The Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic were both scrappy but overmatched in round one. In the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers each will face real danger as they clash in a battle to validate big roster moves made over the course of the season.
There is a mountain of expectation on both re-shaped franchises. The post-LeBron James Eastern Conference is unclaimed land and the top teams in the East all spent time in an arms race to put fresh faces in the Finals.
Toronto sent away fan-favorite DeMar DeRozan for a blue-chip superstar in Kawhi Leonard. Moving DeRozan and breaking up his bromance with Kyle Lowry was a risky move in order for the franchise to get Leonard who may still end up being just a rental. They also added a veteran post presence in Marc Gasol who gives added value defensively and a playmaking option on the offensive end. The Raptors went all in and likely need to reach the cusp of the Finals at minimum to keep Kawhi north of the border.
Rookie general manager Elton Brand also showed his willingness to swing for the fences by obtaining Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to bolster the roster during the season. On paper, their starting five looks like an NBA 2k created lineup and matches up favorably against any roster outside of Golden State. “The Process” is over and the Sixers accelerated their timeline this season to be in the championship mix.
The outcome of this series will affect either team’s summer in a major way with free-agency rumors inevitably on the way before the confetti from the Finals even touches the hardwood. The Sixers look to get to the conference finals for the first time since Allen Iverson lead the team and the Raptors will seek to get over the hump with an improved roster and no LeBron James standing in the way.
Here are a few things to look for during a series that will affect the landscape in the Eastern Conference for years to come.
Joel Embiid’s Health
A healthy Joel Embiid is the most dominant center on both ends in the NBA. In round one against Brooklyn, he averaged 24.8 points and 13.5 rebounds per game. These are impressive numbers that become jaw-dropping when you consider that this happened on a bum knee and only 24.3 minutes per game.
He will need to be fully rested in round 2 as Toronto’s acquisition of Marc Gasol comes fully into play. There is no Embiid-stopper in the NBA, but Gasol makes life harder than the average defender. For Al Horford and the Boston Celtics that was enough last season.
Raptors weekend stats thread, Philadelphia 76ers playoff edition:
108 possessions against Gasol this year, Embiid was 6-18. The year before in 70 possessions, he was 4-11.
No one can stop Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol gives the Raptors as good of a chance as anyone.
— Mike Bossetti (@mikebosports) April 27, 2019
Ben Simmons is not likely to have an elite offensive series with Kawhi Leonard hugging him over the next week and a half. For the 76ers to have a chance Embiid is going to have to be a physically dominant force in the middle and make the most of his minutes if they are still limited. The future hangs in the balance. When it is contract time will Philadelphia have enough confidence in Embiid to make a huge financial commitment despite his health issues? These are the times that determine those decisions.
Like other high-paced talented teams, the Philadelphia 76ers can be prone to turnovers. Ben Simmons had 11, 7, and 6 turnovers on his own during Philly’s three losses to Toronto during the regular season. In their lone win, he had one turnover with Kawhi sitting out of the game due to rest.
Simmons is going to have to continue to find ways to be effective even when teams sag off of him. Since his defenders can sag off of him they can also hang out in the passing lanes and pick off errant passes off of his drives. Kawhi is one of the best in the league on that end of the floor so this matchup is an uphill battle for the young point guard.
Philadelphia had some ball-security problems against Brooklyn that didn’t hurt too badly due to their sheer physical dominance. Toronto will not bend physically in that same fashion so ball control will be paramount for the 76ers to win this series.
Is Pascal Siakam Foreal?
With any championship formula, you need deliberate moves but also some unplanned blessings. Pascal Siakam’s ascent this season could not have come at a better time and he has become a defensive lynchpin and legitimate second option offensively for Toronto.
Siakam came out of nowhere this season spearheading the Most Improved Player of the Year race and has shown no signs of slowing down in the postseason. Against Orlando, Siakam went off for 22.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game including a dominant 30 point 11 rebound effort in game three.
The 25-year-old improved in nearly almost every statistical category this season while being able to effectively guard players across multiple positions. Siakam is a high energy athlete with coveted length and versatility at the wing position that teams seek in today’s increasingly position-fluid NBA.
I will be interested to see how he does in the spotlight during this series against a highly talented roster. Who will the 76ers guard him with? Will he and Tobias Harris engage in a series-long battle as the X-factors for their teams? If Pascal becomes a dominant threat alongside Kawhi it could be the difference in a game where Leonard may not be in peak form.
The playoffs are all about matchups and adjustments. Both the Raptors and Sixers have spent all season gearing up and re-tooling for this moment. The results of this series will have huge implications on free agency this summer. Validation for both front offices rests on how things turn out.