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April 28, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers dismantle Raptors in Game 6, setting up battle with Miami

The Sixers rose to the occasion and finally came up with a closeout performance, moving to the second round with a 132-97 dismantling of the Raptors in Toronto. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• James Harden was a quiet source of strength for Philadelphia in their Game 3 victory over Toronto, the guy who set the stage so that Joel Embiid could have his heroic moment. There was nothing understated about Harden's start to the game on Thursday night, and it appears No. 1 and the team around him took all calls for aggression pretty seriously.

With the Raptors once again running Khem Birch out there at center vs. Embiid, Harden had an opportunity to attack Toronto while they sat back in drop coverage. And with Embiid slipping (or "ghosting") a lot of screens early on, there was no switch to meet Harden at the point of attack, allowing him to get a head of steam going on his drives to the basket. 

That made, to put it lightly, a gigantic difference for a guy who has struggled with his burst for most of this season. You'd hardly be able to tell watching him on a play like this:

This game felt like a great blend of Harden the switch hunter and Harden the pace-setter. Though there were a few possessions where the offense got bogged down with Harden trying to get the matchup he wanted, he and the Sixers did a much better job of getting into their offense and taking the game to Toronto instead of the other way around. They looked like they were running actual offense instead of standing around waiting for something to happen, which is a group effort but ultimately starts with the guy running the offense.

There is a stiffer test ahead in Miami, though there will be matchups for Harden to go after in that series, too. Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson (the former especially) stand out as guys who Harden and Tyrese Maxey should be able to put on their hip throughout the second round. Whether it translates to big Harden scoring nights or not, this is the guy they need to get night-to-night in order to have a chance to win that series. Purposeful offense starts with him. 

• Embiid's hand became a massive story in the days following their Game 3 victory, and nobody was more impacted than the man itself. Managing the issue proved to be too much to handle for Embiid in Games 4 and 5, where he played sloppy basketball on offense and played uncharacteristically poor on the other end, smoked by Precious Achiuwa throughout the Game 5 defeat.

When they needed him most, Embiid came out and played like the guy who competed for the MVP trophy all year. There were deep seals that warranted entry passes from teammates who are hesitant to fire the ball to him, leading to easy buckets around the basket. Embiid rediscovered success at the nail after some sputtering performances from that spot on the floor, beating single coverage off-the-dribble and diagnosing doubles as quickly as could be expected. And don't undersell his importance in Harden getting off to a hot start, Embiid's threat as a screener ultimately scaring the Raptors into giving Harden space to operate.

Frankly, the Sixers didn't get him the ball enough, which was not his fault. Embiid would have to settle for a few late-clock threes in the first half, but those predominantly came on possesssions where he established good position and put Raptors players on his hip, including one where OG Anunoby should have been punished for staying in the game with three fouls. But Tyrese Maxey never found the angle, and the possession ended with a disappointing hoist to beat the clock.

No matter — the big man just kept on coming. With Embiid and Harden constantly attacking the Raptors in pick-and-rolls, their top combination was able to put the opponent in no-win territory fairly often. A switch to get Trent Jr. lined up with Harden before bringing Embiid over left the Raptors with the terrible choice of Harden attacking Trent Jr. (who he killed all series) or Trent Jr. guarding a guy much bigger and stronger than he is. The Raptors frequently got caught in no man's land trying to figure out what to do in that situation, which was to the benefit of both Harden and Embiid.

Perhaps most importantly, there was a noticeable uptick in fire from Embiid, too. After watching him grimace and groan his way through the last two games, Embiid threw his body around and did whatever was required to get this victory. With a chance to land the killing blow in the second half, Embiid sensed the opportunity and gave them a little extra push on the offensive glass, breaking Toronto's spirit by creating a few second-chance opportunities for Philadelphia (on top of dismantling them as a scorer). 

Did the change in sub patterns help? Is he learning to manage the pain and the problem? Was it just a matter of flipping the switch and deciding it was time to end it? Hard to say. But he was the guy they needed him to be, and they will need more performances like this one in order to get past the Miami Heat.

• If Harden and Embiid delivered the opening blow of Game 6, it was Tyrese Maxey who ultimately landed the decisive haymaker in the third quarter. This has been a roller-coaster series for Philadelphia's up-and-comer, a six-game set that started with a bang and faded into obscurity, but he saved a few highlight plays for when it counted.

Even before his shot started falling, you could see that Maxey finally received the message that he can't worry about who he's on the floor with or whether he's at the top of the depth chart. He came out firing with a few pull-up threes, and once he got rolling in the third quarter, Maxey was pulling up from so far out that he very well could have been in another Canadian province. Philadelphia's ability to hurt Toronto in transition was a key to getting out to their 2-0 lead at home, and Maxey hit some absolutely killer shots on the break against the Raptors in Game 6:

Philadelphia hitting their highest possible ceiling hinges on Maxey playing with confidence, not deterred by length and physicality at the point of attack. You can overcome that with supreme shotmaking, which we saw out of Maxey on Thursday night, but he has the quickness and the touch that no team should be able to take him out of a game the way Toronto managed to for chunks in the middle of this series. 

This was a good test the second-year guard, an opponent who challenged him to dig deep and battle back after a bit of adversity. In the end, this ordeal might end up being to the benefit of the whole team, even if extra rest would have been preferred. 

