The Sixers (2-1) played host to the Toronto (Tampa) Raptors (0-2) on Tuesday night. Philadelphia was looking to rebound from a discouraging 24-point beatdown at the hands of the Cavaliers on Sunday. The Raptors were looking to build on something–anything–after a taxing 0-2 start to the shortened 2020-21 season. Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris combined for 55 points and 27 rebounds, and the Sixers moved to 3-1 with a gutsy 100-93 victory over the Raptors.

Before we get to my observations, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Before the game, Doc Rivers said that Joel Embiid was expected to be available without restriction. Embiid was a late scratch from Sunday’s game with back tightness (call it what you want, we’ll go with what the team says it was). From Monday’s news, the Sixers expect to be without Furkan Korkmaz for a few weeks. The fourth-year wing suffered a left adductor strain against Cleveland. Before the game, Rivers told reporters that second-year wing Matisse Thybulle will “for sure” get some minutes in Korkmaz’s absence.

The Raptors were without guard Patrick McCaw, who is rehabbing from left knee surgery. Toronto started Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Aron Baynes. 

First Half

Seth Curry’s hesitance to let shots fly is slowly improving. There are plays when he side-steps to create space. That’s fine because that is a component of the artistry of shooting. However, he creates that space and then promptly passes out of a shot. There was a play in the first quarter in which Curry had an opportunity to pull the trigger unattended in transition. Instead, he elected to pull the ball out and reset the offense. He’s not winning matchups on the defensive end, and he’s neither big enough nor crafty enough of a finisher to be playable when he’s passing up jumpers. There is some room for pardoning, as it is only the second week of play and a lot of the offense is being digested on the fly. Nonetheless, this has been a concerning deviation from Curry’s norm in the early stages of his tenure in Philadelphia.

Leaving The Backdoor Open

Rivers, his staff, and the roster have talked endlessly about being incredible on the defensive end of the floor. Their actions to this point have not followed those desires. Increasingly noticeable is their allowing opponents to capitalize on dump-off passes to cutters at the rim. Much of that is positioning. However, a sizable factor of responsibility falls on the players being alert on the defensive end and communicating in the half-court setting. The Cavaliers capitalized on numerous looks from the dunker’s spot, and the Raptors were the recipients of many similar looks. The Sixers did have some luck fall their way, as the Raptors missed a handful of bunnies. Nonetheless, the defensive communication, positioning, and intelligence need to be a major focus in film sessions going forward.

Tobias Harris takes the brunt of criticism on social media, and sometimes it’s warranted. At a macro level, he’s a good player on a horrendous contract. Most rational beings know that, but Sixers’ fans are no such beings. However, something as simple as embedding a jump-stop into his movements would make Harris a drastically better as a scorer and playmaker. Obviously, that isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. But that fundamental in his dribble-penetration would cut down on his turnovers, facilitate better decisions, and avoid blocks at the rim. His “bowling into the lane out of control” method results in too many offensive fouls, turnovers, and missed shots. 

Going To The Other Hand

Ben Simmons showed some of that line-drive stubbornness that makes his half-court offense passable. He got to the rim with ease and finished virtually uncontested on a handful of possessions in the first half, as he usually does. However, his insistence on finishing with his right hand, exclusively, limits his finishing abilities around the rim. At this point in his career, it’s clear he’s going to dance around improving his jump shot by improving just about anything else. So, if the jumper isn’t going to happen, he needs to become a more complete offensive player by forcing himself to be an aggressive finisher with both hands.

Joel Embiid did a remarkable job of identifying double-teams in the first half. He consistently whipped the ball out to the perimeter to facilitate open looks or create ball movement with the Raptor defense out of positioning. The identification of the double-team is something that has been harped on for some time. But, that has been a notable improvement at this juncture in the season.

Second Half

Joel Embiid went down clutching the back of his thigh early in the third quarter. The entire tri-state area collectively sighed as thoughts of the worst trickled into mind. However, Embiid returned just a few minutes later and asserted himself as if nothing had ever happened. After the victory, Embiid was unwilling to dive too deep into what had happened, just leaving it at: “Nothing to worry about. Everything is fine.”

Doc Rivers often talks about pace. So, it is a curious case that Simmons initiates the half-court offense. He often finds himself in bouts of indecisiveness. With a high volume of pick-and-rolls being introduced to the offense, Simmons having to decide how to play the action out will also slow that pace. Often, he elects to pass out to someone who is more capable off the dribble. By that time, there are eight seconds remaining on the shot clock. Meanwhile, the play is just being initiated some twenty feet from the basket. As you might guess, typically nothing good comes of those possessions.

As Rivers gets more comfortable with his players and the offense begins to make sense, it will be necessary to monitor what the strategy is with Simmons in those scenarios. My guess is that they use him as a power forward in those spots, but time will tell. A wild card in that is obviously the possibility that Simmons becomes more comfortable and more effective within that offense.

“These games are great for your character.”

I must say, the Sixers had absolutely no business winning this game. They committed 18 turnovers in this affair, and then connected on less than 26% of their three-point looks. Yet, they crawled out of the fire of ugliness with a gutsy victory. Doc Rivers saw that bright side after the game, saying, “You kept playing the game, you hung in there long enough, and you grinned the game out. These games are great for your character.” That counts for something, and it’s certainly a good place for them to build from as they continue this crazy season. 

The Sixers will head to Orlando to visit the Magic (4-0) on New Year’s Eve. Tip-off is set for 6:30 PM, EST. The game will be televised on NBA TV (in addition to NBC Sports Philadelphia).