April 25, 2022
The Sixers played their second lethargic game in a row against a team that now has plenty of life, losing 103-88 to the Raptors to set up another trip back to Canada. They look like a team short on answers right now.
Here's what I saw.
• I think it's fair to say Tobias Harris has been the best player in this series for Philadelphia because Joel Embiid's highs have been cut down by some pretty brutal lows. Night-to-night, Harris has been the only guy to bring it consistently. He looks like a completely different player than he was to start this season, and frankly, he looks like a different guy than the one we've seen for most of his career.
Harris buying into his role on both ends of the floor is a game-changer, not enough to lift their ceiling but certainly enough to help them set a higher floor. With Harden as out of sorts as he looks on offense, they need somebody playing with an extra level of decisiveness, and Harris has had that, helping to unstick the gears when the offense slows to a crawl.
That is quite a development given what we used to see from Harris. His confidence is hard to miss when he gets catch-and-shoot opportunities on offense. It's still pretty shocking how quickly some of his attempts are going up after watching years of Harris dribbling out of open looks, or holding the ball until the opportunity dried up. And it's the other end where his demeanor has noticeably changed, with Harris communicating as loudly and as often as he ever has while trying to dig in against Pascal Siakam.
In the last couple of games, he hasn't had much success actually stopping Siakam, but the Cameroonian forward deserves his own level of credit for really difficult shotmaking, rendering good defensive possessions meaningless. I'm not going to complain about the one Sixers player who has looked up to the challenge in this series.
• Without a hot shooting night for Danny Green, this would have likely been a biblical ass-kicking for the Raptors. 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.
The Sixers ultimately wasted what was a good night for Green, some big misses in the fourth notwithstanding, but they are going to need him because there are a lot of guys across the roster who look very tight right now. They need to lean on him as a source of calm.
• James Harden is on the verge of potentially having the largest contract in the history of the NBA. As a table-setter and playmaker, he has shown a ton of value for Philadelphia in the time since he was acquired. As a scorer who can go out and get you buckets when it counts, he has fallen woefully short, and his failures in Monday's game were easy to predict ahead of time once Fred VanVleet was knocked out of this game.
I cannot remember someone whose scoring ceiling was as high as Harden's at his peak looking this out of their depth trying to put the ball in the hoop. Everything, save for playmaking, looks like a chore right now. Even matchups with Gary Trent Jr., which were a source of success for him early in this series, looked like a struggle throughout Monday's Game 5, Harden getting jammed up before he can break through Toronto's first line of defense.
The ability to get to and finish at the rim matters for everybody, and it especially matters for Harden, who needs the threat of attacking the paint in order to keep defenses honest and setup his stepback jumper. Toronto's perimeter guys have been able to crowd him a ton in this series, not all that fearful of his ability to go past them for a bucket.
And it's Harden, strangely enough, who is overthinking as much as any player on offense. The guy who has made scoring look as easy as almost anyone in league history is missing opportunities that are right there in front of him to take, passing out of open threes and missing clean-ish attempts at the rim in his effort to distribute the ball. Reluctance to let open shots go has crept into his game a little bit — there were a couple murmurs of "SHOOOOOT" around Wells Fargo Center in Game 5, reminiscent of watching the Flyers flounder during another Peco Power Play.
I am not really sure what the Sixers are supposed to do in order to make his life easier, since he's not capitalizing on what he is already getting. Baseline, he needs to be better, and I don't know what is going to get him there besides an offseason to recover some degree of explosiveness. He's not exactly shedding his previous playoff reputation.
• Frankly, things don't look a whole lot better for Tyrese Maxey at the moment, even though he's able to uncork a highlight-reel finish every so often. Doc Rivers said over the weekend that Maxey tends to suffer when the Sixers don't get into their offense, but the length Toronto has all over the floor is making it difficult for Maxey to find a crease. The Raptors have neutralized him, and that gives them few outs with Harden struggling.
But I would argue the biggest indictment of either or both guys is how discombobulated Philadelphia's offense looks right now. The Raptors are effectively running a no-guard lineup with Van Vleet unavailable (Trent Jr. is sort of a half-guard in my eyes) and look like the much more coherent team. Philadelphia's limp and slow offense reflects directly on how Harden is running the show.
