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April 20, 2022

Instant observations: Joel Embiid drags Sixers to OT victory over Toronto

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Joel-Embiid-Sixers-Raptors_042022_USAT John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports

Did Joel Embiid hit the biggest shot of his career in Game 3?

A Joel Embiid wing three in overtime was enough to put the Sixers over the top in a slugfest, earning the Sixers a 104-101 win to put the Sixers up 3-0 in their first-round series. A sweep is within reach on Saturday afternoon. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Joel Embiid is the guy who has been the stabilizing force for this team basically all year. But he was at the center of a lot of struggles for Philadelphia early in this game, and it was his co-star who was tasked with trying to settle the game down.

In that opening stretch, James Harden delivered. A pull-up three with Toronto sagging quieted the crowd for a moment, giving the group a moment to breathe. And with nothing else working all that well, Harden directing traffic and forcing the switches he wanted on the perimeter ended up being one of Philadelphia's best sources of offense, an opportunity for him to turn the corner on Gary Trent Jr. or Fred Van Vleet. 

All series, it has been good eats for Harden with one of those two in front of him, and that was even more pronounced on Wednesday night, the Raptors trying to force Harden to beat them more as a scorer. It definitely seemed to work to slow down the offense as a whole, but Harden had some of his best attacking moments of the last month.

To be clear — I thought Harden and the Sixers relied too much on Harden attacking guys on an island. He's a skilled enough player that they got away with it at times, Harden shooting them out of crappy possessions with supreme shotmaking, but spending most of 24 seconds standing around and waiting for one guy to do something does not facilitate high-level offense as a team. The game was played at a snail's pace, and a whole lot of guys had no real chance to get into a rhythm because of how the possessions unfolded.

On the other hand, did you trust anybody else on the floor to do much of anything with the ball in their hands throughout this game? Games like these, with most of the team vomiting all over themselves, are exactly when you need to put the ball in the hands of singular offensive talent and hope they can push you toward victory. The reason isolation scoring has always mattered and will always matter is because of games like this, where one guy repeatedly winning a matchup can cover up the rest of your indiscretions. 

• Joel Embiid was downright terrible for the first half of this game. That might be underselling it. Possessions that ran through him in the post were a trainwreck, his discipline on defensive rebounds was not there, and his shot selection bordered on silly at times, Embiid shooting an early clock, stepback three without running any offense.

But man, that freaking third quarter. That is the difference between Joel Embiid now and Joel Embiid a few years ago, when a slow start would have simply been the end of the story and discussion. Through sheer force of will, Embiid marched the Sixers to the free-throw line, marched right to the teeth of Toronto's defense, and marched them to within a point of the Raptors.

It took just about everything in Embiid's arsenal to pull them back into this. He got a free-throw line pullup to fall early in the quarter, then banged a three-pointer, then it just became an avalanche, the Raptors struggling to deal with him on the move. After spotty usage of pick and rolls and Embiid getting downhill early in the game, he became a much more active roller as the game wore on, including on a possession where he put Pascal Siakam on a poster:

Mostly, he was the biggest and baddest dude on the floor. The Raptors were selling out to stop him in the game's closing minutes, worried that he would drop a jumper over somebody's head or bury a smaller guy in the post. He ended up with Gary Trent Jr. on him during a fourth-quarter possession, and he calmly (if a bit erraticly) waited for Danny Green to get to his money spot in the corner, Green cashing out to tie the game at 90 with three minutes to play. 

One big problem — the Sixers tried to rely far too much on Embiid playing hero ball late in this one instead of actually attempting to run offense. Sure, he is talented enough to make tough shots over outstretched arms, but they were getting him the ball barely inside the three-point line, not doing much of anything to leverage his gifts. 

In the end, it's better to have Joel Embiid than it is to run real offense. After they nearly turned the ball over on the game's critical possession, Embiid caught the ball on an inbounds pass and rose up, getting at least a small piece of revenge for the buzzer beater he was on the wrong side of in 2019.

The Sixers, by the grace of the seven-footer, are up 3-0 in this series. Start booking trips to South Beach.

• Tyrese Maxey was minimized in the flow of this game for roughly the first three quarters, partly because of his own mistakes and issues, but he found a way to make contributions in a critical stretch to open the fourth quarter, helping the Sixers hang around and hang around and hang around in spite of the fact that they didn't have their best stuff.

For Maxey, the work came on the defensive end, where he managed to alter a few Raptors shots with what I can only assume was witchcraft. Doc Rivers has said he basically never wants to see Maxey block a shot, but Maxey was flying all over the place trying to come up with them late in this game, and it helped the Sixers keep the game in reach when combined with a few critical defensive rebounds he hauled in despite bigger players being in the area.

As this game devolved into a slow battle of fatigued teams, Maxey was one of the only guys who appeared to have any juice left in his legs, no surprise given his youth. 

