The Sixers are looking to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the 2000-01 season, and they'll need to beat the No. 2 seed Raptors to get there.

NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick, Danny Pommells and Noah Levick make their predictions for the series. 

Hudrick 

The keys for the Sixers will be taking care of the basketball, carrying over the defense from the end of the Brooklyn series and Jimmy Butler continuing his elevated play in the playoffs.

Kawhi Leonard is arguably the best two-way player in the league and has given Ben Simmons all kinds of trouble. Simmons turned the ball over 24 times in three games against Toronto with Leonard in the lineup. On top of that, Joel Embiid has a tough matchup in the post against Marc Gasol. Embiid, who said he’s still getting his rhythm back from missing so much time, will need to avoid forcing things against the wily vet.

It was the Nets, but you have to be impressed with the way the Sixers ratcheted up their defense at times in the series. Their defense in the fourth quarter of Game 4 and the first half of Game 5 was noticeably at another level. If they have any hope of winning this series, they need to maintain that level.

Postseason Jimmy Butler is a different animal. We’ve seen him take over games with his scoring, we’ve seen him excel as a facilitator and his defense was relentless at times. Embiid and Leonard are the two most talented players in this series. Butler needs to be the third best.

 

I don’t see the Sixers coming in and winning Game 1 in Toronto. Unfortunately, I think that sets the tone for the series and the Raptors win in seven. With that said, when you get to a Game 7, anything can happen. That’s how closely matched I believe these teams are.

Raptors in 7 

Pommells 

Life is about lessons. Some you learn the hard way. Some you never learn. The Sixers got schooled by the Celtics last year in a gentlemen’s sweep during the Eastern Conference semifinals. They weren’t versatile enough and were weak at a myriad of positions. This season they find themselves back in the conference semis, but staring down another buzzsaw, the Toronto Raptors. The Sixers aren’t winning this series if they can’t win in Toronto, an obstacle every lower seed must overcome. In the Sixers' case, that whole “winning in Toronto” part hasn’t happened since Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young were giving the team 30-plus minutes a game.

Even though the Sixers haven’t won in the Great White North since 2012, I do see a path to success in this seven-game series. The squad is more versatile and lethal offensively than the last time they saw the Raptors on Feb. 5 with the addition of Tobias Harris. Losing Mike Scott for Game 1 is a big blow, but winning Saturday night is imperative nonetheless. Setting an aggressive tone in Game 1 could carry throughout the series.

The Sixers are tied with Golden State for the highest first-quarter output in the league at nearly 31 points per game. Playing with that type of intensity in a hostile environment could help propel them to stealing Game 1. The Sixers are third in the playoffs in total rebounds and second in two-point field goal percentage. They had a dominant statistical series against Brooklyn, but Toronto creates much more matchup problems with Leonard and Pascal Siakam prime among them. The Sizers' best shot at neutralizing them? Butler on Leonard and Simmons on Siakam with JJ Redick between Danny Green and Kyle Lowry.

Offensively, it starts with aggression to the rim to attack Toronto, where they are weakest of late (ninth in total blocks this postseason). The Raptors have noted advantages, including the best player in the series in Leonard, but I see the Sixers putting it all together more frequently, similar to Game 5 against Brooklyn when the offense was potent and the defense was suffocating.

Sixers in 6

Levick 

According to Brett Brown, the Sixers’ history in Toronto is “so irrelevant.” This version of the Sixers has yet to face this version of the Raptors, and Brown doesn’t care about all those losses — 13 straight in Toronto — when the Sixers were “trying to find (Robert) Covington, but really try to get high draft picks.”

A storyline Embiid will be determined to change is the notion that Gasol is one of the only players capable of guarding him. Gasol has held Embiid to 14.0 points per game on 34.4 percent shooting in their five matchups. 

 

Though Leonard has done an excellent job defending Simmons in the past, expect Simmons to be employed more in the post this series, with Butler at the point. Butler’s low turnover rate — 6.9 percent during the regular season, the lowest of any current Sixers regular — is an important quality for this team, which still sometimes struggles with coughing the ball up. 

Scott’s injury hurts, but I’m not convinced the Raptors’ bench has a massive advantage over the Sixers’. Toronto’s three main bench players in the first round against Orlando were Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell, while former Sixer Jodie Meeks averaged 6.4 minutes per game. The Raptors have some solid bench players, but it’s not as if they’re putting out a second unit capable of starting who’s going to annihilate the Sixers’ bench. It will be very interesting to see if Zhaire Smith can make a positive impact with his defense and athleticism.

The Sixers are the underdogs here, in part because they don’t have the Raptors’ continuity. Their starting lineup has been excellent when together at 11-3, but nobody really knows what they’re capable of, for better and for worse. As we saw in Game 5 vs. Brooklyn, they have incredible potential.

There are so many variables to consider in this series, and home-court advantage is one of the more important ones. I think Toronto, 34-10 at home this season, wins Game 1 tonight and caps a tight series with a Game 7 victory at Scotiabank Centre.

Raptors in 7 

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