Sixers-Raptors, G1 intro

On the surface, the Sixers’ Game-1 victory over the Raptors on Saturday was simply a blowout. Philadelphia got to the line for 34 free throws, made 16 threes, and shot better than 50% from the field en route to an offensive rating of 151.8 and a 20-point win. But if you peel back the layers of the onion, you get one of Philadelphia’s best strategic showings of the season.

Defense was optional for both sides. Toronto had an uncharacteristically good night scoring the ball. The Sixers made some mistakes getting out to shooters, and had a few hiccups that ignited Toronto’s transition game in the third quarter. 

But the Sixers absolutely schooled Toronto, both on the court and on the sidelines. Philly took a 1-0 lead in the series by taking what Toronto likes to do and manipulating it to get what they wanted.

Before we get into the offense, a subtle defensive adjustment against one of Toronto’s high-level role players prevented any fires from starting.

Poor pick-and-roll coverage on Gary Trent Jr. curls allowed the guard to catch the ball and act in space. Aside from torrid three-point shooting, Trent Jr. found rhythm all game by attacking the middle of the floor. The steady diet of comfortable shots paid dividends, as he was a fixture of Toronto’s duo that closed out the Raptors’ victory over the short-handed Sixers in the final week of the regular season.

This is a miss, but Trent Jr. is empowered to catch the ball, turn the corner, and attack downhill for a pull-up jumper right above the free throw line. The Sixers are in a moderate drop, which affords Trent Jr. the chance to get himself rhythm in space without ever confronting Embiid.

Philadelphia learned from that loss, and adjusted appropriately in Game 1.

Toronto doesn’t run the Chicago action (pindown screen into a DHO) that they ran above here. Trent Jr. curls around the screen for a catch in what resembles a split action. But, the Sixers aren’t in drop this time. In fact, they switch the off-ball screen and even show a soft hedge to make sure that Trent Jr. can’t get comfortable with a downhill attack. Having been denied the corner to push the lane, Trent Jr. is forced to retreat and eventually pulls the trigger on a pull-up three without any rhythm.

The Raptors’ size and athleticism is conducive to switching on screens and trapping your best offensive hubs. The Sixers responded with creativity.

“We just thought that it gave us an advantage,” head coach Doc Rivers said of implementing unconventional guard-guard pick-and-rolls featuring Tyrese Maxey and James Harden.

“It’s funny, somebody 2 weeks ago kept saying we got to run these more, we got to run these more. We ran one. So in practice, we featured it. We made sure that’s an option for us. Because when you put 2 guys like that together and you get the right switch and attacks, with Joel in the dunker spot and us driving, that gives us a lot of stuff.”

It also helps that the Sixers had film of themselves getting burned by unconventional pick-and-rolls in Toronto just a few weeks ago.

On Saturday, the Sixers created chaos for Toronto’s switchy defense by weaponizing Tyrese Maxey as a screener.

Maxey’s screen in the face of Toronto’s switch gets Embiid a catch at the elbow with Fred VanVleet as his new defender. The significant size mismatch resulting from Philadelphia’s manipulation of the switch draws Pascal Siakam away from Danny Green. But, Embiid anticipates the trap and kicks to the shooter in the weak-side corner to beat the double-team and create an open shot.

“We’re working on it. We like that action when he’s a screener and then comes off, the space that it creates for James, but, more importantly, the swing back to Tyrese, gives him a lane,” Rivers said of using Maxey as a screener after Sunday’s film session.

“That’s something we’ve worked on. We think we can get better at it, honestly, because he’s never screened a guy in his life. But, he did a pretty good job of it.”

Rivers also showed off a shiny new tool early in the game to make Toronto toggle through secondary switches.

I don’t ever recall the Sixers running this action before Saturday, but Matisse Thybulle’s usage makes it unique. He starts the possession spaced out on the weak side. Maxey delivers the pass to Embiid to facilitate Delay action. Thybulle bursts up the zipper (running from the block to the free throw line) to fake a screen for Embiid before setting a pindown for Maxey.

That pindown gets OG Anunoby switched from Maxey to Thybulle, who then pops out to the left wing to create space. Embiid hands off to Maxey and then slips the screen, drawing a secondary switch to get Pascal Siakam on him in the paint. Maxey dishes to Shake Milton, who is able to attack left after Chris Boucher closes out too hard to Milton’s right. Achiuwa doesn’t commit to helping cut off Milton’s drive, leaving the lane exposed. That forces Siakam to lift ever so slightly to stop the ball, giving Milton a passing lane to Embiid.

The Sixers haven’t done anything yet, but the creativity, focus, and counter-strategizing they exhibited in Game 1 should have everyone feeling a bit more confident in them as the series continues.

“It’s just Game 1. We got to stay locked in,” Shake Milton told reporters on Sunday. “We treat every game like it’s 0-0. Not like we’re up 1, or whatever the count may be. I think guys are going to come in and lock in like we always do. We’re going to put ourselves in the best position to get a W.”