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April 26, 2022

Following two straight defeats, Sixers are the team searching for answers

Up 3-0 in the series and riding high after a signature Joel Embiid moment in Toronto, the Sixers looked like a team ready to cruise into the second round after a week off to catch their breath. They are now locked in a dogfight with a team that has stifled them, frustrated them, and straight-up outplayed them for most of the last two games, three games if you consider their issues in a tight victory in Game 3.

Philadelphia does not look like a team in control of anything, much less the series, though they are fortunate that the game count still skews 3-2 in their favor. Even still, they haven't figured out a way to dress up their crimes against basketball in Game 4 and 5, conceding that they have been bested by their rivals to the north.

"I just thought they were the tougher team all night, they were more physical all night," Doc Rivers said Monday. "I thought they attacked us, we didn't attack back. We didn't get into the paint enough, and it led to shots. I thought we took a lot of tough shots tonight."

"They got everything they wanted, and not only did they get it, they used 23 seconds damn near every possession. So they turned the game into a slow-paced slugfest, but whenever they could run, they did run. So they got both. They beat us in transition, when they didn't have transition, they backed it out, used the clock, got the iso they wanted and scored on us. They scored from every single guy looking at our guys in the face. We're going to have to do something better to help our guys defend better."

Other than that, though, things are swell for the Philadelphia basketball franchise. It's hard to understand exactly how the Sixers could show up for back-to-back playoff games with such little focus, the series there for the taking if they had any interest in showing up.

I saw an idea circulating last night that James Harden looked good early in this game only to tail off later, and I'm not entirely sure where it came from. The first few minutes of the game featured gruesome possessions and turnovers for Philadelphia, many of them coming out of the hands of Harden. Among many other problems for the Sixers right now, Harden has reverted to an indecisive, borderline inexplicable style of basketball. His first two giveaways of the night sort were so bad they defy belief. Harden threw a lazy, lofted pass to Tyrese Maxey and a play that OG Anunoby ran the other way with, and later dribbled right into Khem Birch's waiting arms, Toronto's depth big deflecting the ball away from him.

To put it lightly, Philadelphia does not have a championship ceiling if Khem Birch (a player I generally like) is a Rubik's Cube that Harden can't solve. By the end of the game, Harden managed to get up just 11 shot attempts, offering up a strangely passive game during a moment that was crying out for a star to pull them through. Chances to attack fell by the wayside, something fans picked up on enough to start yelling at him to shoot more during the game. Harden not being able to beat certain guys off the dribble offers us an explanation for why his volume is down. It does not explain to us why he is foregoing opportunities that are there for the taking.

Joel Embiid, discussing the matter with reporters after the game, explained the teamwide problems on offense while answering a question about Harden's shot volume:

I've been saying all season since he got here, he needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself. That's not really my job, that's probably on coach to talk to him and tell him to take more shots. Especially if they're going to guard me the way they've been guarding. But that's really not my job.

But we all need to be better offensively. We missed a bunch of wide-open shots, at times I just felt like we just invited, when I was getting doubled, we were not aggressive attacking the ball. We just kept moving the ball around the perimeter, and that gave them time to recover, and that's why we were not able to get anything out of it.

So if that's what they want to keep doing, we've got to take advantage of it.

It never seemed like Harden could reach a point in his career where demanding for him to look to score more would be a problem. The issue is multi-faceted. The Raptors have grown in stature as this series has worn on, figuratively and literally, and not being able to cash in on their points of weakness seems to be wearing on Harden over time.

The Raptors are playing without one of their best players, Fred VanVleet, and almost inarguably benefitting from it as a result of the lineup composition Philadelphia has been forced to deal with. Gary Trent Jr., standing six-foot-six with a wingspan three inches larger than that, is the smallest guy the Raptors have on the floor at any given moment. Toronto was a long, pesky team at their core, and by necessity, they have leaned into that identity further. There's one less target on the floor for Harden or Tyrese Maxey to attack, making the matchup a good bit harder to solve on offense.

It doesn't help that Philadelphia's form of "reinforcements" in Game 5 came in the form of Matisse Thybulle, a player quickly wearing out his welcome through a combination of his play and decisionmaking. Thybulle's only points of the night came on a stroke of good fortune for him and the Sixers, an own goal from Precious Achiuwa that he was credited for as the last Sixers player to touch the ball. That about sums up his night — Thybulle's biggest contribution on offense was a brick that somebody else scored for him.

Toronto is so unfazed by Thybulle that you could see them actively backing away from him and daring him to shoot, thrilled if he was willing to hoist a shot up. When he didn't, the Raptors waited with open arms, forcing one of Philadelphia's 15 turnovers on the night.

