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April 27, 2019

Sixers have major problems to solve following Game 1 loss to Toronto Raptors

Toronto hurt the Sixers in entirely predictable ways in their Game 1 win over Philadelphia.

TORONTO — Losing a Game 1 on the road to one of the league's elite teams is no reason to declare a series over. The Raptors were who we thought they were, and the Sixers hung around for a lot of the opening game of their series even with Kawhi Leonard going bananas. A playoff series doesn't really begin until someone loses at home, as the old saying goes, and we don't return to Philly until next Thursday.

But the way the Sixers lost on Saturday should cause some appropriate fear, to borrow a term Philadelphia's head coach likes to use, because many of the problems they dealt with were entirely predictable. You did not need the tools of a billion-dollar organization to foresee these things, you merely needed to be a schlub with enough time on his hands to watch a lot of basketball and working knowledge of the NBA's stats site.

If the Sixers are going to make this a series, they will have to figure out solutions to these problems.

Joel Embiid continues to struggle against Marc Gasol

We didn't dedicate an entire piece to Embiid's historic struggles against Toronto's big man for no reason. Embiid had a bad Game 1, shooting just 5/18 from the field, and Philadelphia doesn't have a prayer if they can't get him going against the Raptors.

"You have to give credit to Marc Gasol, he was [once] the Defensive Player of the Year for a reason," Brett Brown said after the game. "I thought Serge [Ibaka] came in and did a good job athletically, especially making it difficult for Joel. I have to help him more. I think getting him into the post in different ways, freeing him up a little bit more than we did is something that I have to look at. But I give Toronto credit for their defensive effort tonight."

Gasol has never been a guy who overwhelms you with athleticism, and he has slowed a little as he has aged. But he is as strong as he has ever been at age 34, and there are times when you're reminded Embiid still needs to develop counters that don't rely on overpowering his man.

This possession early in the game, which caused the Toronto crowd to burst into loud cheers, was a perfect example of exactly why Gasol flusters Embiid. Embiid sizes him up, briefly tries to back into the elder center, and Gasol hardly even reacts to what Embiid is doing, standing his ground without ever taking himself out of position or exposing himself to a foul risk.

Gasol's discipline may be the No. 1 thing that bothers Embiid. When we see Embiid at his best, he has opposing big men diving and flailing all over the place trying to get a piece of a shot he's not all that interested in attempting to begin with. He baited an army of defenders into fouling him on rip-throughs this season, but Gasol is not a guy who will pick up a lot of cheap ones.

Embiid doesn't need to win through mind games and trickery alone, of course. But at his size, Embiid is never going to be someone who can reliably create shots for himself off of his own dribble. His three-point shooting also isn't where he or the team would like it to be yet. So keeping defenders off balance and generating points at the line remains a pillar of his offensive game, and he will have to find a way to get going against Gasol at one point.

If you want a silver lining here, the Sixers did use Embiid in some rolls and cuts to the basket to try to limit the work he had to do to get his shots, and the big man missed a few that you'd expect him to make on a normal night.

Gasol is good, but I doubt he keeps Embiid down for an entire series. The question is whether he can keep him down enough, and so far the Raptors have to be feeling good about their chances vs. Philly's franchise player.

Boban Marjanovic is not playable in this series

In round one against Brooklyn, Boban made me eat a lot of words on his general effectiveness in the playoffs. But all the old concerns came rushing back to the forefront against Toronto, and Brown's response to the backup center quandary in Game 1 will be at the top of the list of things he needs to figure out before tip-off on Monday.

The Raptors, as Brown pointed out many times over the past week, have been the league's best three-point shooting team since acquiring Gasol. The Sixers did a decent job of corralling Toronto there on Saturday, with the Raptors shooting just 9/27 from deep on Saturday, but the Sixers have a hard choice to make — do you sell out to defend the three-point line if it means guys like Leonard and Pascal Siakam can pick you apart all night?

Brown doesn't think so, and it's an area they'll look at between games.

