The Sixers (49-30) visited the Toronto Raptors (46-33) on Thursday night. Philadelphia looked to extend its winning streak to 4 games. Toronto hoped to build upon its victory over the Hawks on Tuesday night. The Sixers, minus Matisse Thybulle, had no answers for Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent Jr., who combined for 67 points to send Philadelphia to defeat, 119-114.
Before we get to the game, some notes.
The Sixers were without Matisse Thybulle, who is ineligible to play in Canada due to not being fully vaccinated. Derek Bodner has all the information you need about the situation.
Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, and Myles Powell (Two-Way) were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable. Bassey is also dealing with right shoulder pain.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Raptors were without Fred VanVleet, who missed the game with right knee soreness management. OG Anunoby has a right quadriceps contusion and was unavailable.
Yuta Watanabe missed the game with left quadriceps soreness.
Dalano Banton, Isaac Bonga, Justine Champagnie (Two-Way), and David Johnson (Two-Way) were on G-League assignments with the Raptors 905 and were unavailable.
Nick Nurse started Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Precious Achiuwa, and Khem Birch.
The torrid three-point shooting that blew the doors off the Pacers on Tuesday continued in the opening minutes of this one, with the likes of Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey combining for 4 made triples before the game’s first timeout. Over the team’s last 3 games, Sixers not named Joel Embiid or James Harden have been much more willing to let it fly from deep. And the Sixers have gotten off to torrid starts because of it. It’s quite encouraging to see that the cast surrounding Embiid and Harden is starting to peak in its individual roles at the end of the season.
The increased pace, even if sporadic at times, as well as the heightened three-point volume is perhaps a meeting of minds between Doc Rivers’ and Daryl Morey’s offensive philosophies. Rivers always talks about maintaining pace, and Morey has always championed the idea that shot value is maximized from beyond the arc and at the rim. Those two characteristics, mixed together, have helped the Sixers put up heavy offensive volumes over the last 3 games. Albeit, 2 of those games were against bad defenses.
The wildest development surrounding Maxey of late is that he’s hitting fading threes in transition and coming off screens, a la JJ Redick. Who knows if he’ll ever become that prolific of a sniper, but possessing the shooting gravity to drill threes off movement just 2 years into his career — after the three-point shot was a question coming out of college — is nothing short of remarkable.
Paul Reed finally got the backup center minutes over both of the old heads that had been in front of him in the pecking order. He’s a work in progress, for sure. His offense will grow as he gets more opportunity and becomes more comfortable with his game in real NBA minutes. But, the most important development was that Toronto was not as comfortable attacking the rim with him on the floor. That, alone, is more than you can say about what DeAndre Jordan gives the Sixers.
Both players work in simplified roles on offense — screening and diving, or lurking in the dunker spot waiting for shots to go up or dump-offs out of the drive. The major difference is that Reed can cover ground much quicker than Jordan can. As such, he can retreat home in timely fashion when forced to lift and stunt dribble penetration or contest unattended shooters. More than that, Reed isn’t a turnstile when guarding in space. The Raptors still put up numbers with Reed on the court, but it mostly came from anomalous three-point shooting. That hurts Reed’s plus/minus, but it’s not something you directly attribute to poor play from the backup big man. More defensive showings like the one on Thursday should earn him regular minutes in the NBA, whether it be with the Sixers or someone else.
There was one play midway through the third quarter in which Harden found Embiid on a duck-in and the big fella utilized several shot fakes to clear the vicinity of nagging Raptors before finishing the score. It is jarring that none of his teammates — from Tobias Harris to Matisse Thybulle — are better at utilizing fakes to get closing defenders off their feet before finishing at the rim. It is so easy and simple to do, and it would certainly cut down on the number of shots at the rim this team botches.
Tyrese Maxey stepped up in the fourth quarter when no one else really wanted to or could. He scored 9 of his 22 points in the final frame. With Harden in decline and Embiid a constant magnet of double-teams, it’s so critical that Maxey is comfortable taking over in crunch time when necessary. First, you can never have too many shot-creators who are also comfortable playing off the ball.
Second, Maxey’s control and strength at the rim make it difficult to foresee a scenario in which he runs into an unsolvable cold spell throughout a playoff series. That holds even against a team like Toronto that has supreme size and athleticism. Maxey’s touch at the basket and growth as a shooter make it malpractice for you to play off of him, so there will be ways for him to realistically find success in a playoff series even if adjustments are necessary from time to time.
In Matisse Thybulle’s absence, Danny Green knocked down 6 of his 7 three-point attempts. So, there’s an encouraging sign that perhaps he’s got some gas left in the tank.
