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March 31, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers' best shooting half ever leads to win over Raptors

The Sixers held steady in the Eastern Conference standings, taking down the Raptors for their 51st win of the season.

The Sixers had their best shooting half in franchise history in a 117-110 win over the Raptors, slowing down in the second half after racing to a 20-point lead.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• In a season filled with surreal offensive highs for the Sixers, their first half against Toronto is up there with their best moments of the season. This is an opponent that lives to speed you up, junk you up, and turn you over, and there was a brief moment where it looked like they might be able to get Philly to play on their terms.

That period of the game was short-lived, mostly because James Harden ensured it was short-lived. After struggling through the first half of their win over the Mavericks, Harden roared back into form against an opponent who he was up and down against in last year's playoffs, a great sign for Philly coming down the stretch.

Harden may not have been the fastest-moving player on the floor, but there was a noticeable uptick in tempo from how he played the last two times we saw him. The version of Harden who gets downhill in the halfcourt and pushes the Sixers on the break lifts up the whole damn team. And even when his legs were close to stationary, his mind was on a quicker pace than everybody else in the game. After a Raptors made basket in the second quarter, Harden threw a deep shot down the floor before De'Anthony Melton even seemed to realize he was open, eventually hauling it in for two points.

In theory, the Raptors have good options to throw in front of Harden to stop him from scoring, but he ate up anybody/anything they tried to do. Doubles were not effective, as Harden passed out of those. Single coverage with Scottie Barnes wasn't much better, as Harden either forced a switch or used his strength to burrow right through Barnes on his way to the rim. This was a far cry from the guy we saw earlier this week, let alone the player we saw in the Toronto series last spring. There were some good one-two combination plays for Harden in this one, give-and-go plays where he gave up the ball and then cut back through space to attack the basket.

Naturally, he also had the stepback jumper going, putting the finishing touches on Philadelphia's spectacular first half on offense. The Sixers finished the first half 30/39 from the field – their best shooting half in franchise history – a preposterous effort that he set up as a passer and contributed to as a scorer. 

Right when it looked like they were out of answers late in the game, it was Harden who came through for them, not the big guy who has been their guiding light all season. Philadelphia cleared out the strong side for Harden on one possession, where he beat Barnes and forced Poeltl to help before he found Tucker for a corner three. The next trip down, Harden hit OG Anunoby with a filthy crossover in the lane before shifting past him toward the rim, scoring an important two points before Toronto called a timeout.

Harden looking this good is more important than anything else that has happened in the last two weeks. If he's feeling and looking good heading into the playoffs, that's a huge win for Philly.

• Joel Embiid working through foul trouble has been an interesting recent subplot for the Sixers, as he has spent most of his career in little-to-no danger of fouling out. On Friday night, a second foul came early for Embiid, forcing Doc Rivers to pull him sooner than he wanted.

The bad news for Toronto is that Embiid was dominant when he was on the floor, and a guy they traded for (Jakob Poeltl) to deal with bigs like Embiid was just as helpless as any other guy who tried to guard the big man. There just aren't many good answers to stop him with how deep his bag is at this point. Toronto eventually chose the "get it out of his hands" plan, which I suppose is the best you can hope for.

Poor Poeltl looked helpless to try to solve the puzzle himself, even with the Raptors pinching toward the middle to cut down on Embiid's driving lanes from the elbows. Bad news — his ability to drive going in either direction nullified a lot of those efforts, as Poeltl was not able to hold him off by simply sitting on one hand or the other to steer him toward help. When he wasn't shooting over Poeltl's head, he was going by him with speed, throwing it down a couple of times in the first half and missing out on one poster dunk because of a swipe from the weak side by OG Anunoby.

The Raptors did a good job to force the ball out of Embiid's hands for much of the second half, and his assist total (not to mention their offensive numbers) does not reflect the positive decision-making he made out of doubles. Save for a bad moment out of a timeout, where he was picked from his blindside to start a Raptors break, Embiid consistently made the right play and swung the ball around the horn, starting the chain of events that led to open Sixers shots.

This one won't help his scoring average, but a solid outing nonetheless. 