• Whatever you think of how bad they were on offense for most of this game, this group dug deep on the other end. They played with the requisite intensity to overcome their woeful offense. 

Tobias Harris, anonymous on offense for most of this game, is a guy I'd like to show a little love to here. He had some absolutely monster possessions in isolation in the second half, stonewalling guys in space to force the Raptors into difficult, late-clock shots that swung in favor of either team depending on the moment. 

The Bad

• So here's the bad news as it relates to the series, and not just Game 3: Toronto was able to rediscover its identity some in this game, and it sure sounds like Scottie Barnes is going to be available for Saturday's Game 4, unless Nick Nurse is just playing mind games in the media.

We'll get to the egregious turnover problem below, but offensive rebounding is an area we absolutely have to hit. The Raptors began to impose their will in that department a bit more in Game 2, and the gulf in desperation between the two teams seemed to show up on the glass throughout this one. Philadelphia's attention to detail there was nowhere near as good as previous games, from sloppy box-outs down to a misunderstanding of where their teammates were. Even when the Sixers were able to end possessions, they often ended up fighting over boards unnecessarily, unaware of where their help was coming from.

They're certainly at an athleticism disadvantage, and they're not going to be able to get rid of that, but attention to detail will take them a long way. 

•  Harden repeatedly running down the clock hunting matchups isn't doing much to get guys like Shake Milton and Paul Reed involved, but Philadelphia's depth also failed to produce much of anything with energy or activity. Save for some Georges Niang threes, their contribution to this game was effectively nothing.

Faced with a choice of who to add into the rotation with Matisse Thybulle sitting at home and ineligible, Doc Rivers opted to add nobody else, going with a shorter rotation and playing everybody extra minutes. A defensive struggle was not exactly crying out for Furkan Korkmaz, so no real beef on my end.

• We're going to get to it below, but seriously, 14 turnovers in a half. Disgusting. 

• Not exactly a strategic masterclass on offense. The Sixers waited far too long to stop going to Embiid exclusively on the block, their final possession of the fourth quarter was barely even a play. Brutal stuff, but wins are wins. 

The Ugly

As if the Sixers were starting KJ McDaniels and Tony Wroten again, turnovers were front and center for the Sixers in this game. They piled up a whopping 14 turnovers in the first half, and  Philadelphia's first quarter was the worst they have looked this series by a comfortable margin. 

While Toronto came out and played with a level of intensity that deserves some credit, it's hard to point the finger at anyone other than the Sixers for their slow start. Most of Philadelphia's turnovers didn't come from tough work or feats of athleticism from the Raptors, but from horrific execution and sloppiness on Philly's end.

I'm not sure who else you can start with if it's not Joel Embiid. The Sixers spent a lot of time trying to force-feed him the ball around the paint, and those possessions were basically a complete waste, and being a complete waste would have been a positive compared to the turnovers that sent the Raptors running in the other direction. Waking up Toronto's transition attack made a massive difference, allowing the Raptors to survive despite some iffy halfcourt execution when the Sixers were able to get set.

Early on, this looked like the version of Embiid who has been haunted by Toronto throughout his career. He struggled to feel pressure coming from the weakside, and even without a singular defender who could stop him in isolation, Toronto's collection of like-sized players managed to hold him up just long enough for help to arrive, Embiid dribbling himself into trouble. Before and during this series, Embiid was proud to talk about his willingness to make the right play, but he got stuck in hero mode at the wrong time, helping a Toronto crowd that hadn't seen a home playoff game in three years come to life. You are only ever going to go as far as your best players can take you in the playoffs, and Embiid was horrible to open this one, full stop.

Maxey, arguably the star of the series up to this point, was not a whole lot better to open the game. The second-year guard simply fell down on one of their early possessions, sending the Raptors running the other way, and he could have saved a little time by simply handing Fred Van Vleet the ball on a nonsensical pass to Joel Embiid later in the quarter. It never had a chance to get to No. 21.

Frankly, there was nothing else to really get on the Sixers for in the first half because the turnover issue was such an overwhelming problem. There were stretches where they were able to mix coverages up and even throw a bit of zone at Toronto, buying themselves just a bit of time with Embiid on the bench. 

• Danny Green picking up a tech at the end of the first half is just inexcusable, and he nearly got himself kicked out of the game with a second one. In fact, if his teammates hadn't reeled him in, I am pretty sure Green would have hit the showers early, with the whole team surrounding him to keep him from going totally nuclear.

I don't care how bad a call is, a guy who is supposed to be one of your savvy veterans needs to hold it together in that spot. The Sixers had clawed back into the game to cut it to single digits, and he helped give some of it back in the dying moments of the half. Can't happen.

• Nobody has the right to complain about officiating in this game, at least insofar as complaining that it helped one team more than the other. The Sixers turned the ball over far too often to complain about the refs, and the Raptors' subpar halfcourt offense did them in.


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