The Philadelphia 76ers, at 37-21, are ranked fifth in the Eastern Conference after the All-Star break. With the rest of the Sixers’ season beginning Thursday at home against the Miami Heat, they’re going to need a strong push to cement themselves as a premier team in the conference.
Though the Sixers are 16-6 against Western Conference teams this season, they have struggled against the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics, two of the East’s top four teams.
The Sixers are 1-3 against the Raptors, and they are 0-3 against the Celtics; Philadelphia is also 3-21 in its last 24 games against both teams. With only 24 games left in the regular season, the Sixers are going to have to prove their worth and show that they’re capable of beating these two teams.
Kawhi Leonard being traded to the Raptors during the off-season has made a difference for Toronto, and he’s played some of his best basketball this season against the Sixers.
Leonard averaged 30.3 points per game in the three games he played against Philly; he didn’t play during the Raptors’ lone loss against the Sixers last December. With a minimum of three games played, the Sixers are one of three teams in which Leonard has averaged at least 30 points a game against; the other two teams are the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, per nba.com.
The Sixers weren’t able to defend Leonard well during the three games he played against them, but the Raptors also pose another problem: depth. In each of the four games the Sixers played against Toronto, the Raptors had at least three players score in double figures.
For the Sixers, competing against a team with depth has proven difficult for most of the season. They didn’t acquire legitimate depth until the trade deadline, when they picked up Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons in three different trades.
Before the All-Star break, the Sixers showed they potentially have a 10-man rotation. Coach Brett Brown has lineups to work with now, and he should be able to get his starters more rest, especially as the playoffs draw near.
Though the Raptors have arguably a top five player in Leonard, the Sixers having more depth should help them compete with Toronto if the two teams meet in the playoffs.
For the Sixers, trying to beat the Celtics has just been simply tough. From an offensive standpoint, the Sixers haven’t been able to challenge Boston’s stout defense.
In three games against the Celtics, Philly has shot 42.9 percent from the field and 31.2 percent from the 3-point line. In addition to the shooting woes, though, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid haven’t played well against the Celtics this season.
Simmons has averaged 15.3 points per game in three games against the Celtics this season, but he’s also averaging 7.0 assists per game against them.
For teams the Sixers have played at least three times so far this season, Simmons’ assist numbers against the Celtics are relatively low; he averaged 8.8 assists in four games against Toronto and 9.0 assists in three games against the Washington Wizards.
Simmons has mainly struggled against the Celtics because they’ve packed the paint and have sealed off driving lanes. With Simmons not being able to drive and create, the Sixers haven’t moved the ball well against the Celtics. Philly is ranked third in the league in assists per game (27.4), but it has averaged 21.3 assists against the Celtics; this is Philly’s lowest assists per game average against Eastern conference teams.
As for Embiid, the Celtics have made it difficult for him to dominate games. Aside from Embiid scoring 34 points on Christmas against the Celtics, he has been held in check. He’s shot 46.7 percent from the field against them, and he’s also attempted 5.3 3-pointers a game as well; Embiid has averaged 4.0 threes a game this season.
Al Horford is one player who has defended Embiid well in the post this season. In Philly’s most recent game against Boston on February 12, Horford didn’t let Embiid score easy buckets around the hoop.
Horford held Embiid to 23 points, and Embiid also shot 9-of-22 from the field. Embiid struggling against any team isn’t ideal — the Sixers’ offense runs through him. But for the Sixers to beat Boston in a playoff series, Embiid will need to play better and be as dominant as possible in the post.