• Doc Rivers spoke at length before the game about the flexibility of their rotation with six games left to play, the idea being that they'd need to be prepared to mix and match in the playoffs depending on matchups and the form of their players. One of the lineups of intrigue in recent weeks has been any bench lineup with the combination of Paul Reed, Jalen McDaniels, and Danuel House Jr. on the floor at the same time.

Give Reed his credit for a variety of combinations working in Embiid-less minutes lately. On both ends of the floor, the game has been slowing down for him, and it feels like it's all coming together at the perfect time for Philadelphia. He is a chaos creator in the best way possible, a player who looks increasingly comfortable against perimeter players in switch situations. Ostensibly a "big man," a lot of guys are finding out that they'd be better served looking to go at someone else in those situations. Reed just looks calmer on both ends of the floor — he has become a composed finisher around the basket, and with Harden running those backup units, he is someone their lead guard trusts to make something happen as he barrels toward the basket.

Between those two guys, the Sixers can load up on length and athleticism, and if/when they're able to get stops, they roll out a transition group that can finish in traffic and outruns a lot of opponents. House has shown just enough juice off of the dribble that if you hit him with a pass in stride or simply need him to beat one guy off of a closeout, I think you feel okay about it.

• Solid games for both of Tyrese Maxey and De'Anthony Melton, who honestly weren't left with a whole lot to do in this one. I'm more impressed than the average person by guys who star in their roles and put together efficient nights even when their chances to attack are spread out instead of clustered together.

Melton's transition finishing and decisionmaking were excellent in this game, which always feels like found money. Seeing him pull one out instead of trying to take on two different Raptors players at the same time was wonderful, as we so rarely see that happen.

The Bad

• They say this sport is about putting the ball in the basket, and sometimes, you can just explain the runs of a game through shotmaking. Philadelphia could not miss for most of the first half, and they coasted to a 20-point lead. Philadelphia could not shoot to save their lives in the third quarter, and it gave the Raptors a path to make this a respectable game, one which they were happy to travel on.

I don't think we need to spend too much time on the shooting portion of the second half, as the Sixers created open three after open three after open three. There's nothing to really analyze outside of saying, "They missed a bunch of open shots." Their defensive rebounding, on the other hand, was an absolute trainwreck.

You're of two minds when watching a team play the Raptors — you do have to respect their commitment to attacking the glass, both as an on-court directive and an organizational choice. But when you know you're up against a team who puts so many eggs in the rebounding basket, you have to come into a game against them ready to meet that challenge. The Sixers fell well short of that across the board, jumped over or run past or outworked for second-chance opportunities. 

Philly probably would have finished the third quarter with the same 20-point lead they entered with if nothing else changed aside from their seriousness on the glass — in fact, they might have improved on the lead even as they struggled to shoot the ball. They have improved on the glass since the All-Star break, but their focus while trying to end plays could loom large in the playoffs, when the margins against great times are much slimmer.

• Scottie Barnes vs. Georges Niang is not a matchup that favors the Sixers. Talk about a mismatch in athleticism. 

The Ugly

• A great comedic moment in the first half — Toronto pulled down an offensive rebound around the baseline, and James Harden turned to stare down the rebounder (I can't recall who at the moment) and put his hands up as if the opposing player should pass him the ball directly. It was a moment straight out of a pickup game filled with guys wearing mismatched jerseys, and I appreciate the audacity of Harden to give it a shot in an NBA game. 

• The Raptors did not guard P.J. Tucker for a lot of his time on the floor on Friday night, and that was after he opened the game with a pair of made threes. Instead of using Jakob Poeltl to defend Embiid straight up, the Raptors moved their big man onto Tucker in the corner and used him as a roamer behind their smaller players, something the Sixers have used to their benefit quite a bit recently.

Mercifully, Tucker came through in a big spot with a corner three, and with Tobias Harris available, they can probably just play him at the four with the three guards on the floor. But they need to have some other plans available for when teams inevitably leave Tucker alone in the playoffs. Not like this is a new thing.

• Maxey's foul on Fred Van Vleet with 10.5 seconds left is among the dumbest fouls a Sixers player has committed this year, and that's saying something. Just let the man shoot, bro, the game was effectively over.

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