You look at this roster and see that the Sixers don't have a lot of chess pieces to play unless their starters are firing on all cylinders. Thybulle's offense is so disastrous that any attempts to make up for it on the other end are basically futile. Shake Milton has been mostly anonymous, relegated to 10 minutes of duty on Monday with no real justification to play him further. Georges Niang's troublesome knee has him looking slower and less capable on defense than ever, an archery target with arms, legs, and sentience. And Paul Reed, bless his effort, has not exactly played well over the last couple of games, though his share of the responsibility for these losses is comparatively low.

Throughout the season, you could look down the bench or across the floor at No. 21 in Sixers colors and think, "Yeah, that guy has it." But Embiid has been just as culpable in the last two, with Game 5 one of the worst defensive performances I can remember seeing from him. He would admit as much after the game.

"I was terrible defensively today, especially in that third quarter," Embiid said. "There's really no explanation I guess, I just got to play with more energy and move my feet better. I just got to be better."

"We've got to guard them," Tobias Harris added. "They just drove right by us. Pretty much, second half especially, got in the paint, got layup after layup, we got to guard better, simple as that."

That's putting it lightly. Precious Achiuwa made Embiid look horrible a number of times throughout Monday's Sixers loss, a sentence I can hardly believe I am typing even as I see the words flash across the screen. Take your pick, and we can find an example of it. An Achiuwa blow-by for a dunk? Achiuwa powering through him at the bucket? All part of the Raptors' highlight package.

The idea of the Sixers as a real-deal threat rests on the belief that Embiid can prop them up enough defensively to make up for the negatives they have throughout the roster. These are plays that would have been shocking in the middle of the season against a nothing opponent. To show this little resistance in a potential closeout game reflects poorly on Embiid, who at least didn't look for excuses after bombing as hard as he did on that end. But these aren't issues that stem from Embiid having a busted thumb. Your thumb doesn't operate your legs, nor does it determine the level of effort you're able to give. 

Learning to play with a damaged thumb in a sport played with your hands is difficult, but he's playing as if that should be a catch-all excuse for any other shortcomings. He is better than that. Long ago, he became aware that the Sixers are only going as far as he can take them, his teammates almost always following in his footsteps. If Embiid is going to be on the floor, the lethargic, fog-brained play absolutely cannot happen. Embiid's actions are effectively screaming "I can't do this," and it is seeping into everything and everyone. Now, more than any other time this season, is the time to dig deep and deliver, offering an inspiring example for everybody else to follow. If he wants Harden to be aggressive, he could start by not getting fazed out of the offense himself for the majority of the important minutes down the stretch. 

The mental side of this series is where you really worry about the Sixers at this point, and it's the hardest part for us to get any real insight. Human nature suggests there are some worried minds across the organization and within the locker room, the Raptors winning and winning handily now that they've found their footing. Even Tyrese Maxey, the ray of sunshine who you rarely see get down, is finding it hard to be chipper at the moment. 

"I think one thing, first we got to stay together. And then myself, just get back in a good mental space and try to be aggressive for my team," Maxey said. "Help us score, help us defend, and just try to bring positive energy. I think that's one of the biggest things I can bring for this team is the positive energy of no matter what the score is, no matter how the situation is going, positive energy brings positive performance. When you feel good, feel like you're playing good, and you feel like you have a good groove, good things happen."

Maxey, 5-for-14 from the field on Monday in a game that felt worse than that, certainly is not in a groove at the moment. Toronto's size has impacted him as much as anyone in the series, dissuading drives and three-point opportunities alike as he has regressed from carefree gunner to conservative role player over the course of this series.

At least the second-year pro has the excuse of youth on his side. Embiid, Harden, and Rivers are all too deep into their careers, compensated far too handsomely for any excuse to hold up. Adjustments are needed, and each of these guys needs to take a long look in the mirror prior to Game 6 to figure out what the adjustment is on their end, from scheme-tweaking to shot-taking to buy-in on both ends.

If not, the Raptors have shown them they are not going to lay down and allow them to sleepwalk their way to a series victory. Being the more talented team with the best top-end talent means nothing if this is the best effort they can muster in a potential elimination game. Philadelphia needs to wake up, lest they continue marching toward a place in the history books they'd all like to avoid. If it's any solace, they won a road Game 6 last season after one of the most backbreaking collapses in Philly sports history in Game 5.

"That's the key of not being wrapped up in all the negative of what it is," Harris said. "Yeah, that was a terrible game by us, terrible outing just in terms of effort, and that sucks. But at the end of the day, we have to go back and be ready for Game 6. Wipe the slate clear and just be ready to get a W."

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