To match up or not to match up? That's the question the Toronto Raptors will have to answer Sunday and Tuesday night against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.
There's no way to slow down Embiid this season. At least, nobody has been able to come up with one yet. He's averaging 30.5 points per game on 54.7% shooting and he's become the league's most dominant inside scorer. Once he gets deep in the paint, you're toast. He's averaging a league-leading 9.3 post-up attempts per game and he's one of the few players who can post-up efficiently, averaging 1.08 points per post-up attempt, per NBA Stats.
Earlier this season when Toronto faced Embiid, Raptors coach Nick Nurse decided to use his two 7-foot bigs to try to slow down Embiid. Aron Baynes and Alex Len defended Embiid on 73% of his offensive possessions, surrendering 17 points on 40.65 partial possession or about 10 minutes of game time, per NBA Stats.
Now, two months later, Baynes has played his way out of Toronto's starting lineup and Len is playing for the Washington Wizards, having been waived by the Raptors on January 19.
It's created a bit of a problem for Toronto against the league's most talented and biggest centres. It was just two weeks ago Jonas Valanciunas almost single-handedly willed the Memphis Grizzlies to a victory with a 27-point, 20-rebound performance in which he was plus-four in a 15-point loss for Memphis.
One option for Toronto is just to go back to Baynes. According to the NBA's tracking data, Baynes has actually been an elite post-up defender this season, albeit in a very small sample size. He ranks in the 92nd percentile, allowing just 0.53 points on about one post-up possession per game. The problem, however, is Baynes isn't very versatile and creates switching problems when teams get him in screen situations. That's not to mention the offensive issues he creates as an unreliable shooter and an inconsistent finisher. There is, of course, a reason the Raptors have moved away from him over the past few weeks.
The alternative is just to play the Raptors game which has been small-ball lately. Sacrifice some of that interior size for versatility with OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam taking turns defending opposing bigs. Ideally, Toronto can help off perimeter shooters and create chaos whenever a big gets the ball in the paint. It was a plan that worked very well against the 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo, for example. It also forces the opposing big to defend one of Toronto's more skilled offensive weapons, creating tougher switching assignments for teams like the 76ers.
In a perfect world, Nurse would rather play Raptors basketball and force opposing teams to adjust to his small-ball lineups.
"The one thing I don’t love doing is matching them," Nick Nurse said last month prior to playing the Sacramento Kings. "I know sometimes you say, 'wait a minute, when Embiid is out there you constantly are.' Chris [Boucher] comes out or there’s certain situations where you get put into, not that often, but you get put into [bad situations] with a real big physical rebounding scoring big where you don’t have much choice sometimes."
In today's modern NBA there aren't very many dominant inside scorers that the Raptors really have to worry about. They can get by going small on most nights and force teams to adjust to their new game plan. The problem with Sunday's game is that Embiid is one of those rare players who can just Toronto's matchups.
Somehow the Raptors are going to have to adjust and as the rest of the NBA has already found out, there's no easy solution.