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December 08, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers make good win over Raptors feel like hostage situation

The Sixers earned one of their best wins of the early part of the season with a victory over the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, coasting to a 110-104 victory in which they led for the majority of the game.

Here's what I saw in Sunday's win. 

The Good

• For long stretches of their series with the Toronto Raptors, Tobias Harris was a passenger, standing in the corner while the Sixers ran spread pick-and-rolls with Jimmy Butler at the controls. This season, it's a completely different ballgame, and Harris is often the guy running Philadelphia's bread and butter plays.

Harris was Philadelphia's leading man in the early stages of the game, using Joel Embiid's screens to create separation and challenge Toronto at the rim. And he did so in ways that neutralized Toronto's paint presence, using the rim to shield some of his shot attempts from shot blockers. He also gives the Sixers some needed variety on offense. Though they'd like him to take more threes, allowing Harris to find his comfort zone from mid-range sure seems to get him going from everywhere else on the floor.

One point of critique: he was a step slow on rotations on Sunday night, with the Sixers conceding more open threes than they should have because of some bad habits coming back into the picture. He has been solid there this season, but there were a few too many gambles or misreads on his part against Toronto.

(And an additional note: he had absolutely no chance to complete it, but I really appreciated Harris going for an all-time poster dunk early in the fourth quarter. He took off about two feet too early to make it happen, but he would have dunked on like half of the city of Toronto if he had completed it. That's an attitude I can respect.

• The Matisse Thybulle we saw in the preseason has finally arrived for regular season duty. It took some growing pains, some foul trouble, and some time on the bench for him to find his footing, but the rookie is finding his footing and making a big impact off of the bench for Philadelphia.

It helps that those bench lineups have a clear identity. Built around the gambling talents of Thybulle and Ben Simmons with Al Horford anchoring things behind them, the Sixers are disruptive as hell and feel no reason to pull back and slow the pace down. It is a cross between a track meet and basketball. Thybulle doesn't just thrive in that environment, he basically creates it.

Philadelphia has given him an assortment of tough assignments all year, and he's proving that he can hold up against most, if not all of them. When you can move a rookie back and forth between guys like Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, you've got a good one.

The shift on offense is probably the bigger deal just because of how far he had to go there. Thybulle is limiting three-point attempts mostly to standstill looks with his shoulders square, and he has taken a monster leap forward as a result. A guy who was getting left alone on the perimeter is now pass-faking defenders into giving him open three-point makes. Confidence is king.

(I know some people would like him to get these spot starts in place of Josh Richardson when he's out, but with him thriving in his current role, I think it's totally understandable to just leave things be.)

• Ben Simmons may not have attempted the three-point shot his coach wants to see from him in every game moving forward, but he was very much in control of the game against Toronto. He set the pace of the game, he scanned the court well from the post, and he was a major part of their defensive success against Pascal Siakam.

There were some bouts of overpassing that I didn't especially like, but overall Simmons played with bad intentions. He put a lot of mustard on this dunk as he snaked past Marc Gasol.

Simmons continued to lead the Sixers in the effort department down to the final whistle, too. He was creating extra possessions for Philadelphia deep in the fourth quarter on nothing more than willpower, catching the Raptors napping when they took a couple of defensive rebounds for granted.

One difference between Simmons this season and in years past is that he still has the bad, passive games we used to see from him, but he tends to follow those up with strong bounce backs and doesn't let them spiral into a bad stretch of games or a bad week. Turning multi-game swoons into the odd bad game makes a huge difference over the course of 82 games, and Simmons has responded with gusto to Thursday's poor performance vs. Washington.

• Al Horford's offensive performance wasn't much to write home about, but he was sensational on the defensive end. He got his hands on loose balls, stifled the Raptors around the rim, and was a big part of Philadelphia's plan against Pascal Siakam, who turned in a dud in the midst of his dark horse campaign for NBA MVP.

Within that performance, there was a blueprint for Joel Embiid to follow in matchups where he can't get it going as a scorer. Knowing doubles were coming from the Raptors, Horford looked for passes first and hunted his own shot later when he was down on the low block, putting the Raptors on their heels defensively.

• It was a bad performance for Joel Embiid against Marc Gasol again, but there were flashes of some looks they might be able to use against the Raptors in future matchups. 

One play in the second quarter stood out: the Sixers know the Raptors want to send hard doubles, and they're especially aggressive in using Gasol to do so because they don't much care if Embiid gets some open threes. So the Sixers posted Harris, who waited for the Gasol double, and then Embiid cut into the vacated space and posted up Pascal Siakam helping from the second side. It was easy money for Embiid from there.

If the Raptors are going to defend that way, the Sixers have to dominate with these counters.

The Bad

• Joel Embiid continues to be flummoxed by this team. He was fortunate to have Marc Gasol exit the game with early foul trouble, which allowed him to pick him some easy buckets against Serge Ibaka, because he was no more prepared to solve the puzzle of the Spaniard than he was the last time the two teams met.

There's no way to dress up that performance, and he was bad right down until the very end. Embiid was particularly terrible in the game's final minutes with Toronto trapping and sitting back in zone looks, and Brett Brown took the (IMO) necessary step to remove him from the game and replace him with another ballhandler, Raul Neto. 

(Some of that is also a function of the other personnel available. Without Richardson, the Sixers have a dearth of ballhandlers on the floor in closing looks, so something had to give.)

Here's the only good news for the Sixers — they are no longer in a position where they are doomed if they don't overwhelmingly win Embiid's minutes. The success of the Simmons/Horford led backup unit eases the pressure on the big man to produce, and they can win in suboptimal circumstances as a result.

There are matchups where Horford will struggle, too. Historically it has been against quicker twitch, jumpy athletes, and those are guys Embiid tends to clean up against on the low block. Horford may be the best possible backup plan when Embiid isn't playing, but they also pick each other up on the nights they play together.

(And for what it's worth, Gasol is doing absolutely nothing against the Sixers on the offensive end. It's not a matchup where they should be playing to a standstill, but Philly does have enough high-end talent to make up for that.)

• I get that they don't go up against these sort of looks in the NBA all that often, but good grief, the Sixers made the Raptors' full-court defense look like the greatest defense of all-time. I mean come on, fellas. Way to take all the fun out of what should have been a triumphant victory.

Some of the errors were just completely unforced. Thybulle played a hell of a game, but he produced a backcourt violation as Nick Nurse was in the process of telling the Raptors to back off and let the clock wind down with about 30 seconds left. No one is going to care about all the positive I wrote about above, they're just going to want to yell about this part of the game. And you're all pretty justified, frankly.

The Ugly

• Some of Mike Scott's attempts lately have just been inexplicable. When he's feeling it, that guy can burn the nets down, but they are a long way from that version of Scott right now. 

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