The Sixers hosted the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of their first round playoff series on Saturday night. Toronto hoped to steal homecourt advantage with a victory in Game 1. Philadelphia wanted to pick up a critical win at home, knowing that Matisse Thybulle would be unavailable for the games in Toronto. Tyrese Maxey scored 38 points, 21 of which came in the third quarter, to power the Sixers to a 1-0 series lead.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
No Raptors were on the injury report.
Nick Nurse started Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Scottie Barnes.
The Sixers were without Jaden Springer (right knee contusion) and Charles Bassey (sprained right shoulder).
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Tyrese Maxey gave the Sixers the early jolt of life they needed to open the series. Predictably, he did so with his foot firmly stomping the gas pedal through the floor. More valuable to Philly than anything was that he created transition play by himself. Maxey infiltrated Toronto’s passing and driving lanes, loosening the ball from the Raptor grip and picking up the loose change. Philly got comfortable looks early in their possessions because of the transition play. Feeding off that early spark, the Sixers were catching and firing without concern. Even when Toronto made shots, the Sixers snuck in extra punches with quick-trigger threes to build the lead.
James Harden didn’t look particularly spry against switches and mismatches. But, he made up for that by not wasting time with machine-gun dribbling once he knew he couldn’t beat the guy in his way. Instead, he drew a Toronto helper and immediately kicked to the vacated shooter.
As bad as their rebounding was throughout the regular season, the Sixers did a fabulous job on the glass in the first quarter. They communicated on defensive boards. They didn’t let too many friendlies get their hands on the ball and risk turnovers. They also held box-outs, letting the ball fall to a spot on the floor while they cleared the nearest Raptor out before going to retrieve it. It’s only one stint, and that doesn’t build up any equity after the uninspiring season they put forth on the glass. But they need to do themselves all the favors they can on defense, and limiting Toronto to 1 shot just by extending the defensive effort to a box-out when the ball goes up is huge.
Doc Rivers kept to his word, using Paul Reed as the backup center instead of going with DeAndre Jordan. Upon seeing Toronto’s starting lineup in the hours leading up to tip-off, I thought Nick Nurse was going to try to bait Rivers into playing Jordan by bringing all of his size off the bench. But, Rivers didn’t take the bait. Even with a pair of fouls, Reed impressed in his first-half minutes. He made quick rotations from the weak side of the floor to record a block at the rim, and clawed through Toronto’s physicality to grab a couple rebounds. Most important of all, the Sixers won the non-Embiid minutes. Any time Embiid returns to the court with a bigger lead than when he left, it’s a monumental step towards the Sixers winning a playoff game.
Ultimately, the Sixers led by 18 points at halftime because of how well they were connected on defense. The switches were timely and sensible. They even extended the switches to the point where they switched the off-ball screens to deny Gary Trent Jr. open curls into the middle of the floor. The rotations on swing passes were controlled. Toronto had to re-think a number of triples that read as good looks off the catch. Toronto was inevitably going to leak to the rim for scores. You’re not going to take everything away. But, the Sixers controlled the defensive glass and took away additional possessions. They forced Toronto to take tough jumpers as much as possible, to begin with. It was perhaps as strong a half as the Sixers put forth all season. It certainly came at the right time.
Just as the thoughts of last year’s disaster creeped back into everyone’s heads while Toronto made their push back into the game, Tyrese Maxey stepped up in a big way to hush a suddenly restless crowd. Maxey scored 21 huge points in the third quarter, dazzling everyone in the building with a pair of triples. The second triple was a heat check four steps beyond the arc that garnered such a reaction that the building’s decibel record may have been broken. Mixed in between was an array of difficult finishes at the rim to pump Philly’s lead back up to a more breathable margin. Given the way the momentum had swung, Maxey may very well have won the game for Philly. It was his first playoff start.
The only thing I didn’t like in the first half was that the Sixers got 2 fouls on Fred VanVleet in the first minute of the game. Instead of taxing Toronto’s guard play and tying him to the bench for the remainder of the half, the Sixers didn’t do nearly enough to get VanVleet into the action on defense. You have to force him to defend within Toronto’s scheme. He’s either going to give little resistance out of fear of picking up another foul or pick up the foul and take a seat. The Sixers let him get away with only 3 total fouls in the first half. That’s a perfectly manageable number after picking up 2 before the fans even got to their seats.
The Raptors inevitably made their run to cut a 24-point lead to 14 less than halfway through the 3rd quarter. Toronto started to guard higher on the perimeter. That made it more difficult for Philly to move the ball past the arc. Even when the Sixers were able to penetrate, they lost control of the ball. Embiid lost the ball on his attacks or dribbled into difficult jumpers. Harden tried to take on too much pressure on his drives to the rim and had his shot blocked a couple of times. That allowed Toronto to get out in transition for easy scores at the rim. Even worse, the Sixers let that bleed into poor communication on the perimeter. That allowed Toronto to get right back into the game with threes off of decent ball movement.
Toronto’s Scottie Barnes left the game with a sprained left ankle early in the fourth quarter. He suffered the injury on a nasty rolled ankle after Embiid stepped on his foot. He did not return.
The Sixers (1-0) will host the Raptors (0-1) on Monday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.