Sixers take on the Raptors in Nick Nurse’s return to Toronto

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Nick Nurse takes questions from the media during a press conference at the NBA basketball team’s facility, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Camden, N.J. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Following their ultra-narrow loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in their season opener, the Philadelphia 76ers continue their early road campaign. They’ll be taking on the Toronto Raptors tonight for an early-season matchup versus the former team of Sixers new head coach Nick Nurse.

Date and Time: Saturday, Oct. 28, 7:30 pm EST

Where to Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia or NBA TV

Location: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto, ON

Injury Report

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden heads out of Moby Arena after the NBA basketball team’s practice on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023, in Fort Collins, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Sixers: James Harden OUT (return to competition conditioning)

Raptors: OG Anunoby QUESTIONABLE (cramps)

Probable Starting Lineups

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid tries to get past Milwaukee Bucks’ Bobby Portis during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Sixers: Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker, Joel Embiid

Raptors: Dennis Schroder, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl.

If Anunoby doesn’t play, we’ll likely see Gary Trent Jr. fill in his starting spot with rotating minutes from Gradey Dick.

What to Expect

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Nick Nurse reacts to a call during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

Despite being outmatched by the combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, the James Harden-less Sixers showed considerable tenacity in the season opener. Reigning MVP Joel Embiid offered considerable paint protection, while both Tyrese Maxey and Kelly Oubre Jr. were explosive on offense – and all three finished with 20-plus points. Both Paul Reed and Jaden Springer were fun to watch defensively off the bench, and both should have an important role in tonight’s matchup.

The Sixers have a long history of struggling to keep up with the bouncy, athletic pace of play the Raptors are notorious for. In the last four seasons, leadman Pascal Siakam has averaged 23.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 6.0 assists in 16 contests against the Sixers. And while the Raptors lost sharpshooter Fred VanVleet in the offseason, previous Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes is blossoming into a legitimate superstar. In the Raptors’ season opener against the Chicago Bulls, the 22-year-old nailed his quick passes and difficult mid-range jumpers while also making an impact defensively. 

But with Nick Nurse on the Sixers’ side now, the team may be better prepared than ever to face an opponent that notoriously exposes their weaknesses. A major asset that Nurse brings is a keen understanding of Embiid’s defensive style and the technical footwork needed to beat him to the rim. Nurse’s ability to coach Embiid, giving him the secret sauce he’s used to have the Raptors sidestep him for the last several years, will be a defining factor of this matchup.

Another key factor lies in Paul Reed, whose speed and aggressiveness bear uncanny similarities to Pascal Siakam. Under previous head coach Doc Rivers, where Reed was limited to a backup center, Nick Nurse has expressed a strong desire for Paul Reed to have a bigger role. He’s made clear in press conferences that we will see Embiid and Reed share the court, and the lanky Raptors are the perfect test case to try that out. 

The two-big case especially makes sense when you realize how underprepared the Sixers are to defend the smaller Raptors, like Barnes and OG Anunoby. Guys like P.J. Tucker and Tobias Harris are generally more suited to defend smaller, quicker guards, which works well against Dennis Schroeder. But Barnes is a small forward who plays like a guard and can easily hold his own against Tucker. Anunoby’s lateral quickness and pull-up shooting skills are also difficult to match.

Tobias Harris isn’t an ideal matchup against Barnes, so the team’s best shot defensively will likely be to have him on Anunoby (assuming he plays) while having Maxey and Melton rotate between roaming and assisting Tucker in limiting Barnes. Reed and Embiid, meanwhile, can look to limit larger guys like Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, and bench big Precious Achiuwa.

Overall, the Sixers will need to match the Raptors’ speed and aggressiveness and up their game defensively to nab their first win of the season.