Seth Curry vs Fred VanVleet

The Philadelphia 76ers (8-4) hosted the Toronto Raptors (6-6) on Thursday night. The Sixers were looking to snap a two-game losing streak, while the Raptors wanted to snap a three-game skid. A controversial call late in the game gave Toronto a renewed lease on life, and they dealt the Sixers a 115-109 defeat.

Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.

Contextual Notes

The Raptors were missing Khem Birch (right knee swelling) and Yuta Watanabe (left calf strain). Pascal Siakam, who is managing a left shoulder injury, was unavailable. Isaac Bonga and David Johnson (Two-Way) were on assignments with Toronto’s G-League affiliate, Raptors 905.

Nick Nurse started Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, and Precious Achiuwa. 

Joel Embiid, Matisse Thybulle, and Isaiah Joe — all of whom remain under the league’s health and safety protocol — were unavailable for the Sixers.

Shortly before tip-off, Aaron Henry (Two-Way) and Jaden Springer were sent on assignment to Philadelphia’s G-League affiliate and, thus, were unavailable. Grant Riller was unavailable as he continues his recovery from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Ben Simmons is still not mentally ready to play and, as such, missed a 12th consecutive game.

Tobias Harris returned to the lineup after missing six games due to COVID-19; Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Harris, and Andre Drummond.

First Quarter

Fred VanVleet was quite problematic for the Sixers in the first few minutes of play. He naturally shifts his pace on the move as a means of shedding defenders to create space for his shots. As such, he was able to lull Tyrese Maxey asleep just long enough to hurt the Sixers. Whether it was misdirecting his teammates on the court to create action going to the left, only to veer right on a ball screen and put enough arc on a triple to get all net, or slowing down out of a screen and then projecting forward into the pockets of space in the lane to create chaos, VanVleet caught Philly sleeping a bit early on.

The other aspect of his game that really hurt the Sixers was VanVleet’s shooting gravity off the dribble. Because of his comfort around the rim, Philly’s bigger defenders on the strong side of the court couldn’t sit up on screens because of the trouble that would ensue if the smaller VanVleet broke free. Logically prioritizing the rim over the three-point arc, the likes of Andre Drummond dropped down to wrestle with Toronto’s bigs around the rim. Of course, that scheme incentivizes Toronto to run spread pick-and-rolls until Philly adjusts. With a team as athletic and big as the Raptors, you have to sacrifice something. And in the first quarter, it was letting VanVleet operate in pockets of space upon clearing those high ball screens.

The residual effects of COVID are a major wild card with athletes. Such has especially been the case for NBA players. As such, there was significant intrigue in how Tobias Harris would play in his return to play. The 29-year-old forward showed minimal signs, if any, of being zapped by the virus in his first stint of play. He scored or assisted on all of the Sixers points before the game’s first timeout and picked OG Anunoby up on defense in the back-court. Rivers didn’t give him an extended run to start the contest, but Harris showed no rust despite not having played for 10 days.

Second Quarter

Don’t look now, but Paul Reed is finding himself in the good graces of Doc Rivers, it seems. Perhaps it’s only in Joel Embiid’s absence, but he found himself in the rotation even with the Sixers’ power forward depth back. Rivers has talked about going with smaller lineups in certain matchups. Toronto ostensibly deploying Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher as their center depth might just be a matchup against which Rivers is comfortable going smaller.

It doesn’t really matter the context under which Reed breaks into the rotation. Rather, the focus should be on the tendencies and habits under which he broke the rotation. While always a flight risk to get a little wild on offense, Reed has earned Rivers’ trust for two reasons. First, his discipline on the defensive end has improved rapidly. He’s destined to commit the occasional foul when baited with a fake. However, he’s not picking up 2 fouls in 3 minutes. But he defends with his legs, not his hands. As such, he’s able to keep offensive players in front without much trouble. Beyond that, he keeps his arms raised at the rim and elevates on a vertical axis. Reed has pogo sticks for legs, so that’s all he really needs to do to be an effective rim protector.

