The Sixers (3-2) visited the Toronto Raptors (2-3) in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series on Thursday. Philadelphia intended to secure a win to close the series out. Toronto hoped to secure a win to become the 4th team in NBA history to force a decisive Game 7 after trailing 3-0 in the series. Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and James Harden combined for 80 points to power the Sixers to a 132-97 victory to close out the series.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
The Sixers were without Matisse Thybulle, who is ineligible to play in Toronto due to his not being fully vaccinated.
Charles Bassey was out with a sprained right shoulder.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Raptors were without Fred VanVleet, who missed the game with a strained left hip flexor.
Nick Nurse started Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Khem Birch.
With James Harden having struggled mightily over the last 2 games of this series, Doc Rivers made some adjustments to how the Sixers opened possessions in their halfcourt offense. Namely, he moved Harden off the ball and to the wings. Harden’s early touches came on the move as he maneuvered through staggered screens, attacking space opened by Toronto playing up on Embiid’s screens.
Harden immediately felt comfortable in that environment. In the first quarter, he dropped a contested floater, threw down a dunk, and glided to the rim for a layup. He also logged 4 free throws in the frame. Equally as important was that he didn’t neglect his instincts as a facilitator. Harden prioritized hunting his own scores, and did so to the tune of 12 points on 7 field goal attempts in the first half. But, he also inflicted damage with 8 assists before intermission. It was as close to vintage Harden as the Sixers have seen these playoffs, if not since his first 5 games with the team.
Joel Embiid came out far more engaged than he ever was in Game 5. He had some nice moments recovering to the rim for contests or blocks in the first half. Equally important was his offensive game. Embiid got to the line for 6 freebies in the first half and connected on 5 of his 9 field goal attempts. To his teammates’ credit, they made a concerted effort to find him sealed under the basket for easy finishes. They missed some of those look-ins, but the Sixers didn’t come away empty-handed when it came to feeding their beast.
Most encouraging regarding Embiid’s thumb injury were his jumper and ability to put the ball on the floor and drive. He had a number of catches at the nail or elbow, where he’s most comfortable. Embiid used those touches to knock in jumpers or attack ill-equipped Raptors in his path for finishes at the rim.
The Sixers needed a shooter to step up and Danny Green answered in the first half. With much of Toronto’s defensive pressure pulled to the lanes to stop Embiid or lifted to account for Harden or Harris, Green quietly waited in the corners and helped settle things down with a quartet of threes in the first half. The veteran challenged his team to “nut up, or fold” in yesterday’s post-practice media availability. He certainly didn’t fold ahead of intermission.
Philadelphia took great care of the basketball in the first half, and led by 1 point going into intermission despite losing the offensive rebound battle by 9 and spotting Toronto 11 more field goal attempts. Any time you can have a lead at halftime despite losing the offensive rebound game and taking 11 fewer shots than your opponent, you’re probably just toying with your food.
And boy, were the Sixers ever.
The Sixers opened the third quarter doing what they should’ve done in the first half while Pascal Siakam kept the Raptors in the game. Philadelphia bet entirely against Scottie Barnes’ ability to make outside shots, helping off him entirely to send the attention towards the middle of the floor. The extra blue jerseys in the interior forced Toronto to kick to the unattended Barnes for jumpers, with the hope being that a few makes would stretch Philly back out and unclog the lane. But, Barnes was ice-cold.
Philadelphia essentially did what the Raptors and other playoff opponents did to them for years. They treated Barnes as a non-shooter, just as Boston, Toronto, and Atlanta did to Ben Simmons. The lack of respect got into Barnes’ head, marginalizing him while the game was still competitive. The strategy completely dried up Toronto’s offense, and the Sixers were off to the races.
Tyrese Maxey’s long-distance rampage played a particularly significant role in the ensuing push by Philly. He knocked in a trio of back-breaking threes to catapult the Sixers to a 20-point lead. With Toronto reeling, the entire offense opened up. Harden hit a pair of stepback triples in isolation to kick the downed Raptors. Embiid got whatever he wanted in the middle of the floor en route to a 33-point performance in a 35-point victory.
The Sixers exorcised demons twice in this series. The first time, of course, was Embiid’s heroic dagger right before the buzzer to give the Sixers a 3-0 lead and ostensibly get revenge on the iconic shot by Kawhi Leonard to win the series between the 2 teams in 2019.
But, Thursday was more personal for a number of parties. Embiid waltzed into enemy territory with an injured thumb on his shooting hand and promptly destroyed a team that had given him fits in the past and simultaneously shushed those who doubted whether he was capable of punching up when knocked down. After days of columnist criticism and national slander, Harden put forth 22 points and 15 assists to add a signature performance in a high-leverage environment to a playoff resume that has more blemishes than feats. And then there was Tyrese Maxey, who made sure everyone who had discounted his candidacy as a third star in a playoff climate with 25 points and 8 assists.
Rivers also made good on some critical adjustments. Toronto opened the game making 7 of their 8 field goal attempts. Rivers promptly switched the defensive scheme to a zone. The bet was a good one, even after the Sixers didn’t zone up well in Game 5. Toronto promptly missed 10 shots in a row following Rivers’ bet. Beyond the Harden adjustment mentioned earlier, the Sixers made sure to look ahead to Maxey in transition after Rivers opined that his team didn’t get the ball to the young guard on run-outs after Game 5.
The Sixers, with everyone wondering if they would be the first team to blow a 3-0 series lead and lose, went into Toronto and dominated on both ends in the second half. Not only did they close out the series to avoid any undue suspense, but they got a statement win to feel great about before facing the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Rivers decided to alter his rotations and insert Paul Reed about midway through the first quarter. No problem with Reed and 3 starters. What I didn’t love was inserting Georges Niang and Furkan Korkmaz while they were in the middle of their stint in zone. Zoning out the baseline side with Niang is begging for a long, athletic team like Toronto to back-cut you to oblivion. Thus, the implication is that you’re wagering a significant bet on Embiid’s rim protection and rotation from spot to spot. That’s sometimes fine. But, gambling a series of defensive possessions on Embiid’s agility, when preventable, is ill-advised.
Before the demolition began, the Sixers allowed the Raptors to stay in the game ahead of halftime by getting away from all the good they did in the first quarter. The ball movement stunk, the people movement was non-existent, and the shots were forced. Clean that up, and you have a perfect game.
The Sixers move onto the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, where they will face the 1-seed Miami Heat. Game 1 is on Monday in Miami. Tip-off time has yet to be determined. You can catch the action on TNT.