• A sentence I wrote after their clunker of a performance the other night:

If there's any solace in Green being forced into a bigger role than he's probably capable of at this stage of his career, it's that he's the guy I am least worried about folding under pressure.  
When you're on, you're on. Green returned to the city where he won a title in 2019 and turned in a massive performance for Philadelphia. A first-round series was not going to be too big for this guy, and they needed every last shot he hit as they tried to outpace a Raptors team who smelled blood in the water.

Let's just try to not think about the play in the second half where Green stole a pass and thought he would try to take it all the way to the rim himself. If it requires more than two or three dribbles, Green is a guy who should just stop and think for a second.

(In fairness, Green did have a very nice play off the bounce in the first half, threading a crosscourt pass to Tobias Harris in the corner after stepping past a closeout. He was very good in this game overall, and he is going to be critical once again next round.)

• After their Game 5 defeat, the Sixers talked like a team that was prepared to simply continue doing the same things and hope that would be enough. If they had nerves, they didn't show it, and they didn't hint at any big changes to how they were setting up.

A good bit of gamesmanship, I suppose. The Sixers made pretty sizable alterations to the rotation, starting with subbing Embiid out early and including getting Furkan Korkmaz some minutes, even if those two ideas don't have the same relative merit. The Sixers had great success early in the series by using Paul Reed in spots where he had three and sometimes four starters around him, and changing their patterns in this one allowed them to protect their most inexperienced guy in the playoff rotation.

The most important change? The Sixers finally identified the guys who they were happy to help away from, encouraging jumpers from a gallery of questionable Toronto shooters. With Embiid spending a lot of the game "guarding" Scottie Barnes — and by that, I mean standing around the paint enticing Barnes to shoot — the Sixers baited the Raptors into taking shots this group of players isn't equipped to make. 

Beyond that, the Sixers actually showed up with some interest in competing, which was a big upgrade relative to their last two games. Execution matched their energy, with a zone look out of a timeout flustering the Raptors enough to force Toronto into a shot-clock violation.

Listen, there's a more talented and outright better opponent coming with another excellent coach leading the way. The Sixers need to play with the attention to detail they showed at the start and finish of this series if they want to upset the Heat. But at least they have proven capable of delivering some top-shelf performances already in these playoffs, lending hope to the idea that they may be a real threat. We'll see in due time.

The Bad

• I can't imagine how many MFers are dropped in a Sixers film session when going over the offensive rebounds they allow opponents to grab. Toronto is very good at chasing down second chances, and the Sixers are comparatively bad at ending possessions, which was a huge storyline coming into the series. But after they found a way to slow down the Raps in the first few games, it has been an onslaught since, the longer Toronto lineup absolutely crushing them on the glass.

Personnel makes a big difference here. The Sixers had some lineups with both Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang on the floor together, and both guys were drawing dead in almost every way imaginable. The Raptors' ability to get penetration against leaky Philadelphia defense, a theme Rivers keyed on before the series even started, also made a big difference, pulling potential rebounders away from the rim and their assignment into help positions. Maxey and Harden's inability to hold up consistently against their assignments has loomed large, stressing Embiid more than you'd like in an already massive role.

This is an area where I also think Embiid's hand injury makes a big difference. He's by far the best rebounder on the roster, and you can see him going up on some plays with only his off-hand available for a catch, making it very difficult for him to end possessions on his own and send the Sixers running. By virtue of being the biggest guy on the floor, he still managed to tip some balls out toward teammates from the middle of a crowded paint, but few were prepared for the opportunity, Embiid's deflections ultimately being wasted.

But the bottom line is that there's no way Toronto (or any other team) should be able to dominate the glass the way they have for stretches of this series. All five guys have to be engaged when the shot goes up for this group, which was how they handled the start of the series. 

• Georges Niang might as well be wearing cement shoes right now. He was never all that fast during the regular season, when his inability to guard in space was a constant concern looking toward the postseason, but he is very obviously a step or two behind even his normal speed. A knee issue that bothered him to end the year looks to be holding him back, and that leaves him in a miserable spot against playoff-caliber teams.

Chris Boucher, who went on a personal rampage throughout the first half, has been carving up Niang with nothing more than back cuts for most of this series. And it would be bad enough if that was his only way of exploiting the matchup, but Boucher has a decisive advantage on the glass to boot, leaving a flat-footed Niang desperate and flailing whenever he had to try to come up with a play around the hoop.

The Ugly

• The Sixers were up by enough in the second half that the broadcast got to discuss the NFL draft. Tough way to go out if you're Toronto.

• Precious Achiuwa stinks, man. The Sixers (including Embiid!) made him look good at times in this series, which may be the biggest mark against their performance.

• Embiid hitting the airplane celebration in the final stages of a blowout to end the series had to feel sweet, even if it was followed by an elbow to the grill from Pascal Siakam. If Sixers fans had cheered in a similar situation, I suspect there would be a bit more discussion of it than there will be after this one.

Speaking of — some maniac Raptors fan kept marauding through the media section in Game 4 yelling "WHY DON'T YOU WRITE THAT?" every time Toronto did something good in that game. Hope he's doing okay tonight. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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