The Sixers (1-3) visited the Toronto Raptors (2-2) on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to build on a victory over the Indiana Pacers on Monday. Toronto intended to build on Monday’s victory over the Heat in Miami. Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey combined for 62 points, but a horrendous defensive effort sent the Sixers to another defeat, 119-109.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without Julian Champagnie and Michael Foster Jr. (Two-Way contracts), who were on G-League assignments with the Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Raptors were without the services of Otto Porter Jr., who is recovering from a strained left hamstring.
Jeff Dowtin and Ron Harper Jr. (Two-Way contracts) were on G-League assignments with Toronto’s affiliate and were unavailable.
Nick Nurse started Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Scottie Barnes.
The Sixers’ offensive direction was clear from the tip. They wanted to take advantage of Embiid’s size advantage and went to it all night long. And for what seemed like the first time ever, Embiid had a dominant start in Toronto. His jumper was working all night long, but Embiid really feasted on the interior. I thought for maybe the first time ever, it was the perfect intersection between Embiid’s intelligence and physical prowess. He was inviting double-teams, shades, and extended pressure all night long, but he was also cognizant of his physical advantages. He didn’t settle for a bevy of jumpers. Rather, he looked for ways to get to the rim.
Tyrese Maxey had his best showing of the young season. He knocked in four of his eight three-point attempts, and took 21 shots in total. I thought the best thing he did was attack at the rim instead of relying on craftiness and touch while fading away. And when he put aggression before touch, he was gliding right to the basket and trusting his hands to finish the job. Whether it was finishing through contact or using his craftiness to navigate obstacles, Maxey got where he wanted to go against a bigger, physical team.
The Sixers played with purpose and connectivity on both ends of the floor to start this game, but they did themselves no favors in the way they finished defensive possessions. They had Embiid in drop coverage on pick-and-rolls with VanVleet and switched other screens involving PJ Tucker. There wasn’t a bunch of deep penetration off the dribble, which is often the root of all evil for defenses. But, there wasn’t any urgency to contest shots on the perimeter. They even made some fine adjustments, dismissing drop and going under on screens for hedging hard. But even when the processes were good, they weren’t closing out or getting hands up in time. It doesn’t matter what your scheme is if you’re not completing possessions with good contests. So, the Raptors lined up open three after open three in the first half to keep the Sixers at an arm’s length.
The Sixers seemed particularly unbothered by Siakam’s early shot-making. He started the game 4-for-4 from deep and was faced with very little pressure as he elevated for jumpers. When that’s happening, it’s probably best for Tucker not to jaw with him. Why add gasoline to a fire that was already burning hot on its own?
While we’re on the topic of defense, as poor as their contests were in the halfcourt environment, at least they showed a pulse in that context. The transition defense continues to be abhorrent. Toronto was two passes away from wide-open shots in transition all night long. The Sixers didn’t make them work for shots or challenge them to knock down contested looks. Philadelphia hemorrhaged points on practice-level shots all game long. Even when they made runs on offense, they gave themselves little-to-no chance of building momentum. Every missed shot and live-ball turnover created an easy shot for the Raptors, and that’s not a proposition that will get you very far.
Even when the Sixers made inroads, they kept letting Toronto create downhill pressure in the middle of the floor. When that happened, the likes of Embiid and other interior defenders had no choice but to step up and stop the ball. The problem, of course, was that the Raptor in the dunker’s spot was left wide-open and the dump-off was there more often than not.
Toronto also took advantage of backdoor plays when Georges Niang was on the floor. The ball found its way over to the weak side of the floor, lifting Niang and whoever else was inside away from the rim as part of their natural help rotations. But, that played right into what Toronto wanted. The shift in help cleared the runway for the likes of Anunoby and Chris Boucher to cut backdoor. Rivers and his team did nothing to mitigate that look. Simply put, if Niang isn’t hitting from the outside, it’s a quick hook. The willingness to live with Niang’s shortcomings against a team like Toronto brings up an important question — do the Sixers trust their shooting beyond Niang if they’re willing to get bludgeoned on defense with him on the floor?
Speaking of Rivers, this was a perfect matchup for Paul Reed to get some minutes. The Sixers’ other personnel don’t have the athleticism or length to match up with the Raptors in a switching scheme. Having said that, Reed played only 3 minutes in the game. That’s incomprehensible. Rivers played Tucker at the five a bit in this game, and Harrell logged 4 minutes. That left 37 minutes for Embiid. I get that you’re 1-3 and that creates a bit of urgency. But, wasn’t the plan to manage Embiid’s minutes while he gets himself into shape after the plantar fasciitis issue? 37 minutes this early in the season doesn’t seem necessary. If the other alternative is giving minutes to Harrell, and you don’t trust him, then abandon your marriage to the guy and let Reed play in this matchup. Even if he makes mistakes in positioning, he has the athleticism and length to recover from his own defensive miscues. If the concern is knowing the plays, simplify his role to screening and diving. You have offensive talent elsewhere on the roster, there’s no need to give Reed too many responsibilities on that end anyway.
Harden took 12 shots in this game, got to the line for 6 free throws, and scored 18 points. The team sorely lacked offensive flow at times in this game. 12 shots is not acceptable. He should’ve been far more aggressive. 9 assists against 3 turnovers isn’t bad, but the Sixers needed him to be far more assertive to have any chance of winning this game.
This team is way too talented to be playing this way. And when effort is a negative trend over a series of games, you have to wonder whether the message is falling on deaf ears.
The Sixers (1-4) will stay in Toronto and try to rebound against the Raptors (3-2) on Friday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.