Beyond that, you can always find Reed on the floor wrestling for loose balls. He plays with incredible energy and treats every 50-50 ball as if it’s life and death. Those hustle plays don’t go unnoticed.

While Ben Simmons and his representation were attempting to distort reality even further, Tyrese Maxey was dominating the second quarter. That was a function of increased pace. Philly was playing faster, generating live-ball turnovers and sprinting in the open court. That’s Maxey’s favorite environment. With that newfound comfort, he splashed a triple and got whatever he wanted at the rim in the second quarter. With Maxey as the catalyst, Philly briefly pushed its lead to double digits.

Third Quarter

Maxey has slowly become more comfortable pulling the trigger on catch-and-shoot threes when they’re wide-open. There was one particular run-out in the third quarter in which Harris got downhill and kicked to Maxey in the right corner. Without the slightest hesitation, the second-year guard let it fly (albeit, to the tune of a miss).

Just a short while ago, he would attack a close-out that might not have even been there to begin with because he didn’t feel comfortable taking triples off the catch. Now, Maxey still isn’t particularly adept at shooting the deep ones off the catch. He’d rather generate some rhythm for himself by shooting them off the dribble. However, for the purposes of fitting next to Embiid, Maxey is going to have to grow as a shooter off the catch. As such, it’s certainly a good sign that he’s not second-guessing off the catch anymore.

The Sixers saw the momentum escape them when Toronto went to a zone defense in the third frame. Last season, teams couldn’t really go to the zone because of Embiid’s efficiency as a midrange shooter. The zone defense leaves a pocket of space at the nail, allowing bigs to flash to the high post and pivot for open midrange jumpers. So, a great midrange shooter can break the zone if they understand appropriate positioning against such a defensive scheme. Without Embiid, there was no such midrange shooter.

To make matters worse, Toronto’s size made it exponentially harder for Philly’s perimeter shooters to get going. Korkmaz had some success in the first half, but was ice-cold in the third quarter. Curry deposited a couple points in the third, but was mostly unable to shed Toronto’s defenders. Harris had a lot of trouble getting his three-point legs back under him in his return, and couldn’t do much in that department, either.

It didn’t help that Toronto became ultra-aggressive in pushing the pace in transition or that the Sixers seemingly forgot how to rebound, either. As such, Toronto’s adjustments turned the game on its head in the third quarter.

Fourth Quarter

I wrote a few games ago about how Maxey has really flourished as a driver in regards to sensing contact. With the Sixers so short-handed, his usage has been much higher over the past week. The higher production is a function of usage, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see Maxey dial it back a bit when both Embiid and Harris are back. But, Maxey has gotten to the line a ton over the last handful of games. That is a product of his willingness to attack defenders in the chest instead of fading to any particular side. Just a few short weeks ago, he was shying away from that contact. Now, he’s getting to the charity stripe with far higher frequency.

The young Maxey brought Philly to life in the fourth quarter, even after the Sixers fell down double digits. Most impressive of all — Maxey’s fuel level rises as the stakes get higher. Instead of falling back on jumpers as the fourth quarter wore on, Maxey continued getting right to the cup. Whether it was pushing in transition or pushing the baseline off of ball swings, he got right to the basket for his scores. More than anything, that means he can be trusted to play his game in high-leverage situations. And speedy players who are adept at dribble penetration will inevitably get bigger defenders in foul trouble. The domino effect there is that the whole team lives at the free throw line, the opposition has to take their closing-unit big out, or the paint defense gets ofter. 

Since the league has decided to change rules for the sake of improving the game, let’s do away with the jump-ball when the call on the floor is challenged and overturned. The way this game ended for Philadelphia was embarrassing for the league and its officiating crew. The real-time call on the floor was obviously a block. But because officiating is generally horrendous, the Sixers got punished when the game was hanging in the balance.

The Sixers (8-5) will open a six-game road trip against the Indiana Pacers (4-8) on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.