Tobias Harris, Photo By Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The Sixers (17-16) visited the Toronto Raptors (14-16) on Tuesday. Philadelphia was looking to build upon its victory over the Wizards on Sunday. Toronto was looking to right its many wrongs from a loss to the Cavaliers on Sunday. Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris combined for 55 points to outlast the Raptors, 114-109.

Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.

Contextual Notes

Danny Green, Shake Milton, and Andre Drummond were in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol and were unavailable for the Sixers.

Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and was not with the team.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The following Raptors were in the health and safety protocol and were unavailable for the Raptors:

  • Precious Achiuwa
  • OG Anunoby
  • Scottie Barnes
  • Isaac Bonga
  • Justin Champagnie

Dalano Banton (left knee contusion) and David Johnson (strained left calf) were not available to the Raptors. Khem Birch was out for Toronto as he undergoes reconditioning for a return to competition. 

Goran Dragic is on an extended leave from the Raptors. 

Nick Nurse started Malachi Flynn, Gary Trent Jr, Pascal Siakam, Yuta Watanabe, and Chris Boucher.

First Quarter

On his first touch of the game, Joel Embiid reversed the ball to Tobias Harris before pinning himself on Chris Boucher for deep positioning right around the restricted area before demanding a feed back from Harris. Embiid finished the bucket and got to the free throw line for a bonus point on the play. On his current scoring tear, Embiid has been consistent in identifying those opportunities to re-post on or attack the rim against smaller defenders. It’s a trend that the older generation of viewers loves to see. They want such an imposing big to dominate at the rim. Of course, it’s hard to justify all that wear and tear when the modern superstar big man is going to be an efficient perimeter player.

When you’re as good a perimeter shooter as Embiid is, the argument for abandoning the jumper is without merit. Nonetheless, it’s simply intelligent to weaponize your body when you have a physical advantage over smaller defenders. Embiid has mixed in a heavy diet of such scoring lately, as opposed to settling for jumpers like he was earlier in the season.

There were a number of defensive possessions early in the game in which Matisse Thybulle found himself on the likes of Malachi Flynn or other tertiary scoring options that were on the floor for the Raptors. Everyone knows Thybulle’s strengths and weaknesses, so that’s not worth harping on. But given his strengths and weaknesses, allowing the primary or secondary options on the other team rise into shots while Thybulle is guarding the fourth or fifth option on the court is a total waste of his time on the floor. Thybulle’s lack of offensive game already severely hamstrings how much you can play him. So when he’s on the court, you should be maximizing your defensive potential as a unit. That means giving him primary duties against the opposition’s Batman and Robin. 

Thybulle is a great help-side defender, but a help-side defender positioned at the block-extended area isn’t going to stop dribble penetration. It’s not his fault, though. It’s the scheme that the opposing offense is able to manipulate to the point of moving Thybulle away from the ball.

It was not a pretty first quarter for Harris, who connected on just 1 of his 5 field goal attempts. He did get to the line for a quartet of freebies, though. Along the way, he was letting out grunts every time a Raptor touched him, and that’s not something I’ve ever noticed before. Makes me wonder — is Harris trying to sell contact by verbalizing Oscar-worthy noises?

Second Quarter

Paul Reed doesn’t really have a functional NBA skill at this point in his career. But if motor and hustle are a skill, he’s a superstar in the making. Whether it’s either side of the glass, diving on the floor for loose balls, or flashing from the weak side to the strong side at the last second to try to alter a shot, Reed is just everywhere. He’s not changing much in the box score, but he must be a frustrating matchup because he never stops moving.

It’s anyone’s best guess as to what the Sixers have been practicing lately (judging by some of their efforts against COVID-stricken opponents recently, not much), but they were extremely prepared for Toronto to transition into a zone defense at any point in the game. The Raptors adjusted to it when Philly’s second unit came in, perhaps banking on cold nights from the likes of Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang to cause the offense to screech to a halt. But, those two responded to the delayed close-outs. The other guys in the lineup deserve their credit, as both shooters stepped into what were effectively practice looks off of good ball movement around the floor. But, the two floor-spacers also relocated around the floor to get themselves open.

