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December 22, 2017

Sixers waste Dario Saric's best game in late loss to Toronto Raptors

The story before the game was Joel Embiid. Philadelphia upgraded him to probable and gave the fans hope, only to snatch it right back around 40 minutes before tip-off. The story after the game was of collective failure. Philadelphia held a 22-point lead midway through the third quarter, and squandered it en route to a late-game loss.

But the story during the game was Dario Saric. Philadelphia may have wasted his performance and ended up on the loser's side of the ledger, but that doesn't mean we have to let his game go by without proper recognition.

Maybe that's the way it's meant to go for Saric, who is something of a forgotten man within his own city at times. I would include myself in that accusation, and it's a reflection of the attention his peers receive more than it is a comment on his value to the team. A lot of good players around the league would get overshadowed by Embiid and Ben Simmons.

But with Embiid bumped from the lineup at the last minute, somebody had to fill the void. Saric did exactly that, nearly amassing a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists on 7/10 shooting from the field. He was as good as he has been all season, and frankly, may have played the best game he has ever played as a professional.

Saric's game is full of contradictions. His athleticism (or lack thereof) makes it so he often looks like he has to exert max effort just to get a shot attempt off, yet his skill level is so high that he looks like he could play the game blindfolded sometimes. On one play, he will bulldoze into another big man and toss an awkward hook up toward the backboard, on the next he's making a no-look pass to an open shooter and getting a rise out of the crowd.

We often talk about Philadelphia's need of Markelle Fultz, a player many believe will be a dynamic ballhandler and scorer once he's up and running. They need him to create for his teammates, but they also need him because he represents a level of improvisation they don't really have elsewhere. As good as Embiid and Simmons are, their play tends to fall into patterns and repeatable action, rather than imagined on the fly.

But Saric brings some of that same playing-by-the-seat-of-his-pants flair we hope might come with Fultz. With creativity comes risk, and it's why you don't always see Saric come out of a move looking good. When his confidence is peaking, however, it's like you're watching a totally different player, feints and fakes leaving defenders wondering how they just got cooked.

It's this creativity that allows him to create separation from quicker defenders. He put DeMar DeRozan in the torture chamber a couple times on Thursday night, getting Toronto's ace wing to dance with rapid ball fakes.

As beautifully as Saric played against Toronto, the contradiction of his game was reinforced even after the game was over. Saric was fixated on one idea during his post-game availability, suggesting the Sixers needed to find ways to get wins, even if it meant playing ugly basketball.

Sometimes it's nice to see for the fans, but my point is come on the court and play dirty, play tough. Sometimes maybe it's not fancy, maybe it's not looking good, we need to just come and just have the right play, the tough play, if it's the ugly play, [so be it]. If we start to do things like that, we can do so much better.

When we win the games here, we play beautiful and everyone's sharing the ball, but sometimes just that toughness that Philly got in the heart of the city, we need to just come on the court and play like that.

I don't think the Sixers are a team that prioritizes style over substance, but Saric's point is well taken. Whether it's locking in on the defensive end, owning the defensive glass, or just taking care of the basketball, they need to do the tough, gritty things that add up to wins.

Saric isn't one for words he doesn't back up with his play on the court. He is always mixing it up whenever possible, flailing like a fish out of water if it means putting points on the board.

Whenever the Sixers finally get all their pieces on the floor at once, we'll learn a lot more about Saric's place in the franchise's larger puzzle. He's beginning to find his place in their current setup, with December representing his best stretch of individual play this season, but the return of Fultz will complicate things for everyone.

Until then, Saric will continue doing his thing, ugly or beautiful or both simultaneously, however he can get his job done. Even on a tough night for the team, I hope people can appreciate that.

Odds and ends

If you watch enough of the Golden State Warriors play, you feel as though every time there is a spot for them to build some momentum with a couple made threes, they take advantage of it. It's how their leads balloon so quickly and their deficits shrink before teams even know what hit them.

The Sixers have the opposite problem. Every time they have an opportunity to hit a kill shot late in a game, they can't seem to find the range, and it's what allows teams to slowly eat away at the leads they work so hard to build.

Jerryd Bayless has been the biggest culprit of this so far this season. He blew several open threes in crunch time against the Bulls on Monday night, and presented with chances to hit big shots against the Raptors, he came up small once again. It's not as though he's trying to shoot over tough contests from defenders, and even with acres of space, he was leaving jumpers well short when the Sixers needed them most.

It was a shame to watch him clunk away from deep, because otherwise, I thought Bayless had one of his better games. He did a much better job than I expected on the defensive end. He came up with four steals against the Raptors, doing his best to give Philly native Kyle Lowry a hard time.

It's just hard to erase that 1/7 mark from three, even if you are competing on defense. If he hits even one more of those looks he got in crunch time, perhaps the Sixers pull out a much-needed victory. At a certain point, though, maybe we should stop expecting him to hit those shots when they need them.

The officiating in this game left a lot to be desired. There was almost no rhyme or reason to what they were calling or not calling, and it certainly had a big impact on the final score.

With about three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Simmons skied for a rebound and ended up with a putback layup to bring the Sixers within three points. Officials ignored Simmons blatantly smacking Serge Ibaka, and looking at that play in a vacuum you might have expected the refs to play hands-off in the final few minutes.

Instead, Simmons picked up an offensive foul on his next trip down the floor, on what can only be described as a weak call at best.

Delon Wright is falling backward the whole way, never gets his feet set, and yet when Simmons forearm comes down while he releases the shot, the officials are evidently convinced it's enough to send Wright flying backward to the floor. Here's an alternative angle if you're interested.

Calling an offensive foul in this spot was a massive swing, as the Sixers at worst would have been down one, perhaps tied if the refs leaned the other way and awarded Simmons a free throw. But it was that sort of night for the Sixers and the officiating crew, and Toronto took advantage to the tune of 35 attempts from the free-throw line.

On the very next play following that offensive foul on Simmons, Robert Covington got called for a reach-in on a DeRozan drive. When the replay was shown, the Philadelphia crowd went absolutely ballistic, having already showered the officials with boos following the Simmons foul.

It would be nice if anyone on the Sixers not named Embiid got the benefit of the whistle. So it goes.