The Sixers (3-0) and Raptors (0-3) matched up for Game 4 of their first-round playoff series on Saturday afternoon. Philadelphia hoped to secure the series sweep with a win and advance to the second round of the playoffs. Toronto intended to force a Game 5 and send the series back to Philadelphia. Terrible execution on both ends shot the Sixers in the foot, forcing a Game 5 with a 110-102 loss to the Raptors.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.
The Sixers were without Matisse Thybulle, who is ineligible to play in Canada due to his decision not to get fully vaccinated.
Charles Bassey sprained his right shoulder and was unavailable.
Joel Embiid was available. But according to numerous league insiders, he is battling what appears to be a significant injury to the thumb in his right hand. PhillyVoice’s Kyle Neubeck has more on the news.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
After missing Games 2 and 3 with a sprained left ankle suffered in Game 1, Scottie Barnes was available for Toronto. Less than 1 hour before game time, the NBA announced that Barnes had won the 2021-22 Rookie of the Year award.
Nick Nurse started Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Khem Birch.
VanVleet left the game in the second quarter with a strained left hip and did not return.
If the Sixers have done any one thing consistently excellently in this series, they’ve valued corner three-point shooting. Danny Green has been the recipient of some wonderful corner looks throughout the series. In a halfcourt environment, corner looks typically result from a dribble penetration series. It wasn’t just James Harden or Joel Embiid attacking the middle of the floor and dishing to Green once the Raptors cracked down in rotation. They were kicking to one side of the floor to Tyrese Maxey. The second-year guard would then drive and kick to Tobias Harris. The forward then drove middle, touched the paint, and found Green completely alone. Philadelphia’s corner threes early in Game 4 resulted from leveraging both ball and people movement on both sides of the floor.
Harris, by the way, continued his X-factor play on both ends of the floor. He stayed disciplined defending near the basket. Harris kept his feet on the floor and maintained verticality to swat Anunoby at the rim without any threat of a whistle. On the offensive side of the ball, Harris had a pair of strong, purposeful drives to the cup for finishes through congestion. He capped his first frame with a step-back triple from the corner. You might argue that the current Harris is playing with as much confidence as he did way back in the first 10 games of the season. At that time, he looked as though he was picking up where he left off last regular season.
The often-criticized forward has been sensational shooting off the catch this series. It’s even trickled down to other areas of his game. Harris is suddenly attacking the rim with power. That may be the most positive development of all, but if he’s suddenly feeling himself enough to hit the mark on self-created triples while credibly neutralizing one of the opposition’s 3 best scorers, what more can you ask of a guy relegated to fourth option?
The Sixers lost the minutes that Embiid was on the bench by 6 points in the first half. But, Paul Reed broke out of his shell a bit on the offensive end. He spaced out to the strong-side corner for a catch-and-shoot three courtesy of a Harden drive-and-kick. He also finished a layup out of a beautiful post move. It obviously was not enough to change much about those minutes. But, Reed looked as comfortable on offense as he ever has in a meaningful context.
We do have to acknowledge that Joel Embiid is dealing with an injury to the thumb on his shooting hand. But, Embiid has not made any excuse of it. So, we can’t either. After a signature night to win Game 3, Embiid was not his aggressive self in his first stint of Game 4. He missed a handful of shots short, appeared disengaged, and was unwilling to overpower Toronto out of the face-up and out of the post. The Raptors used that lack of aggression to press him harder. They sent multiple people at Embiid on the catch to effectively force the ball out of his hands.
Embiid’s lack of energy after telling Drake he was “coming for the sweep” trickled down to the rest of the team. The Sixers played the entire first half like a team that was, indeed, up 3-0. But, not in the sense that it was easy to see why they were up 3-0. Rather, they played like a team that had no urgency because they were up 3-0.
Philadelphia only committed 1 more turnover than the Raptors did in the first half. But, the Raptors had 5 more fast break points in the first half. The true separator before halftime was that Toronto generated 4 more possessions for themselves than the Sixers did on the offensive glass. The Raptors weren’t really clawing for hard-fought rebounds, though. They were making extra efforts to hustle for tip-backs, sending the ball out to their perimeter to reset the possession or rhythm triples off the catch.
There were also signs of boredom in the halfcourt. The Sixers adjusted to a 2-3 zone in the second quarter. They then promptly forfeited a backdoor cut and dunk to Chris Boucher because they overplayed his corner on the baseline and allowed him to slip behind them.
Through 2.5 quarters, the Sixers didn’t do nearly enough to test the bruised ankle of Scottie Barnes. To give a totally accurate portrayal, the Raptors deployed Barnes as a partner in trapping Embiid as soon as he stepped inside the three-point arc. So, it’s hard to specifically go at Barnes on those possessions when he’s helping double the focal point of the offense.
But, there were possessions in which Barnes was in help away from the ball. Yet, the Sixers did very little to test the strength of his ankle. Philadelphia did not bring Harris up as a screener in the pick-and-roll so that they could draw Barnes into the action and test his agility and footwork. Instead, they continued on with their other options, mostly sparing the rookie Swiss army knife. There were a couple of opportunities in which Embiid had him on an island in the third quarter. But, that one-on-one matchup had mixed results.
After a sensational first two games of this series, the Sixers somewhat went away from Maxey’s offense. Much of his looks were relegated to quick decisions off the catch. In those contexts, he’s either catching and letting it fly or attacking closeouts on sharp angles. But that restricts Maxey’s game and, thus, Philly’s offense. The Sixers did nothing to involve him on pick-and-rolls, Chicago actions, Split actions, or other plays to get going downhill.
That isn’t necessarily a part of their regular offense. But, the Sixers had nothing going elsewhere on the court. So, it’s on the coach to find other entry points beyond the main doors. Philadelphia annihilated Toronto in the first 2 games by putting the ball in Maxey’s hands in a variety of contexts. In Game 3, Maxey became more of a focal point when Harden fouled out. In Game 4, Maxey was relegated to being a role player off the swing pass. The Sixers could certainly finish this series in 5 games. But, they need to get back to viewing Maxey as a pillar of their 3-headed monster rather than limiting him as a role player.
The officiating seemed lopsided in this game. But, the Sixers ultimately didn’t get great shots and committed far too many turnovers in the second half to take advantage of the fact that the Raptors were without Fred VanVleet. They did the damage to themselves more than the officiating did. Now, you just hope that the voices of demons from Sixers past don’t get louder.
The Sixers (3-1) will host the Raptors (1-3) in Game 5 on Monday. Tip-off is set for 8 PM, Eastern time. You can watch the drama on NBA TV and NBC Sports Philadelphia.