Inserting such high-volume shooters into the lineup at the same time is how Philly’s reserve units win their minutes. That is especially the case in a Simmons-less ecosystem. Without defensive depth at the wing and guard spots (and the wing defenders behind Simmons forced to slot up one spot), the non-Embiid lineups need to put up above-average three-point volume in order to keep pace with the opposition.

Are Korkmaz and Niang great shooters? No. But, they’re good enough to make a couple if given a healthy diet of shots. They combined for 4 triples in the first half, and outscored the Raptors’ bench 16-2, by themselves. The better question is whether dialing up their three-point volume is a viable game plan for the second unit offense come playoff time. The answer is also a question — can either defend well enough to stay on the floor long enough to achieve a healthy diet of three-point looks.

Third Quarter

It’s hard to have a problem with Harris calling his own number on post-ups because he leads the Sixers in points per possession on such plays. In fact, you could argue Harris is one of the five most efficient post players in the league this season. Nonetheless, all peripheral vision escapes him as soon as he catches the ball on a post-up. He’s made some strides as a passer off the drive this season. But, he constantly leaves teammates hanging as he locks into one-on-one battles in the post. Against the Raptors, he missed Embiid diving to the rim because he was focused on scoring on his post-up. The last thing you want to do is disincentivize Embiid from cutting to the basket.

Harris, by the way, had quite the frustrating night through three quarters. Aside from missing 6 of his first 9 shots in the game, Harris had 2 turnovers. The most frustrating trend about his turnovers is that they almost always happen the same way. He’s very loose and weak with the ball as a driver. As such, opponents love to strip him as he pushes into the paint. That frustration trickled into his shot selection and body language. Not only was Harris forcing some plays that weren’t there, but he wasn’t getting back on defense when things didn’t go his way. If you’re not making max money, you get benched for that type of effort.

No matter what Thybulle says publicly, everyone caught a glimpse of where his confidence as a shooter is on one particular possession in the third quarter. The Sixers caught the Raptors out of rotation and swung the ball around the perimeter. Thybulle found himself catching it on the wing without a Raptor within a few feet of him. On the catch, he hesitated long enough for Toronto to recover and then drove to the cup before puking up a layup that caught all backboard. It doesn’t seem smart to pass up open threes in favor of dribbling towards defenders when you’re not a good scorer from any level of the floor.

Fourth Quarter

It sure as hell was ugly in the fourth quarter. But, the Sixers actually ran some decent actions within their offense in the final frame of the game. If it wasn’t an Embiid isolation, they ran hand-offs for Harris to get downhill in the middle of the floor. Anything going to the basket by one of your best players is all you can ask for on the possessions that Embiid isn’t getting the touch. As much as fans would love for Embiid and Maxey to essentially split touches in the fourth quarter, there needs to be some diversity within what you do when you have a post-up center as your franchise player. 

Within those actions, Tobias Harris was basically entrusted to win the game for Philly. Let’s just say his field goal percentage at the rim took quite a dive in that fourth quarter. But to his credit, Harris buckled down and forced contact instead of shying away from the moment. Shots aren’t always going to fall and Harris has struggled more than he’s been good this season. But for a guy who normally doesn’t get to the line at all for a forward, Harris attempted a career-high 14 free throws. He made them count, too, converting 13 of the freebies.

Many fans have directed all of their would-be Simmons blame at Harris. He certainly hasn’t performed well enough this season. But, he can’t do much of anything without drawing criticism. When shots aren’t falling, all you can do is attack the basket to try to get to the line and keep your teammates involved. A tough shooting night, sure. But, Harris tallied 19 points and 10 assists. He also pulled down 12 rebounds to record the first triple-double of his career.

And as has been the case in most games lately, Embiid was just brilliant. He redeemed 9 points in the final 7 minutes to help seal the victory for Philly. In crunch time this season, Embiid has developed a proficiency for hitting jab-step threes out of face-ups. He hit one in Chris Boucher’s face after the Raptor struck the net on the previous possession. Those are back-breaking shots for defenses. You think you’ve done your job by keeping Embiid out of the paint. Then, he reminds you that he can do anything he wants to do.

The Sixers (18-16) will visit the Brooklyn Nets (23-9) on Thursday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the game on NBA TV.