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May 05, 2019

Instant observations: The Sixers blew a golden opportunity in Game 4 defeat to Toronto

The Sixers were on the see-saw with the Toronto Raptors for most of Sunday afternoon, but when push came to shove, one team had Kawhi Leonard (who scored 39 points) and the other one did not. With a chance to crush Toronto's hopes on their home floor, the Sixers could not find their killer instinct, and they will head back to Toronto tied 2-2 following a 101-96 defeat.

Here's what I saw during Sunday's game, with more to come later on:

The Good

• Since the playoffs began, the Sixers have done a good job of breaking from the offense they've traditionally run under Brett Brown to feature the talents of the stars they've acquired over the course of this season. The addition of more pick-and-roll has been critical for them in the postseason, and that trend continued on Sunday.

Joel Embiid did not look to be feeling his best early on Sunday, but the Sixers continued to have a lot of success running pick-and-rolls at Marc Gasol in an effort to make him defend in space. Gasol's lack of later quickness allowed Sixers drivers to get into the paint, and when he cheated to cut off drives, rolling lanes were there for the big man to run down.

It sure seems to help to have as much diversity possible in your offensive structure.

(As far as coaching wrinkles go, I also liked the decision to send doubles at Leonard as much as humanly possible. Leonard still ended up having a monster game, but the Sixers forced him into seven turnovers on Sunday and complicated his life as much as you could reasonably expect. He had an incredible game, but I thought their strategy was the right one.)

• Despite the team coming out a bit lethargic on Sunday afternoon, they got the A+ version of Jimmy Butler right from the opening whistle. He had to sustain the offense by himself at times with their role players and stars both struggling, and he brought it on the other end of the floor as well, helping them hang around in the game the Raptors might have blown open otherwise.

The Sixers were having a tough time generating open looks against a more physical Raptors team early, so Butler took it upon himself to get into the teeth of the defense and draw all the attention his way. He hit a couple of Sixers shooters on kick outs from the mid-post, and when Toronto started overplaying passing lanes, he made sure to punish them at the rim as well.

His willingness to shoot threes has made a huge difference from what we saw in the regular season. The problem with Butler has never been his ability from there — he's been pretty good or great as a catch-and-shoot guy for years. Just getting him to let it fly when open is half of the battle, and he has answered the bell so far in these playoffs.

And once again, Butler's effort and intensity made a difference on both ends of the floor. He disrupted the Raptors as an off-ball defender, soared over them for offensive rebounds, and made the sort of plays along the margins that help you survive when your offense is sputtering. 

Butler has had to do a little bit of everything, and unlike last year, when the Sixers had a supporting case incapable of picking up the slack when called upon, they have the star power to pick each other up when necessary. Some guys are built for this time of year and this sort of moment, and it appears Butler is one of them.

• For all of his faults on Sunday, we did see why Joel Embiid believes he's the league's best defensive player. Embiid was the only thing propping them up on that side of the floor for most of the first half, and he came up with two absolutely sensational blocks on Serge Ibaka, who doesn't exactly lack size or athleticism.

Keeping points off of the scoreboard is great any way you slice it, but Embiid erasing possessions in this way helps to spark Philadelphia in transition, where they remain dangerous with guys like Simmons, Harris, and Butler leading the way.

The only real downside here is that you sometimes worry that Embiid will put himself in harm's way with the way he tries to chase after block opportunities other big men wouldn't dream of. He had a few tough landings against Toronto in Game 4, and anytime he hits the deck hard, you hear gasps around the arena.

But no matter who you are — a coach, a fan, a reporter — you would obviously take the guy who competes his butt off on defense like Embiid 100/100 times. The Sixers often look lost without him to anchor the defense. Perhaps it's because they've become so accustomed to seeing him put on the Superman cape that it's hard to adjust when a normal center is the guy behind them. 

• It is scary to think where the Sixers would be today if they hadn't acquired James Ennis at the trade deadline. He has quickly become one of their most important players, giving the Sixers a reliable floor spacer on offense and a switchable, athletic defender on the other end of the floor. He has basically outplayed Toronto's entire second unit in this series, and he hit some extremely difficult shots in a tight Game 4.

Philadelphia's switch to a rotation without T.J. McConnell has made them so much bigger, which is a big reason why I think the Raptors haven't been able to get their bench guys going. Fred Van Vleet was a great bench guard all regular season, but when he's trying to shoot over Ennis? Good effing luck.

