The Sixers (16-12) hosted the Toronto Raptors (13-17) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to win its fifth straight game. Toronto wanted to snap a five-game losing streak. A clutch Tobias Harris triple and some key defensive stands carried the Sixers to victory in overtime, 104-101.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.
The Raptors were without Gary Trent Jr., who missed the game with a sore left quad. Precious Achiuwa was out with a sprained right ankle.
Otto Porter Jr. missed the game with a dislocated second toe on his left foot.
Justin Champagnie is on a G-League assignment with the Raptors 905 and was unavailable. Jeff Dowtin Jr. and Ron Harper Jr. are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Raptors 905 and were away from the team.
Nick Nurse started Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, and Juancho Hernangomez.
The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who is recovering from a small fracture in his left foot.
Furkan Korkmaz was out with a non-Covid illness.
Julian Champagnie and Saben Lee are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Not much went right for the Sixers’ offense in the first few minutes of the game, but one thing that did work to great success was an early touchdown pass from Harden to a leaking out Harris for a transition dunk. He’s been doing that much more lately, Danuel House Jr. recently a memorable beneficiary of one of those long-range dimes. Mostly, it speaks to the fact that the Sixers have put an emphasis on sprinting out when its their turn to run. But, they’ve done it more ever since Harden returned from his injury.
The most important thing they’re doing to make that all possible is firing the ball up the court without wasting any time dribbling. At worst, Harden retrieves the ball on a rebound or turnover, takes a dribble as he gathers momentum, and slingshots it up the floor. At best, he’s catching and immediately gunning ahead to a teammate leaking out.
The best transition offenses make those passes ahead instead of wasting time dribbling. That’s why you run the three-man weave, as silly as that sounds at the NBA level. The less you put the ball on the floor, the more efficiently you move it up the court because passing becomes your only way of advancing the rock.
I think it’s fair to say that Embiid has been able to score with much more ease this season than in previous seasons because of Harden’s playmaking and his own development as a scorer. But, the Sixers can ease his regular-season load by being a more efficient transition offense. And right now, they’re picking up a few extra buckets on those Harden hit-ahead passes off of misses and live-ball turnovers.
The Sixers put some distance between themselves and the Raptors, ironically, when Embiid went to the bench after playing his first stint of the game. Credit for that goes to Montrezl Harrell and Danuel House Jr., who were dynamite next to Harden in the six minutes Embiid recharged. Harrell screened and dove to the basket hard, operating quickly with soft touch around the rim to generate some points for Philadelphia. All told, Philadelphia was plus-11 in the minutes Embiid sat between the first and second quarters. That’s a big win.
House, on the other hand, drove the ball hard against Toronto’s zone, getting to the rim a few times and even making a nice pass to Harrell out of the drive. He also hit a pair of threes in that second-quarter runs.
While we’re on the topic of the team’s reserves, Shake Milton is really starting to find his footing as a ball-handler within the offense. He doesn’t make flashy plays, but Milton has been consistent in finding the passing lane out of pick-and-rolls and nailing the connection. Especially great for Philadelphia has been the growth as a line-drive finisher off cuts and downhill play in transition. He has no problem taking the ball the length of the court himself, finding the edge against slightly unbalanced or out-of-position defenders and attacking space to get to the rim.
He has such long arms that he doesn’t even have to always get his whole body around the man in his way. Milton can just reach around them and kiss the ball off the glass. He’s also been particularly adept at changing speeds around the rim, accelerating just as a defender thinks he’s resetting the possession to create space for looping reverse layups. Milton doesn’t always finish through contact, but his play around the rim has given Philadelphia’s bench some much-needed juice.
I thought the Sixers had better offense against the Raptors’ zone as the game went on. Harden’s dribble penetration was a catalyst in that regard. It wasn’t just him, though. Other Sixers, from Harris to Melton, got involved in attacking closeouts and getting their feet in the paint. North-South attacks from a variety of Sixers created open threes, even if they were off the mark for most of the night, and dump-off passes for shots at the rim.
