This week’s most profitable and exciting game is the same one. In what could very likely be a playoff matchup, the Raptors travel down to Philadelphia to take on Joel Embiid and the 76ers.
At 38-16, the Raptors remain a formidable title contender in the East. Led by Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and a bevy of intriguing role players, they’re one of the league’s most consistent teams. However, they have recently shown some vulnerability. As the injuries have begun to pile up, the Raptors have lost three of their last five games. Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas are dealing with nagging injuries that kept them both out Sunday against the Clippers. Lowry will play through his ailing back injury tonight, but Valanciunas is listed as doubtful. The Raptors are 21-11 when playing on one day’s rest.
Philadelphia returns home tonight after a successful West Coast swing. The team’s 113-104 win in Golden State served as the highlight of the season so far. Unfortunately, the Sixers’ Jekyll and Hyde personality went on full display when they followed with a disappointing loss to the Kings. As has been the case all season, Philadelphia tends to play up or down to its opponent’s level. Subsequently, the Sixers should be revved up to play Toronto on Tuesday night. Philadelphia will play on two days’ rest (8-5 record in such situations).
Philadelphia comes into tonight’s matchup in slightly better shape. While the Raptors will deal with injuries, Philadelphia is healthy and rested. The 76ers will be eager to rise to the occasion against one of the NBA’s elite teams in front of a national audience.
Toronto has the most defensively versatile personnel in the NBA. Its roster is filled with tenacious wing defenders who fit perfectly into Nick Nurse’s “switch-heavy” system. The Raptors rank sixth in opponent three-point percentage (34.1), ninth in opponent shooting percentage (45.3), and ninth in steals per defensive play (7.3%). Additionally, Toronto scores 17.9 points a game off turnovers (eighth in league).
At times, it seems like Toronto has two separate offenses. One is centered around isolations and the other is predicated on “drive and kick” action. Leonard is the culprit for a majority of the team’s isolation action, as he remains one of the league’s most efficient isolation scorers. He is currently averaging 27.4 points per game on 49.9 percent shooting from the field and 37.4 percent from outside.
Concurrently, Lowry is the catalyst for the team’s penetration-based offense. His 35.9 assist percentage ranks eighth in the NBA among point guards. When Lowry was healthy over the team’s first 24 games, Toronto went 20-4 with a 114.6 offensive rating and 57.0 assist percentage. Since then, the team’s offensive rating has plummeted to 107.5 (21st in NBA), and the assist percentage has dropped to 53.7 (29th).
Another one of the Raptors’ strengths is their bench play. With a bench full of guys who came up together in Toronto’s G-League system, the unit’s chemistry is palpable. The Raptors’ bench ranks fifth in points per game (41.2) and first in efficiency (10.1).
The Sixers utilize their size and physicality on both ends of the court. Offensively, Philadelphia gets opposing defenses on their heels by initiating contact in the paint. The 76ers rank second in both free throws attempted per game (27.5) and percentage of points from free throws (18.3). Philadelphia also ranks fifth in rebounds per game (56.0) and total rebounding percentage (51.7). Philadelphia relies on Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and Embiid to utilize their positional size advantages to score in isolation. Embiid, currently averaging 27.2 points per game on 48.2 percent shooting from the field, has been especially efficient in an MVP-worthy campaign. He has also attempted the second-most free throws per game (10.1).
Defensively, Philadelphia’s again uses superior size to its advantage. The Sixers are 10th in defensive rating (108) and 12th in defensive efficiency (1.054). The team’s dominance in the paint is further evident through ranking seventh in blocks per game (5.6) and fifth in opponent defensive rebounds per game (33.3). The Sixers are eighth in the NBA in opponent two-point percentage (50.4) and 10th in opponent three-point percentage (34.5).
The Raptors are not the same team when Lowry plays hurt. Since his injury in early December, Lowry has averaged a measly 11.6 points per game on 36 percent shooting from the field and 22.4 percent shooting from downtown. His lingering back injury has had a rippling effect throughout the team, whose offensive numbers have suffered a sharp decline. To make matters worse, the Raptors are low on capable playmakers outside of Lowry. His injury has additionally disrupted the bench’s chemistry with players thrust into irregular roles and minutes.
For Philadelphia, this is a perfect matchup. Simmons, 10 inches taller than Lowry, will prove a matchup nightmare for the battered guard. Butler is one of the few players who can actually match up defensively with Leonard and will surely give him fits all night. Furthermore, Embiid has an ideal matchup down low with Valanciunas out. Serge Ibaka has always struggled against Embiid, and the Raptors do not possess a capable backup. If Ibaka gets in early foul trouble, this game could be over fast.
The matchup’s opening line was -4 Philadelphia. Since then, it has dropped to -2.5 Philadelphia. The line shifted fast once news broke that Lowry will play tonight. However, 62 percent of public bets have been placed on the Sixers’ spread. I would expect that percentage to even out now that Toronto’s second-best player is active. There has been no indication yet of who the sharp bettors will back in this contest.
Even without the sharp’s backing, the Sixers’ side contains value. There is a market inefficiency in how Vegas currently values Lowry’s presence. Since he’s less than 100 percent healthy, the two-point shift was a clear overreaction.
Philadelphia is healthier and has a clear matchup advantage in tonight’s game. Embiid will exploit the Raptors’ lack of depth down low, and Simmons will be a big problem for Lowry. Toronto’s offensive woes will be further exacerbated against Philadelphia’s stingy defense. Take advantage of the market inefficiency and back Philadelphia at -2.5.