. Butler though isn't the number one guy like he was in Chicago, but he can be a threat when needed. He did score 38 points in one of the games against Toronto but he was relatively quiet in the two other games he played combining for just 30 points.
JJ Reddick, just like Butler, can catch fire when he’s feeling it. Reddick can't be left alone or he will torch you. He's averaging a career-best 18 points and is shooting over 50% on twos and 40% on threes. Ben Simmons slightly improved from his rookie season. Though he hasn't exploded like many thought he would. Despite not being able to shoot threes and struggling on the free throw line, when he comes to the rim he can score. Simmons exploited the Nets in the first round and can possibly do the same thing against Toronto. Simmons can drive and Toronto will have to use their tough defensive style to shut that down. The Raptors do have the best defensive rating in the league.
The Raptors will be in tough against Philly. The Raptors have experience in the playoffs and a great defense with a top 5 player in the league, and Toronto also has a good lineup with a solid bench. But has Philly has Joel Embiid and one of the best starting lineups in the league. Both teams looked impressive in the first round but at the end of the day, the Raptors have the edge over Philly. The 76ers have some growing pains left and Toronto has a team that is built to go beyond the second round, Raptors in 6.