- In Wednesday night's victory over Philadelphia, Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors proved they're the class of the new, LeBron-less Eastern Conference.
NBA fans were treated to a potential conference finals preview Wednesday night, as the first-place Raptors squared off against the 76ers, scoring a 113–102 win. The victory was Toronto’s second over Philly this season, with both meetings taking place north of the border. Kawhi Leonard scored 36 points to pace the Raptors, while Jimmy Butler had 38 of his own to lead the Sixers. With an eye toward the future in mind—and thinking of how these two teams may match up in a playoff series—here are three takeaways from Toronto’s victory.
Kawhi Leonard was the best player on the floor
This is an important distinction. Joel Embiid is an MVP candidate in his own right. Ben Simmons is a budding superstar. And Jimmy Butler is another top tier talent. But Kawhi’s all around game makes him the best player in his conference. His repertoire was on full display Wednesday. His perimeter defense was stifling. He was a load in the post. His three-point shooting was outstanding. And he threw down some fierce dunks in transition for good measure. It’s a cliché, but there’s something to having the best player on the floor in a playoff series. It’s not too long ago that Kawhi was in the conversation for top-three player in the NBA. He’s played great against the Sixers twice now, averaging 33.5 points across both contests. Even with Butler taking the defensive assignment, Leonard couldn’t be slowed down. That’s troubling for Philly, which has to lean heavily on its top three guys due to a lack of depth. If the Sixers’ best can’t outplay Leonard, their ability to beat the Raptors shrinks considerably.
Ben Simmons has a problem
For the second straight matchup, Simmons was largely a nonfactor in Toronto. He scored only eight points Wednesday, and his 10 assists were mostly canceled out by seven turnovers. (Simmons now has 18 turnovers in two games vs. the Raptors.) Brett Brown has to find a way to get his point guard going against the Raptors. He can often go ignored during halfcourt sets when sharing the court with Butler, Embiid and J.J. Redick. And not unlike most players in the league, Simmons struggles mightily when matched up against Kawhi. Philly’s new starting lineup (since the Butler trade) had been dominant entering Wednesday. That group also plays at a slower pace than the old group with Dario Saric and Robert Covington. Simmons is at his best when the Sixers are playing fast, so the tempo of that unit is something to keep an eye on. Entering Wednesday, Simmons had played only 26 minutes without Butler and Embiid on the court. Philly had a negative net rating in that time, but its pace jumped from 104.5 (with all three on) to 128.1 (with only Simmons playing.) His natural inclination is to play fast, and he may need more opportunities to do that when playing the Raptors. For now, Simmons can’t put his stamp on the game if Leonard is allowed to check him in the halfcourt.
Pascal Siakam will be a defensive key
Siakam has glowed up this season. Now in his third year in the league, the native of Cameroon is averaging career highs in points, assists, rebounds, field-goal percentage and three-point field-goal percentage. He’s going to be incredibly important for Toronto if it does meet up with Philly in a playoff series. The Sixers’ starting lineup forces teams into tough decisions when lining up defensively. Kawhi checked Ben Simmons. Kyle Lowry guarded Wilson Chandler so he could save his legs while Danny Green chased around J.J. Redick. That left Siakam on Butler for large stretches of the game. Siakam definitely has the range and athleticism to play against Butler types, but it ultimately works in Philly’s favor when Butler doesn’t get the full attention of the opponent’s best defender. Particularly against the Sixers, Siakam will need to be prepared to play against a top-flight athlete. That’s nothing new for Siakam, who actually did a decent job on LeBron James during last year’s conference semis. (NBA.com’s defensive matchup stats say both James and the Cavs scored less frequently than normal when Siakam was guarding Bron.) How Siakam fares in his perimeter assignments could factor heavily into Toronto’s success. (The Raps, by the way, entered Wednesday with the eighth best defense in the Association.)
A bonus mini-takeaway
NBA.com didn’t have the data immediately after the game, but I wanted to see some more post touches for Embiid on Wednesday. The Sixers’ big man shot poorly from the field, but he didn’t get many deep catches in the second half. Philly can’t go away from the block when it falls behind.