Joel Embiid, Sixers' Big 4 Putting Raptors, Eastern Conference on Notice

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2019

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 2: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts during a game against the Toronto Raptors during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on May 2, 2019 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

As soon as LeBron James' exodus to Los Angeles was official, the Eastern Conference made like the Red Sea and opened up for the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.

On Thursday, in a 116-95 win over the second-seeded Raptors, Philly looked ready to march toward the other side. Led by their 7-foot Cameroonian Moses, Joel Embiid, the Sixers were dominant for stretches. And they may not even have the best individual player in the series, though 76ers coach Brett Brown would disagree.

Kawhi Leonard has been absurd this postseason. After dropping 33 points in Game 3, his playoff average is up to 31.5. But Philadelphia has a legitimate Big Four, and it overwhelmed the rest of the Raptors.

Thursday, it was all about Embiid and Jimmy Butler. The big man was dominant on both ends of the floor, scoring 33 points on 9-of-18 shooting and blocking five shots. Butler filled up the box score to the tune of 22 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and three steals.

And on nights when one or both of those players don't have it, Philly has Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris. Talk about luxury.

If you sort every NBA player this season with 250-plus minutes by the average of their ranks in 10 catch-all metrics (real plus-minus, player impact plus-minus, box plus-minus, win shares per minute and game score per minute, as well as the cumulative variants of each), Embiid was No. 12, Butler was No. 25, Simmons was No. 30 and Harris was No. 58. Four top-60 players. Throw in JJ Redick (No. 94), and Philly's entire starting five is in the top 100.

Yes, there are valid questions about the 76ers' depth. Prior to garbage time, James Ennis III was the only reserve who logged more than 15 minutes. But it's the playoffs; Brett Brown can get away with a tight seven- to eight-man rotation. And on any given night, four or five of those eight could provide the star performance to put Philadelphia over.

According to Basketball Reference, Game Score is "a rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game." Prior to Game 3, Philadelphia had eight individual performances this postseason with a 20-plus Game Score. Two each from Embiid, Butler, Simmons and Harris.

On Thursday, Embiid (29.2) and Butler (25.4) bumped that total to 10 in Philadelphia's blowout win over the Raptors.

"He is our crown jewel defensively," Brown told reporters after the game. "I suppose offensively too."

When the Raptors trimmed an 18-point lead in the second half all the way down to single digits, Philly's crown jewel helped turn momentum back around with emphatic blocks on Leonard and Pascal Siakam.

Two dunks and a dime to Embiid from Butler were huge too.

"Jimmy's focus, his leadership, attention to detail are heightened," Brown said. "We need it all."

Again, those two put on the show Thursday. And they probably have the highest individual ceilings of anyone on the roster. But Philadelphia isn't a two-man show. And that should have Toronto worried.

So far this series, Leonard has been phenomenal. Through three games, he has 113 points (37.7 per game). And even the stellar on-ball defense of Butler or Simmons looks borderline helpless in front of him. He's shooting 60.9 percent from the field. Siakam has been strong too, averaging 23.3 points and hitting 50.9 percent of his attempts.

But, unlike Philly, Toronto does look like a two-man show. After that duo, things get ugly in a hurry. The rest of the roster is shooting 30.5 percent from the field.

Point guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet were especially bad in Game 3:

The Raptors need more from the other guys. Leonard and Siakam have scored 62.7 percent of their team's points in Round 2. Lowry, in particular, may need to shake the playoff narrative that has plagued him for years if Toronto is going to turn this around.

It can. On paper, the Raptors' talent is right up there with anyone's in the East. They showed it in their double-digit victory in Game 1. Since then, Philadelphia has made the case that it has the higher ceiling. And not just in this series.

Embiid, Butler and Simmons are all bona fide stars. Harris is close.

Milwaukee has Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe are probably underrated. Boston has Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Gordon Hayward still seems to be working his way toward pre-injury form, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown may not be ready yet.

Strange as it may sound, the Golden State Warriors might be the only team in the league that can match the 76ers' top-of-the-roster star power.

And if Philadelphia keeps playing the way it has for most of the postseason, it may be able to seize control of the post-LeBron East and test itself against the game's current dynasty.

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