The Philadelphia 76ers enter the 2022 playoffs with some lofty aspirations after acquiring perennial All-Star James Harden prior to the trade deadline to pair with MVP candidate Joel Embiid. Their quest to advance to their first NBA Finals since 2001 begins with a first-round matchup against a well-coached Toronto team. The Raptors, who enter the postseason as winners of eight of their final 10 games, won the regular-season series 3-1 over the Sixers, including the most recent meeting between the teams earlier this month.
Here's a look at three critical questions facing Philadelphia heading into its first-round series against Toronto.
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1. Which Harden will the Sixers get?
James Harden appeared in 21 games for the Sixers during the regular season since he was acquired in February, and with such a small sample size it's still somewhat tough to tell exactly how he fits with his new franchise, and alongside Embiid.
During those games, Harden averaged 10.5 assists -- a number that is elite, and in line, with his production from the past several seasons. He consistently generated open opportunities for Embiid and the rest of the Sixers by simply occupying opposing defenses' attention and then making the right pass at the right time. His playmaking has been a big boon for a Sixers team that was desperate for a perimeter creator.
But while Harden's playmaking ability has been front and center in Philadelphia, his scoring has taken a backseat. He averaged just 21 points per performance with the Sixers during the regular season -- his lowest average output in over a decade -- and scored over 30 points just once. This is a dude who averaged 36 points a night just a couple of seasons ago. While the Sixers are certainly happy with Harden's assist-ability, they also acquired him to be a reliable, secondary scorer alongside Embiid, and so far in that role he has been inconsistent, to say the least.
More concerning than the raw numbers is how Harden has looked. He was never necessarily an athletic high-flyer, but he has looked sluggish at times with the Sixers, and he has had a noticeable lack of burst. He's had a tough time blowing past defenders on the perimeter, and an even tougher go finishing over defenders around the rim. Without that burst as an offensive attacker that he displayed for a decade in Houston, Harden has been forced to rely heavily on 3-pointers and free throws for his point production. The problem with that is he's not shooting especially well from long range with the Sixers either, as he converted just 32 percent of his 3s with the team during the regular season.
Some observers have claimed that he's "washed," while others suggest he's still dealing with a lingering hamstring injury. Others say he was simply biding his time during the regular season in an attempt to enter postseason play as fresh as possible. So that begs the question: Which Harden are the Sixers going to get in the playoffs? Will it be the Harden from the regular season, or the Harden who established himself as one of the most lethal offensive players the league has ever seen over the past decade? Or maybe an in-between version? Whatever the answer is, it will go a long way toward determining how Philadelphia fares in this year's playoffs.
2. How much will Philly miss Thybulle in Toronto?
The Sixers will be without their best perimeter defender for each away game in the series due to Canada's restriction guidelines regarding COVID-19. Matisse Thybulle is not fully vaccinated, and thus is unable to travel to Toronto with his teammates. This means he will miss Games 3, 4 and 6 (if necessary). The obvious question here is how much of an impact will Thybulle's absence have on the series?
We'll find out the answer to that soon enough, but his absence certainly has the potential to be pretty impactful. The Raptors have several potent perimeter players, and the Sixers aren't especially deep when it comes to reliable wing defenders behind Thybulle. Danny Green, Thybulle's replacement in the starting lineup, is still solid defensively in spurts, but he can't be looked at as a lock-down defender at this point in his career. Outside of Embiid, no one else on Philadelphia's roster is known for their defensive prowess, so that has to be a concern for Philadelphia. The entire team will need to step up on that end in order to mask not having Thybulle.
Plus, having a player in and out of the lineup isn't ideal for continuity, as we saw with Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn this season. Teams with championship aspirations typically try to build said continuity in the first round, and having a key contributor only available part-time certainly doesn't help that. The Sixers may be talented enough to overcome the situation, but it's not something that a team wants to have to deal with at this point in the season.
3. How will the backup center minutes be distributed?
The backup center spot has been a problem for Philadelphia throughout Embiid's tenure with the team. The issue was addressed last offseason with the signing of Andre Drummond, but the team lost him in the trade that netted them Harden. Since that trade, the Sixers have struggled when Embiid is off the floor. De'Andre Jordan has emerged as Embiid's de facto backup, though Paul Reed (finally) received some serious playing time in the last few games of the regular season.
Following their regular-season finale, Doc Rivers addressed how he plans to handle the minutes when Embiid is off the floor. "When there's a small lineup, we'll play smaller with Paul," Rivers said. "When there's a big five, we play bigger with [Jordan].. Against big fives, because of fouling, we like [Jordan]. We believe against big fives, [Jordan] is good for us."
It will be interesting to see if Rivers sticks to this approach against Toronto. If he does, it means Reed should be in line for a lot of playing time, as the Raptors aren't an especially big team. Plus, Reed is more mobile than Jordan at this point in his career, so he could potentially help against some of Toronto's perimeter threats, like Pascal Siakam, for example.
Rivers' ability to be flexible will come into play here. It's fine to try something, but if it doesn't work, you have to be able to adapt. Embiid is obviously going to play a majority of the minutes, but the Sixers simply can't afford to get shredded when he's off the floor.