As great as Paul Reed was on defense, he has no spacial awareness on offense. The only thing he does with any confidence in non-garbage minutes is screen and dive. But, that’s also all you need out of him at this point. His role is no bigger than that. With more reps, the offensive comfort should come. But between falling over while diving out of a screen and turning the rock over after recovering a loose ball, it was certainly ugly on offense at times.
Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. got whatever they wanted all night long. Trent hit a bunch of threes off dribble penetration or rotational breakdowns on the perimeter, in addition to a couple of difficult makes within the arc. Siakam was basically untouchable, though. The Sixers tried to defend him with Tobias Harris, and Siakam was able to get around him for layups or create enough space for midrange jumpers. Philadelphia countered that with putting Embiid on him in isolation, but Siakam got him off his feet with fakes and made difficult shots over his outstretched hands. Credit to Nick Nurse, too — he countered the Embiid isolations by running pick-and-rolls with Siakam and Trent. That simple strategic adjustment got the Raptors rolling again, even with Embiid tasked with shutting down their best player.
Sure would’ve been helpful to have Matisse Thybulle available tonight. Say what you (rightfully) want about his offense, but there’s no disputing his defensive impact. It’s not a coincidence that Toronto has a pair of 30-point scorers on the wings the same night that Thybulle isn’t available. It’s not all because of him. The Sixers have won or lost in different ways without him this season. But without his length and aptitude as a free safety, Toronto had no problem getting good looks peeling off screens, connecting on swing passes, and rising over disadvantaged defenders. Whether you like Thybulle or not, his unavailability would be extremely critical for the Sixers in the playoffs — especially if they find themselves facing this very Raptors team in the first round of the playoffs.
And if you think it’s cool that Thybulle is standing up for his beliefs and rights, I can’t help you. The correct answer is that his teammates worked hard all season to get their bite of the apple, and it’s totally unfair to them to have to make up for his absence in the playoffs. It’s selfish, a total slap in the face to everyone who has put equity into this tea, and, if the Sixers lose to the Raptors in the first round, should factor into whether he’s part of Philadelphia’s long-term future.
After a heater early in the first quarter, Tobias Harris was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t as if he just missed a ton of shots, but kept shooting. He reverted to the over-dribbling and indecision that has plagued him overwhelmingly throughout the season. It’s concerning if it’s more than a blip on the radar, as the Sixers are not deep enough to survive him being a detriment in the playoffs. But, that’s also why you just shook your head carefully after the flamethrower he possessed against Charlotte and Indiana. You never know when he’s going to go back to his old ways.
I contend that the Sixers lost this game because of the compounding nature of not having Thybulle’s defense. But, James Harden did virtually nothing as a scorer on Thursday. He couldn’t beat anyone to the rim, switch or not. And when he had to stop short of the rim, he threw up floaters that landed short of the goal. Harden couldn’t create any space to get shots off from deep in the fourth quarter, throwing up an airball on one three-point attempt and passing out of numerous others. Even when Harden did get all the way to the rim, he missed a handful of layups.
I don’t think it’s as clear as “he’s washed”. I’ll save that one for the reactive people of social media. This is the first time in the All-Star phase of his career in which Harden was unequivocally not the best player on the team. Beyond that, he’s trying to build equity with his teammates by being overly passive and helping Embiid push his MVP battle. And I haven’t even mentioned the hamstring injury through which he’s clearly playing.
Seeing how Chris Paul has resurrected the back end of his career, I’m not going to declare Harden out of gas. He was in the MVP conversation just last season. Does he have to be willing to modify his reputed lifestyle for the sake of extending his All-Star level of play for years to come? Yes. Time will tell whether he’s willing to do that. But, am I going to re-litigate the trade to acquire him, especially knowing that Ben Simmons hasn’t played for the Nets yet? Nope.
Still, the long-term outlook on Harden is interesting, to say the least. Some might argue that the Sixers married themselves to him by making the trade. I don’t see it that way at all. You gave up a backup center, a sniper doubling as a secondary ball-handler, and a star who refused to play for you. Draft capital matters. But one of the first-round picks may not convey as such, anyway. Plus, draft picks are irrelevant as long as Doc Rivers is the head coach and you’re operating in short-term windows. The thing that should matter to the Sixers is undrafted free agency. That’s an excellent resource through which they can fill out their bench in the future.
I actually think that Harden’s performance, in a way, benefits the Sixers’ in the intermediate term. You could very well argue that none of the teams with cap space would want to give Harden a max deal after this season. Harden may be better off just opting into the final year of his deal, thus giving the Sixers some breathing room to see how he comes back next season.
For now, though, he’ll be judged by what he does in the playoffs. Not what he does against an assortment of opponents in the regular season.
The Sixers (49-31) will host the Indiana Pacers (25-55) on Saturday afternoon. Tip-off is scheduled for 1 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.