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This is not the same Joel Embiid the Raptors faced the last time They met in the playoffs

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This isn’t 2019 anymore.

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As much as fans in Toronto love to talk about that memorable run and that gutsy seven-game series that was won on the miracle shot from Kawhi Leonard, the story lines are vastly different in this one.

For starters, the Raptors go into the one the underdog. There’s no longer Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka around to share between just the two of them the role of shutting down Joel Embiid.

Embiid and everyone still on these two teams from three years ago – each team has four including Danny Green who now wears a Sixers jersey — has changed, but perhaps none as much as Embiid.

He goes into this series as the unquestionable No. 1 player on either team, and as mentioned, he does so against a team that doesn’t have a single player that can go toe-to-toe with him defensively anymore.

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But that doesn’t mean Embiid is going to have a cakewalk.

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Rather than two imposing and experienced bodies, the Raptors will throw combinations of five different guys at him — all in the 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9 range, well south of Embiid’s listed 280 pounds.

And Embiid is much, much better than he was three years ago.

He’s seen more defences, he’s far more comfortable attacking those defences and he has more tools to attack them with a better handle and an extended shooting range with better consistency.

Embiid is coming off a year in which he won the league scoring title, which says more than anything else about how far his game has come in those three years.

All that said, he will tell you the Raptors, and specifically head coach Nick Nurse, have shown him more effective defensive schemes than any team in the league.

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The big question is whether Nurse has one more up his sleeve.

GETTING IT FROM ALL SIDES

James Harden didn’t endear himself to a lot of basketball traditionalists when he forced his way out of consecutive franchises over a two years span leaving first Houston in a lurch and then demanding his way out of Brooklyn when it appeared that orchestrated mega-team wasn’t going to be a contender.

Harden is a former league MVP, former league scoring champ and multi-time all-star but he has clearly stepped on some toes with his manoeuvring.

Heading into this series, Harden’s game is thought to be on the decline.

In recent days in interviews with the local Philadelphia media, Harden has been asked about the pressure to live up to the lofty expectations that coincided with his arrival to Philly.

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He has scoffed at all of them claiming he doesn’t feel pressure.

National analyst and one-time Raptor Jalen Rose suggested Harden wasn’t taking his role in Philly seriously enough if he wasn’t feeling pressure.

Charles Barkley, a former Sixer with strong ties still to the organization used his platform on TNT to call out Harden telling him the pressure was real and he better be ready to answer it.

EXPECT A DIFFERENT LOOK

Game 1 in Philly looked like the pre-pandemic days without nary a mask in the stands visible.

That will change Monday for Game 2.

The city of Philadelphia is re-instating its mandatory indoor masking mandate on Monday meaning it will no longer just be the visitors from Toronto masking up.

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THE ROOK

Scottie Barnes has been through a lot in his first year in the NBA, but this is next level for the fourth overall and franchise-altering draft pick from last June’s draft.

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He arrived with some questions about his ability to shoot the ball, some question about whether the Raptors had made a mistake in bypassing the uber-popular Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs to select him.

The questions regarding Suggs were answered lickedy-split and the shooting hasn’t been an issue at all, though even Nurse admitted he wasn’t sure what he was getting in that regard.

“I think I was probably curious as to where and how he was going to score at the start of the season,’ Nurse said. “He just wasn’t a high volume scorer at any place he had ever been. There wasn’t one thing you would say — Oh, he plays pick and roll well, oh he drives it from the wing well or Oh, he catches and shoots it well or Oh, he posts up well. He just gets it in all kinds of little, unique ways. A putback here, the look-away shot there. A drive here, a fastbreak bucket there, a couple of free throws, a three-ball there. He kind of just compiles these little thing to get his 15-18 points … Our thing for him all year was just keep finding those. Find more of them. Find more ways to be aggressive and get more attempts at doing those things. “

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Barnes has answered every question throughout the regular season, so it’s not a surprise to hear Nurse say he believes he’ll handle his first NBA playoff experience with the same mature and effective approach.

MOSTLY BAD LUCK

You’ve got to feel for Montreal-native Khem Birch. His first full season with the Raptors has been one injury after another.

From an early bout with COVID to a knee injury that doesn’t sound like it will ever fully heal to a broken nose, Birch has spent the entire season coming back from one injury after another.

Right on cue on the very first possession after he checked in for OG Anunoby in his first playoff appearance with the Raps, it looked like Birch was facing another comeback.

An Embiid elbow caught him flush on the face leaving him dazed and confused for a full Philadelphia offensive possession before he could get back to his feet.

He managed to join in on the next Sixers’ possession before drawing a foul and immediately leaving the game.

This time around the luck wasn’t all bad as Birch was able to return to the game after passing concussion protocols.

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