Few Sixers have been more reliable this season than Harris. His adaptability to a more catch-and-shoot-based role has made the offense fit together all the more seamlessly than it did even last season. Philadelphia needed every one of his threes on Monday, Harris knocking one down from the right corner to give the Sixers a three-point lead late in overtime and then one from the left corner, plus the shooting foul. Unfortunately for Harris, Tucker was called for an offensive foul upon further review, and that second triple was taken away. But, certainly some big-time shots from the oft-criticized forward.
The Sixers had some really good moments defending in the half-court early in this game, creating live-ball turnovers and forcing Toronto up against the shot clock with some disciplined stands. But, Toronto’s half-court offense was flat-out horrible in the early part of this game. No meaningful dribble penetration, passes to nowhere, and limited self-creation. Hard to really discern between good defense and an offense just being horrible.
Things started flowing Toronto’s way when they went zone against the Sixers’ offense. There were a couple bad turnovers, like Embiid kicking out to Shake Milton when Toronto collapsed on him in the post, only the pass soared out of bounds. There was also one play in which he turned the ball over when trying to dribble in a crowd of Raptors.
Ultimately, I didn’t mind Philadelphia’s shots within the zone. They had some nice ball-swings that paid out open corner threes. But, the three-point shooting wasn’t there for Philadelphia early on, particularly from Melton, who was 0-for-4 from deep in the quarter.
However, it’s certainly fair to say they didn’t do a great job of attacking the zone in other ways. Post entry-passes to Embiid weren’t great, and the shots he got were largely under duress. But even if the threes weren’t falling, Embiid didn’t have to be the safety plug. Philadelphia made very little effort to cut around the ball to penetrate the zone. They lacked movement, and there was no noticeable effort towards setting screens to make Toronto think even a little bit about how to execute its zone.
The bizarre part is that the Sixers have deployed their own zone defense a lot more often in recent games. You’d think they’d know how to attack a zone with more force and conviction if they’re comfortable defending in one.
I try to steer clear of criticizing bad shooting nights, but this one is unavoidable. The Sixers would’ve put this game away well before an overtime was even necessary had Melton knocked down any of the nine open threes he missed. It was hard to believe in real time. He got a dozen great looks from deep, and just couldn’t put the nail in Toronto’s coffin. Bad luck there, for sure. But, just a flat-out brutal shooting night for him. Whether it was from the wings or from the corners, no dice.
Philadelphia let Toronto back into this game with its three-point defense in the third quarter. The Raptors were much more aggressive in driving the ball, getting to the lane and forcing Philadelphia into rotations. Toronto got looks from three that either just beat out the contest or were naked in degree of coverage. Late closeouts will happen from time to time. No stopping that. But, there were also a couple blown assignments in transition that gave the Raptors open threes. Not a great effort to keep the Raptors down after a pretty uninspiring offensive showing in the first half.
On the other side of the court, the Sixers’ three-point shooting was somewhere between bad and mediocre. They missed far too many open looks, and most opponents would capitalize on that and take the game away from them. There is inherently some luck involved when you don’t get stung despite giving up so many open shots. It’s also hard to bring the hammer down on simply missing open shots. But, it didn’t feel like the execution was all that great, either. Throughout the second half, the ball stuck and the Sixers beat the Embiid-Harden pick-and-roll to death when they weren’t running delay actions for Embiid at the elbows. There weren’t many multi-layered screening actions. They didn’t make Toronto work. It was all shaped around the drive-and-kick game.
Toronto had already done most of its damage before Rivers put this lineup in, but the head honcho decided to close the third quarter with a lineup of Milton, House, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang, and Harrell. Given that group’s limitations on both ends of the floor, Rivers basically conceded that it would be a one-possession game or worse heading into the fourth quarter.
The Sixers made this victory much more difficult to come by than they had to. It really felt like they let it spiral between the third and fourth quarters. Simply put, just a putrid display of shotmaking by the personnel on the floor. No matter how much Harden tried to spray the ball around the floor, no one came even close to putting the ball in the basket.
Even when the best personnel were on the floor, there was no movement to the late-game offense. The Sixers did way too much standing around, waiting for Harden to make something happen. Well, here’s an idea — move around the court and Harden will make something happen. Even if he wants the three non-Embiid teammates to spread the court, they can cut around the baseline or flip possessions. Just do something.
The Sixers (17-12) will host the Detroit Pistons (8-24) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.