• JJ Redick has not been a high volume guy in this series, but he hit some huge, huge shots in Game 4. Every time it looked like Toronto was on the verge of breaking the game open, Redick hit one of his customary off-balance, still mechanically sound threes.

And as much as we can blame Danny Green's tough series on an ordinary shooting slump, I think Redick deserves a little credit for what he has done to bother Green, and how hard he has fought to avoid switches whenever possible.

The Bad

• If you're looking for the cause of Philadelphia's early struggles against Toronto on Sunday, I think it's probably just worth crediting the visitors a little bit. They came in the more desperate team, not wanting to go down 3-1 in the series and have their season on the line when they return home.

There was a silver lining to the terrible start for Philly — Toronto wasn't able to open up a big lead despite the Sixers missing every sort of layup you could imagine in the first quarter. When you can play that poorly for most of a quarter and still end up within three points, you count your blessings.

• Ben Simmons' jumper has been the point of emphasis for years now, and for good reason. But frankly, I think it's a much bigger concern that he misses so many bunnies around the rim and doesn't get to the line enough to put pressure on defenses.

I don't want to diminish his contributions to this series, because he has been their only real option on Kawhi Leonard as the series has worn on. But so many plays that should be instinctual for him around the rim turn into total adventures. He passes up layups and dunks for an excessive extra pass, which is selfishly unselfish in a way. And his finger roll game lets him down early and often at the rim, even when he creates a step or three of separation at the rim.

There was a play in the third quarter where he beat Pascal Siakam off of the dribble, had him on his hip with a clear lane in front of him, only for Simmons to freeze mid-lane and kick the ball in the perimeter. The South Philly crowd reacted with a chorus of groans, as they should have, and thankfully for Simmons, the Sixers ended up scoring on the play thanks to a gorgeous Embiid spin move. It never should have gotten to that point.

Getting into the lab and working on his finishing package should be a top priority for him this summer because if he finishes better in and around traffic, the pressure on him to make a huge leap as a shooter drops a little bit. If you're not going to shoot, you damn well better finish.

• A brutal day at the office for Greg Monroe, who was bound to regress toward the mean at some point. Bench players are by their very nature volatile or they wouldn't be bench players in the first place, and the Raptors finally were able to take advantage of the non-Embiid minutes for the first time since Game 1.

Getting outplayed is one thing, because Monroe is not the guy who is going to make or break their title chances. But he picked up a technical foul due to some incessant complaining about a couple of tough calls in the third quarter, and you absolutely cannot afford for a backup center to be giving away points like that in a game that was tight all evening.

• I'm sure the Raptors would say the same thing about some of their guys, but man, if Tobias Harris hits even half of the open threes he was afforded on Sunday, this one is a laugher in Philly's favor. Tobi went 2-for-12 from beyond the arc. His teammates kept finding him on the perimeter with plenty of space to step into shots, and outside of a couple of outliers, he could not get them to drop.

The strange thing is I think he has actually been a bit better on defense this series, and if he was just "normal" Harris, they'd be in great shape. But his shooting seems to swing wildly from game-to-game, and they can't afford for him to go ice cold when the lights are brightest.

The Ugly

• We'll have to wait and see what Joel Embiid has to say about it after the game, but I did not think he looked totally right physically in that game. When he came down on his left leg following a dunk in the first half, Embiid had a pained expression on his face, and he looked a long way away from the joyful soul who dominated Game 3 on both ends.

Embiid obviously still had an impact on Sunday's game, and he gutted through the pain he was dealing with which is commendable to see from the franchise player. But he was clearly unable to impact the game the way he's capable of, and it manifested in ways we don't tend to see. Embiid missed 3/4 free throws during a crucial stretch of the fourth quarter, and he's usually money at the line when it matters.

The Sixers, as you'd expect them to do with their franchise player, ran a lot of their crunch-time offense with the big man in mind. And he gave them absolutely nothing, in some cases worse than nothing, coughing up turnovers that bit the Sixers big time in a single-possession game.

We'll have to see if this is just a momentary issue or one that will get louder and larger as the playoffs roll on, but they need more from him, period. Whether it's health or pain related or simply him having a bad game, this wasn't good enough from the team's best player.

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