"The ripple effect is that this is the best three-point shooting team in the NBA after the trade and so the balance of going after somebody and getting picked apart with Kyle or Danny and others is real," Brown said Saturday night. "So I feel like you certainly shake their hands, Kawhi and Pascal, they were excellent. But, are you just going to live with that throughout the series, I doubt it. What that looks like, how frequent is it, I'll figure that out."

If the Sixers are going to drop their bigs, they need to have bigs on the floor with foot-speed to close out on shooters when the kickouts come. And when Boban attempted to contain drivers in Saturday's game, the Raptors absolutely buried Philly from deep. It was especially bad when Boban got cross-matched in semi-transition.

With Boban on the floor in Game 1, the Raptors had an effective field goal percentage of 85.3 percent. That is a preposterous number, and the stats elsewhere were almost as bad. The Sixers sent Toronto to the line more, forced almost no turnovers, and couldn't defend any area of the floor with Boban out there. Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

The Raptors do not have a player Boban can pick on when the game moves to the other end, either. Gasol's defensive toughness is a problem just like it is for Embiid, and Ibaka is not exactly a plastic bag ready to be blown away by a strong breeze.

Jonah Bolden, who has his own warts in a playoff setting where every mistake is magnified, actually carried himself reasonably well on Saturday night. He did benefit from sharing the floor with Embiid, but he was less foul happy than we normally see from him and he put himself into positions to make plays more often than not.

Brown's trust level in Bolden has proven to be fairly low, but I believe it would be a mistake to expect different results with the same lineup combos on Monday. Bolden gives them a fighting chance, and they will have to live with the downside.

Philadelphia's lack of depth hampers them once again

Losing Mike Scott to an injury during the playoffs shouldn't be enough to derail a team that believes it has four stars in the starting lineup, plus one of the league's most dangerous shooters. But take one look at how bad Philadelphia's bench is, and Scott's importance to their rotation could not be more obvious.

With James Ennis sliding up the rotation due to the injury, Brown had his choice of wild cards to play against Toronto. The first man up was Furkan Korkmaz, and Brown offered a simple explanation for the decision after Game 1.

"The short answer is shooting," Brown said. "We felt Furkan's ability to score was a tradeoff we were prepared to live with. We felt defensively, we could put him in environments what wouldn't totally expose him. The true answer is that when we chose to go with Furk it was driven because out of that group he is the best shooter."

There are a few problems with that choice. No. 1 is that Korkmaz didn't get anything going as a shooter when it mattered on Saturday, going 1/6 from the field. No. 2 is that on his best day, Korkmaz is still a revolving door on defense, and the Sixers can hardly afford to put more non-defenders on the floor against a team with so many offensive options.

But think about this beyond Korkmaz the player, and just consider what the options are here. You're choosing between Korkmaz, who tore his meniscus in February and didn't play any meaningful basketball in the time since, Zhaire Smith, who missed almost the entire season following emergency allergy surgery and a broken foot, or T.J. McConnell, whose lack of shooting is such an issue at this point that Brooklyn actively ignored him in the corner in round one.

(I think Smith is the best of these options, and that is saying something with how much he has been through this year. But give me the inexperienced kid who has a chance to help on defense, and I'll live with the results.)

This is a problem years in the making, frankly. Adding stars and fixing the team's depth problems would have been a minor miracle for Elton Brand this season. And to be fair, the front office has shown some savvy in identifying role players since Bryan Colangelo's ouster; Landry Shamet was great value where they drafted him last year, James Ennis was one of the team's only good performers in Game 1, and Scott slid perfectly into a role and opened up lineup possibilities for Philly.

You can't have everything, and team building in a salary cap league forces you into tough decisions. But no one wants to hear that in the middle of a playoff series. The fact of the matter is that Philly has about six healthy players they know can contribute in this series, and everyone else is a major question mark.

Their stars have to be inch perfect to overcome this. Even if they are, Toronto's strength in numbers may be enough to toss Philly aside anyway.

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