• There was a stretch in the first half where it looked like Joel Embiid was going to go Hulk on the Raptors and put an end to this series, thumb damage be damned. After a sleepy start to the game, he began setting up shop deep in Toronto's painted area, creating extra possessions with offensive rebounds, drawing fouls from desperate Raptors players, and making the Sixers look like a competent offensive team.
That didn't ultimately last for a long time. And more importantly, Embiid's defensive decision-making and aptitude were absent even when he on that run. You can attribute some weirdness in his game to the hand injury, but we have rarely seen teams have success going right at him on that end of the floor. But the Raptors did exactly that, getting him caught on screens and stuck between two worlds when trying to deal with Precious Achiuwa.
To put it lightly, that is not a matchup the Sixers can lose for any extended stretch of a game if they hope to win playoff games. Achiuwa was able to beat him every which way, blowing by him when he closed out recklessly and even taking him into the weight room near the basket, scoring over/through Embiid on a bucket toward the end of the third.
If he is going to be out there and playing in this series, let alone any other series beyond this one, he simply has to be more locked in. The hand injury is not a catch-all excuse for him making poor decisions, misunderstanding his assignment, or letting players he is better, bigger, and stronger than take it into his chest. A team follows the lead of its star player, and after beginning the series locked in and ready to compete, he is making mistakes that would have been scold-worthy when he was still finding his footing in the league. He does not look all there.
They would be in much worse shape without him, but they're not in good shape with him. Not sure what to do with that. If he doesn't dig deep and lead, I don't know who on this roster is going to.
• This is not a team that can survive when their offense is this bad. A team with a better offense would be absolutely blowing the doors off of them.
• Sixers fans are going to get sh*t for booing their team going into halftime of a playoff game, but these people did their damned best to try to will them into this game throughout the night. The evening could best be summed up by the standing ovation they gave the home team early in the fourth quarter with the Sixers down nine, only for Toronto to go right down main street and come up with a lob to Thad Young before the ovation had concluded.
The lack of focus and the failures in execution were simply inexcusable for a playoff game. Looking bad is one thing, looking disinterested in the game is flat-out embarrassing.
• Matisse Thybulle checked into the game for the first time on Monday to a mixed response from the crowd, boos and cheers both coming down from the rafters after his vaccination status caused him to miss two games. Anyone who was annoyed about his choice that caused him to let the team down did not come out of this one feeling any rosier about him as a player.
The Raptors preyed on his inability to knock down jumpers, and by the time he had missed his third attempt, nobody in the arena expected him to shoot when he got the ball. That included Scottie Barnes, who sat and waited for him to pass the ball back to Tyrese Maxey instead of moving toward him, collecting the turnover that came as a result. After the Raptors scored on a runout, Rivers decided he'd had enough, calling a timeout in part to park Thybulle on the bench.
The question of, "Who would defend the other team's best player?" came up a lot when Thybulle's name was in trade talks around the deadline, but you are seeing why thinking about a player using only one side of the game is not comprehensive enough. Thybulle is so unspeakably bad on offense most of the time that it's borderline impossible for him to make up for it on the other end, let alone be so good that you can't take him off of the floor.
Rivers, obviously, does not escape blame for Thybulle's failures and that hideous lineup being on the floor in the first place. The Sixers opened the second with Reed, Niang, and Thybulle on the floor together with Maxey and Harris, putting three guys who would charitably be labeled question marks on the floor with two guys who aren't truly fit to carry them.
If the Sixers are short on answers, that reflects on the head coach. They are not making much of an effort to do anything on offense, going through the motions on sets even when they attempt to run them.
• Look, I am not saying the Raptors are going to come all the way back in this series. They have the harder task ahead of them still, and one good shooting night is all it might take for Philadelphia to move on to the next round. But you're lying to yourself and to me if you tell me you're not worried right now.
Keep in mind, this series could easily have been 2-2 if not for Embiid going absolutely bonkers in the second half of Game 3. As a team, they did not play well in that win, even if it was still a win. The Raptors have junked up the series, cleaned up their mistakes, and found a way to put fear into a team that should have put the series away already. And the Sixers do not exactly have a group filled with proven playoff performers and mentally tough vets who have come through when times are tough.
Any benefit of the doubt you thought they had is up in smoke.
• We had cookies and cream ice cream in the media room on Monday. At least that was good.
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