They are different than the last time they met, when the crazy and mystical four-bounces-off-the-rim shot from Kawhi Leonard ended a gut-wrenching seven-game playoff series between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers last spring.
Different because of the decisions of individuals, not by anything either franchise did, and yet they remain legitimate aspirants to play for an NBA title.
There is no Leonard in Toronto, with the star forward gone to the Clippers; and no Danny Green, off to the Lakers. The Sixers are without Jimmy Butler, who forsook Philly’s maximum-value contract offer to go play in Miami, and JJ Redick, who fled Philadelphia to join New Orleans.
But as they get ready to renew acquaintances at the Scotiabank Arena on Monday night, both the Raptors and 76ers are wary of each other, knowing that the path to a conference title will likely require getting by one or the other.
And if they are different, they are both still very good. The Sixers are gigantic, with a frontcourt of Al Horford and Joel Embiid that is among the biggest in the league. Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris give them size and length at the other three spots and present a difficult puzzle for opponents to solve.
“They’re definitely unique,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said when Miami lost in Philadelphia on Saturday night. “The way they protect the paint is really unique, and you really have to work your offence with a little more energy, a little more commitment, a little more calories burned.”
The Raptors have a knack for making in-game adjustments, so the question may be: Can they figure out the unique Sixers and, if so, how long will it take?
Toronto did not look very good for long stretches of a win in Atlanta on Saturday but ground the Hawks down and took control of the game early in the fourth quarter.
“Sometimes you got to find a way to win (games), and give the guys all the credit in the world for that because it was a tough game,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said after the 119-116 triumph in Atlanta. “I always say there’s a million ways to win a game and that was another one.”
That has been Toronto’s mantra all season — do whatever it takes — and the Sixers will certainly be a challenge. Philadelphia’s length defensively will take some figuring out. And while the Sixers lack some shooting offensively, they can be diverse. The switch to Horford from Butler has taken away ball-handling and the big shotmaking but has given Philadelphia another big man to stretch defences.
That will put some stress on Toronto’s frontcourt. The Raptors effectively used Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka at the same time in that epic playoff series but, with Ibaka having missed the last seven games with a sprained ankle, that combination might not be as effective as it was last spring.
It’s too early in the year to say the first of four regular-season meetings really means anything but there is certain to be a little bit of extra electricity in the arena and there is a sense the game can serve as a bit of a measuring stick.
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Not because of what happened last spring but because it’s always good to see where you stand against top-notch competition. The Raptors have had it relatively easy since returning from a five-game road trip with outings against Eastern Conference minnows in Charlotte, Orlando and Atlanta.
The Sixers are grouped with Boston, Milwaukee, Miami and Toronto in the upper echelon of the conference right now and it’s likely to remain that way throughout the season. Seeing firsthand what issues this iteration of the Sixers present can only help the Raptors.