Raptors, Sixers set to open playoff series

TORONTO – Once again, Marc Gasol can expect to be a key figure for the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

The seven-foot-one centre played a big role in Toronto’s Round 1 victory over Orlando, holding Magic all-star centre Nikola Vucevic to an average of 11.2 points (and 36.2 per cent shooting) in the five-game victory. Gasol will be front and centre Saturday night when the second-seeded Raptors host Philadelphia to open their second-round series at Scotiabank Arena, lining up against 76ers star Joel Embiid.

The seven-foot Embiid averaged 27.5 points and 13.6 rebounds in helping the 76ers (51-31) finish third in the Eastern Conference this season. He then guided Philadelphia to a 4-1 playoff series win over the Brooklyn Nets, averaging 24.8 points and 13.5 rebounds.

“Prepare for a great player,” Gasol said Thursday about facing Embiid. “Just like any great player, you try to make everything as uncomfortable as possible, be as physical as they allow you.

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“Same kind of mindset that we had with Nik.”

Toronto dominated the season series with Philadelphia, winning three of four games. That was despite solid numbers from Embiid, who averaged 26.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, three assists and 1.8 blocks.

Although Gasol hasn’t faced Embiid since joining the Raptors, he’s had decent success against the 76ers star. The two have squared off five times, with Embiid averaging 14.0 points (on 34.4 per cent shooting) and 12.4 rebounds as well as 4.4 turnovers per game.

During Gasol’s time in Memphis, the club was 3-2 versus Philadelphia. During Toronto’s series versus Orlando, Magic coach Steve Clifford said Gasol’s impact with Toronto has been noticeable.

“But what Marc Gasol has brought to me — I think they were top-10 in three-point shooting before the trade and now they’re first,” he said. “The difference is simple: It’s spacing.

“They’re five-out. They have five guys outside of the (three-point line). It’s like playing Milwaukee, except the difference with him is like us with Vuc. There are only three or four guys that can shoot threes and throw penetrating passes.”

Raptors forward Pascal Siakam is also looking forward to facing Embiid. While both are from Cameroon, they come from different cities (Douala for Siakam, Yaounde for Embiid).

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“That’s always been this little rivalry between Douala, where I’m from, and Yaounde, where he’s from,” Siakam said. “So it’s definitely a little fun playing against him.

“I think it’ll be a big deal (for fans in Cameroon) for sure.”

The 76ers have also had no answer this season for Raptors star forward Kawhi Leonard, who averaged 30.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, four steals and 2.7 assists over the three wins. The only game Philadelphia won was a 126-101 decision at Wells Fargo Centre on Dec. 22 that Leonard didn’t play in.

In fact, Leonard, who came to Toronto last summer in a blockbuster deal that sent DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs, has never lost to the 76ers. He’ll carry a 13-game win streak against Philadelphia into the series opener.

The two teams haven’t met since Toronto’s 119-107 road win Feb. 5. Both made deals prior to the Feb. 7 trade deadline with the Raptors acquiring Gasol from Memphis and Philadelphia picking up Tobias Harris in a deal with the L.A. Clippers.

But the 76ers have dropped 13 straight games at Scotiabank Arena — their last road win in Toronto came in November 2012. Toronto is 34-10 at home, including playoffs, this season and has won 21 of its last 24 games versus Philadelphia.

Although Toronto hasn’t faced Philadelphia in over two months, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said there’s much he can glean from the regular-season matchups and incorporate into his series preparation.

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“You go in with some ideas going into Game 1 but you get a much clearer picture, obviously, after the first game,” he said. “There’s lot of really good players (on) their team and their starters in particular.

“I wouldn’t sit here and say there’s a great comparison there (regular-season contests), but there’s a lot of stuff because you saw some matchups. How will the matchups look and you have to go back and review that stuff again and see what looks good and what doesn’t look so good, what can be improved. Yeah, there’s some stuff there for sure.”

This marks the second playoff meeting between Toronto and Philadelphia, but first since 2001 when the 76ers defeated the Raptors in seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinal.

Nurse said he’s confident heading into the series that Gasol can successfully defend against Embiid, but added that others will help.

“I would imagine they are going to test him, I’d imagine we are going to test him out as well,” Nurse said. “It’s at least a two-man job, (Gasol) and Serge (Ibaka).

“And then it becomes a team job as well.”

Gasol agreed.

“It’s how can we adjust a little bit and see what they’re trying to do?” he said. “We’ll see how they want to play us pretty soon.

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“We can’t kind of script the whole thing yet. You can be prepared for a lot of things, and whatever they give you, be able to take it.”

NOTES: On Thursday, the NBA and NBA Players’ Association announced the top-10 most popular team merchandise list. Not surprisingly, the L.A. Lakers — with star forward LeBron James in tow — ranked No. 1. The Raptors made the list at No. 9. James was also ranked first overall as the most popular jersey ahead of Golden State’s Stephen Curry. Embiid was fifth, followed by teammates Ben Simmons (ninth) and Jimmy Butler (No. 10). There were no Raptors in the top 15.