March 21, 2022
The Sixers threw away a winnable game on the front half of a back-to-back, losing 93-88 to the Raptors in a late-night Sunday affair.
Here's what I saw.
• Tyrese Maxey wasn't the center of the Sixers' offense for most of this game, operating on the fringes with James Harden leading and Joel Embiid getting his fair share of touches in the middle of the floor. It didn't really matter much when it was all said and done. And that has what has made him such a perfect No. 3 option since Harden came to town because he's ready to contribute when he gets his chances but doesn't need a lot of warm-up or time on-ball in order to make that happen.
The offensive versatility Maxey has shown off this season has been pretty special. His development into a legitimately elite catch-and-shoot guy from the corners has changed his long-term projection and his short-term importance to this team. Sticking him there used to feel like a punishment for the young guard, a reflection of his standing within the team. But he has succeeded at such a high level from that spot that now you're punishing other teams when he catches the ball ready to fire from the corner.
Of course, Maxey's ability to beat lazy closeouts on the second side is also a huge deal, as his speed in basically any context. Against Toronto, he was able to find the edge after turning the corner against an Embiid screen, as a down-floor target running without the ball in transition, and he was unafraid to throw his body around to get to the basket. Maxey drew loud cheers for an and-one layup he made before hitting the ground hard, unbothered by Toronto's length at the rim.
• Matisse Thybulle leading the Sixers in scoring for a good chunk of the game sounds like a nightmare for the team in the sense that you'd assume it means everyone is having a tough time on offense. But Thybulle was legitimately helpful for the Sixers in the first half, knocking down a pair of threes and taking advantage of some excellent James Harden passing.
Without his activity on defense, I'm not sure how this game ends for Philadelphia. He was one of the few guys on this team who made a real attempt to go up and grab rebounds in traffic, using his athleticism to hang with Toronto around the rim on defense. A small ask for a guy with his hops and length, but perhaps they should have him more involved there and tell him they could do without the leak-outs. Thybulle might be a dangerous guy to finish a break, but they need to end possessions first.
I'm not sure he's coming out of this game totally unscathed. Thybulle was grimacing at one point in the second half, shaking his hand/wrist and in pain for a bit. While he has his issues that we've discussed many times over, they can't exactly afford to lose him, given the state of the bench at the moment.
• Nick Nurse promised pregame that the Raptors would be throwing a lot of different looks at Joel Embiid to cope with the discrepancy in size between their frontline and the big man. It appeared they forgot to prepare solutions to deal with James Harden in the opening quarter, with Philadelphia's lead guard running roughshod on Toronto early and kept this unorthodox team from doing what they planned to do on defense.
It didn't really matter what Toronto threw at Philadelphia when Harden was at the controls in the first half. He threw passes over the top against zone defense, setting up some quick combination passing between other Sixers players that led to points. He beat single coverage to get to the rim, scoring a few buckets himself or finding corner shooters for looks that felt almost impossibly open. And Joel Embiid certainly wasn't left empty-handed, with Harden putting a few passes in his hands around the free-throw line with space to operate.
The one-man machine would slow down considerably as the game wore on, due in part to some funky lineups and poor shooting by the guys around him. But Harden owns his own portion of the responsibility there, with No. 1 missing a pair of important free-throws and a good look at a lefty layup that might have changed the course of the final minute of basketball.
• Throwing a Jordan-Niang-Reed-Green-Harden lineup out there in a close game is maybe the most chaotic shit that I have ever seen. I don't know if it had absolutely any basketball merit, but I respect Rivers for trying it.
(Honestly, Paul Reed was the guy probably least at fault for anything that went wrong with that configuration on the floor. He played stellar defense and attacked rebounds in the air, meeting the challenge Toronto offered on the glass. Somebody had to!)
• The Sixers were in cruise control early in this game, for better and for worse. The offense came easy for Philadelphia early, thanks to a good start to the game on defense that allowed them to attack Toronto before they could get back and get set on the defensive end. But once the Raptors started to find success and put the ball in the basket, life got much tougher, and the game flow changed considerably in the second quarter.
Philadelphia's Achilles heel made an appearance once again, with the Raptors just pulverizing the Sixers on the glass all night long. The unstoppable force met the world's most movable object — the Sixers spent a lot of time standing on the ground waiting for rebounds to fall into their laps, and the Raptors came flying toward the rim from all angles around the floor, overwhelming the Sixers with a combination of size, athleticism, and pure effort, the last of which was a giant differentiator between the two teams on the glass.
