December 22, 2018
These were not Toronto Raptors the Sixers will expect to see in a playoff series, with several key players missing from lineup on Saturday night. But the Sixers did not take them lightly, Kawhi Leonard or not, and they were rewarded with a comfortable win over the East's No. 1 seed in their last home game of the calendar year.
Contributions from the bench and dominant nights for their young stars were enough to get it done. It's not the statement win Brett Brown would have been hoping for looking at this game on the calendar, but it was a good win, and one that the Sixers can build on moving forward.
Here's what I saw in Saturday's win.
• With Mike Muscala forced into a starter's role and then picking up two early fouls, we were treated to some early minutes for Jonah Bolden, who has been bouncing back and forth from the G-League over the last couple months. His first shot was nothing to write home about, an ugly airball, but Bolden otherwise acquitted himself well during a nice stretch in the first half.
The offense is going to be a work in progress, but Bolden flashed a combination of length and athleticism the Sixers have badly needed on the defensive end. And he did more than just block shots, closing hard on Toronto's perimeter players to alter a few attempts from deep.
On activity alone, he was a plus for the Sixers. He certainly earned himself more opportunities moving forward, especially because the Sixers desperately need guys who can impact the game on defense. With some seasoning, Bolden just might be able to help them in a playoff series, even if it's only in a brief cameo.
• Toronto was light in the frontcourt on Saturday night, opening the door for a big Joel Embiid performance. The shark smelled blood, and Embiid torched the Raptors for 23 points and six rebounds in the first half.
Embiid may be the NBA's king of the first half. Now if the Sixers could just get him to sustain that over a full 48 minutes, they would really be cooking with gas. But I'm not sure that's a reasonable ask, given how much weight he's dragging up and down the floor. Life is tough as an NBA big man, and this guy makes it looks easier than it should.
If the Sixers can get plus performances out of all three of their stars, it doesn't really matter which guys get going at what times. Riding Embiid in the first half works when Simmons can keep the guys running in the second half, and vice versa. The W is all that really matters.
• It sure looks a lot easier for Ben Simmons to go to work against the Raptors without Kawhi Leonard around to make life miserable.
Before the game, Brett Brown opined that Toronto has been able to bother Simmons mostly by playing off him and then crowding him near the paint, which has become the default strategy for teams around the league. Leonard's presence, obviously, adds another layer of difficulty.
With Leonard resting, there wasn't much to separate Toronto's defense from any ordinary team vs. Simmons. After coughing the ball up 18 times in their first two meetings with Toronto, Simmons had just one at halftime, and he did a great job of controlling the game's tempo.
One specific play I liked: Embiid went a few possessions without touching the ball in the first half, and Simmons went out of his way to waive Landry Shamet away from Embiid's side of the court in order to clear space for a posting Embiid. You have to work to keep the big guy happy, and it's always good to see Simmons taking on that responsibility himself.
I don't expect the numbers to be this good every night, certainly, but the Sixers need more outings like this where Simmons dictates the flow of the game. This game never felt like it was out of Philly's control, and a lot of that stems from Simmons.
• Furkan Korkmaz has one of the most effective pump fakes in the league, from what I can tell. Because he has such compact shooting mechanics, he gets defenders to bite on the fake on a regular basis, and it frees him for a more open stepback or at least a drive to the basket.
Korkmaz is still not a guy I trust on defense, but I think he flashed some good instincts away from the ball against Toronto and he continues to compete at that end. Breaking news: young players often improve with more reps.
• Picking up a foul three seconds into the game is probably not how Mike Muscala imagined things would go. Picking up a second one with 9:40 left in the second — on a night where he was going to be counted on to play heavy minutes, no less — was decidedly bad.
• T.J. McConnell is in some dark, dark territory as an off-ball player. Teams (including the Raptors) are treating him like they did Markelle Fultz at his lowest moments, basically ignoring him in the corner in order to send help toward the paint. He had a number of wide-open attempts on Saturday night — and I mean WIDE open — and didn't come close on most of them.
Nobody expects him to be Ray Allen, but he has to at least be credible out there.
• A quiet night from Jimmy Butler on basically every front. But it is certainly a good thing when the Sixers can still get a comfortable win without Butler at his best.
• There were definitely questionable calls both ways, so the officiating crew didn't exactly favor the Raptors. But I'll say this — if all three of Butler, Embiid, and Simmons pick up technical fouls for arguing with officials during a game, maybe you aren't doing a bang-up job.
A pretty pathetic performance from the zebras.
• Those of you who follow me closely on social media know that I attended a funeral for a close family friend on Saturday morning, and it has been a pretty tough week for me as a whole. Losing someone important in your life around the holidays is quite a buzzkill.
I wrote a more eloquent version of this earlier this week, but Mike Mulligan, the man whose life we/I celebrated on Saturday morning, was the type of person who always showed up, no matter what. He was there for his family, his friends, his coworkers, and pretty much anyone who ever needed a helping hand. It's something that seems impossible as I grow older and take on more responsibilites, but he did it all the same.
So my message to you as the year nears its close: be the sort of person who is always there, even when (and especially when, really) it seems impossible. The love you offer to other people will make it back to you in some form or fashion, and you will have improved the lives of others in the process.
Take care of each other, because at the end of the day, in the words of last year's Super Bowl winning Eagles, "We all we got."
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