The Sixers (1-0) hosted the Toronto Raptors (0-1) in Game 2 of their first-round series on Monday night. Philadelphia intended to take a 2-0 lead in the series, while Toronto planned to steal homecourt advantage and tie the series at 1-1 before heading back to Canada. Joel Embiid dominated the Raptors to the tune 31 points to power the Sixers to a blowout victory, 112-97, and a 2-0 series lead.
Before we get to what I saw, some context is needed.
The Raptors were without Scottie Barnes, who suffered a sprained left ankle in Game 1.
Nick Nurse started Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Precious Achiuwa.
The Sixers were without Charles Bassey, who was nursing a sprained right shoulder.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers took Toronto’s early punch, falling down 11-2 before all the fans were even seated. But rather than retreat with their tails between their legs, the Sixers kept the game maintainable until they found something to get themselves back into the affair. That thing to get them back into the game? Joel Embiid, of course.
Embiid absolutely dominated Toronto from a physical standpoint. He knew they were going to come at him harder, and they did in the first two minutes of the game with some aggressive contact that sent Embiid rolling to the floor. But instead of trying to force fouls or play to contact like his younger self would have, Embiid leveraged his own ability to get defenders in positions of vulnerability and played through their contact. He knew he was going to take some aggressive hits, and he didn’t get frustrated. He just came back stronger and stronger. Toronto could do nothing to keep him out of the box score in the first quarter. They tried going big, and he drew 2 fouls on Khem Birch.
They tried to stay small, and he put them in positions where they could either foul or just hand him 2 points. Embiid did a ton of his damage on the offensive glass and on rolls to the rim, scoring at the basket and picking up slap contact for the whistle or securing the offensive rebound and finishing high through the fouls. It was pure physical domination.
The Sixers didn’t look lost with their offensive hub on the bench to start the second quarter, either. Fresh off a 14-assist night in Game 1, Harden created advantages for his teammates by driving and kicking. They weren’t recoverable kicks to the same side of the floor, though. He drew a desired Raptor as far away from his assignment as he could before spraying bullets to the other side of the court. The advantages he created for his teammates got the Sixers target practice shots. Philly was +12 in the minutes Embiid was off the floor; that is, the Raptors lost the minutes during which the guy who scored 19 points in the first quarter was on the bench catching his breath.
It is an unprecedented game-changer for the Sixers to win the non-Embiid minutes in the playoffs. Those minutes when your biggest strength is taken away and you’re at your most vulnerable are when you need to win at the margins. And Paul Reed has given Philadelphia huge victories at the margins in the first two games of this series.
All you really ask of Reed is to max out his energy in the 8-10 minutes per game he gets backing up Embiid. He may give you a block or two, he may grab some improbable rebounds, and he may alter some shots at the rim just by being there. But of incredible value to Philadelphia is his credibility as a defender in space. Switching is naturally a form of rim protection, and if the Sixers feel comfortable switching Reed onto perimeter players, that’s a huge win. Not only does that make him viable as a backup center, but it also gives him some credibility as a power forward if the Sixers find themselves in need of some extra defensive versatility.
Tyrese Maxey didn’t leave all of his wild shotmaking in Game 1. He was there to carry the pace when the Sixers wanted to get out and run. When they needed someone to break a cold spell, Maxey was there to deliver and extinguish Toronto’s fire. As the Raptors made their push back into the game in the middle of the fourth quarter, Maxey ripped the cord on a transition three to end any doubt that Philadelphia was in control.
I’m all for the throes of passion when you’re in a playoff environment, but Toronto very clearly wanted to gain a mental advantage early in the game. Within Toronto’s first few possessions, OG Anunoby got into Joel Embiid’s head with some shoving on a baseline out-of-bounds play that escalated into technicals on both players. The Sixers knew Toronto would come out with physicality and emotion, and they fell for the early bait. And Embiid put himself in a position where he had to stay emotionally in check for the entirety of the game.
Embiid appeared to roll his ankle right before halftime, and it clearly hobbled him a bit throughout the rest of the game. He tried to coast a bit in the second half, hoping that the Sixers could keep the Raptors at bay. Unfortunately for him, they couldn’t do so.
Embiid finished the game with 31 points, but he clearly lost a bit of lift as the second half wore on. But even as the Raptors made their run, the Sixers didn’t get back to the basics. They neglected the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, and they didn’t put the ball into the hands of their second-year speed demon. That failure to get back to the basics allowed the bleeding to continue longer than was comfortably necessary.
The Sixers (2-0) will head on the road as the series swings back to Toronto. Game 3 against the Raptors (0-2) is at 8 PM, Eastern time, on Wednesday. You can watch the action on NBA TV.