There's not a single guy on the floor who was faultless. Embiid and his backup both stood flatfooted on shot attempts and watched shots carom away from them, even if DeAndre Jordan's non-effort plays were slightly uglier. Tobias Harris had a rebound just ripped out of his hands as a result of his lackadaisical commitment to ending the possession. Georges Niang didn't look like he belonged in this game when he wasn't shooting the ball, the Raptors overwhelming him throughout the night. And poor Tyrese Maxey ended up in some terrible situations, stuck on a guy over six inches taller than him with a lot more body mass to throw around.
It certainly helps to be bigger and more athletic rebounding the ball, but the Sixers don't even make an attempt to make up for their deficiencies in those departments by committing to sound mechanics or meeting the urgency of their opponent. Philadelphia being a bad rebounding team makes all the sense in the world if you just watch them play regularly, and they desperately need to get better before the playoffs, whatever it takes to make that happen.
Rebounding was the reason for the Sixers being down at halftime. This problem is not going to be any less problematic in the playoffs, where everybody will be playing 100 miles an hour every game. They could lose a playoff game, maybe even a series if they don't get it together and start cleaning their paint up.
• Major problem No. 2 of the night for the Sixers: not taking (or sometimes, simply not making) open shots. Tobias Harris has long been the face of this problem for Philadelphia, and he didn't exactly shed that stigma against Toronto despite taking some open corner looks early in this one. By the time the final quarter rolled around, Harris didn't look like he wanted to have the ball period, let alone take catch-and-shoot threes.
Those corner looks appeared to be the problem that ultimately submarined his entire night. Once Harris saw those shots rim out, he reverted to his tendency to bypass the initial shot attempt in favor of driving toward the basket. He honestly made a nice play or two when attacking closeouts, including a lobbed entry to Embiid for one of his few easy buckets of the night, but those record-scratch moments add up to a lot of broken possessions. Doc Rivers even threw his hands up in disgust at one particular shot Harris passed up, flabbergasted that he wouldn't take the open look.
This was a poor Harris game all-around after a string of performances where he was one of their better players. The most insane part was Philadelphia putting it in his hands on the game's critical ATO play, after he looked uninterested in having or shooting the ball leading up to that moment. Predictably, Harris crumbled in that moment, dribbling in Embiid's direction with no real purpose and leading to the turnover that would ultimately end Philly's chance to win.
Talk about an absolute disaster.
• This was not exactly the rip-roaring Joel Embiid performance we've grown accustomed to over the last couple of years. With Harden picking the Raptors apart early, Embiid was often the world's most dangerous decoy, and those games can lead to his worst tendencies coming out as he tries to stay involved in the offense. That was certainly the case for long stretches of Sunday night's game, with Embiid forcing up a few looks and frankly just shooting poorly on top of that.
His saving grace was at the free-throw line, where Embiid began piling up points starting in the third quarter. Upset with the whistle he was getting early in this game, Embiid would eventually start getting calls by forcing the issue and attacking the basket, slowing the game down at a time when not much else was working for Philadelphia.
If nothing else, Embiid did get his hands and jersey dirty by diving to the wood to come up with loose balls. But Philadelphia's offense defaulting to him down the stretch in spite of how poor he shot all night was a collective failure. Maxey being a passenger should not have happened, put it that way.
• The Sixers losing bench minutes is something a lot of people keep blaming on the bench itself, and there are plenty of bad performances coming from the non-starters. Danny Green looks like he is totally cooked at this point, a relatively huge development, all things considered.
But Rivers has staggered his stars, as most people who follow this team have wanted and begged for. They have a star on the floor at basically all times. They need to find ways to win those minutes and construct lineups that help their stars punish teams when their stars are off of the floor. Outside of Friday's win over Dallas, which featured a sensational Harden stretch to open the fourth, they are winning with Harden and Embiid on the floor together, but rarely when they're apart.
• DeAndre Jordan's four-and-a-half minutes in the second quarter rival any of the worst stretches of basketball I have ever seen someone play. Raptors players flew past him for offensive rebounds with Jordan never getting off of the ground, he jumped at a pass that went to his man (standing next to him BTW) for an easy score, and he capped it by dunking a ball in the cylinder that was probably going to go in even if he didn't touch it. I'm not sure he did one thing right, unless you count fighting with his own teammate for a defensive rebound doing something right.
The madness must come to an end.
• I won't sit here and tell you I'd make a halfcourt shot if I had to shoot for my theoretical season tickets during a Sixers game, but some of the people who got the chance to do it on Sunday night might have fallen short of the rim by 15 feet. You have to at least give yourselves a chance, man.
I get it, the late Sunday start wasn't good for anybody. But I would love for some people to walk out of the building without a big season ticket bill.
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