The Sixers (3-1) hosted the Toronto Raptors (1-3) on Monday night in Game 5 of their first-round series. Philadelphia intended to advance to the second round of the playoffs with a win. Toronto hoped to send the series back up north with a victory. The Sixers were wrestled to the floor in the second quarter and never got back up, falling 103-88 in Game 5.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
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.
The Sixers were without Charles Bassey, who is still nursing a sprained right shoulder.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
James Harden was more than happy to be the man amongst boys for the Sixers’ first-quarter offense. He meshed uptempo pushes to the rim with slowed probes. A number of those uptempo pushes to the basket lined Embiid up for dimes once the interior Raptor committed to stopping his ball-handling co-star. Harden also dabbled in a rare midrange jumper on Philadelphia first possession of the game. The more patient dances around the court’s inner dimensions found Tobias Harris for a pair of triples in the first quarter. Harden’s aggression in breaking down the interior with powerful dribble moves to make anything happen kept the Sixers afloat while Toronto jumped out to a hot start.
The Sixers asserted themselves as the first quarter progressed by finding Embiid for quick touches down low. No sooner was Embiid flashing to a spot than he was pivoting and going up at the rim — and it worked. The Raptors were just hairs late in their recoveries, either committing fouls on Embiid or forfeiting easy baskets.
Once it was clear that the Raptors’ size and athleticism were creating a world of problems in the driving lanes, Doc Rivers elected to toggle his team’s defensive scheme to a 2-3 zone. It was the logical move because the zone theoretical bets against three-point shooting and makes it harder to drive. But his team did not do much to hold its ground in the scheme. They gave up backdoor flashes to the soft spot of the interior for dunks off of laser passes from the top of the key.
Joel Embiid’s lack of interest on defense was quite apparent just 4 minutes into the game. He miscommunicated on a pick-and-roll coverage, forfeiting a drive to the rim for an easy finish before the first timeout of the game. Toronto also found some high-quality looks by probing the interior at a low tempo and striking when Embiid was ever-so-slightly out of position.
That doesn’t even account for the perimeter defense, though. Embiid was late to close on an Achiuwa triple (fortunately for Embiid, it was a miss) and then too heavy in closing on him off a swing to the corner, forfeiting a blow-by and dunk. Embiid’s thumb injury does not excuse his decision-making on defense. He was extremely disorganized on that end of the floor in the first quarter. That’s unacceptable in a Game 5 on your own court.
The turnover issues that plagued the Sixers in Toronto made it across the border for Game 5. There was an abundance of sloppy passing early in the game. Embiid misread his teammates and made weak passes out of double-teams.
Toronto deserves credit for making a subtle adjustment — they were aggressively hunting back-side tip-aways on Philly’s dribble penetration. There were a handful of plays in which Sixers cleared their perimeter foe and attacked the paint. Then, they promptly lost the ball on tip-aways from that defender. The ball went right into a helping Raptor’s hands and ignited Toronto’s early transition offense.
You could not have asked for a worse game from Matisse Thybulle, who was seeing his first minutes in 2 games after being unavailable to play in Canada due to his decision not to get fully vaccinated. In the first half, he missed a pair of threes. Thybulle then opted to not even look at the basket on his next touch. He was nowhere close on a pair of free throws later in his first half stint. He then capped his pre-intermission performance by passing the ball directly to a Raptor for a live-ball turnover.
In a very brief stint in the second half, Thybulle looked off a relatively uncontested triple before driving to the cup for a contested layup that he promptly airballed. That play capped off what may be the worst game of his career, to date.
After an inspiring opening 5 minutes, James Harden was essentially MIA for the entire rest of the game. Most of the problem stemmed from his inability to beat anyone off the dribble. The Raptors rightfully had their most capable perimeter defenders stapled to Harden every time he touched the ball.
Any burst he had was gone by the second quarter. Even when Harden got within 1-2 steps of the basket, Toronto met him at the rim to stifle his layup attempts. The Raptors crowded his passing lanes to disrupt any path the ball had to his Sixer teammates, as well. To effectively render Harden useless, the Raptors vacuumed any space he tried to create for jumpers.
Philadelphia came into a Game 5 environment at home with hopes of closing out a playoff series and had absolutely no energy. The Raptors got them on the ground early. The Sixers could only summon enough might to match punches. They could not, however, deliver a series of blows to get back on their feet.
The Sixers (3-2) will head back to Toronto to play Game 6 on the Raptors’ (2-3) floor on Thursday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the game on TNT.