The Sixers (50-26) hosted the Toronto Raptors (38-38) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to build on Wednesday’s win over the Dallas Mavericks. Toronto wanted to win its fourth game in a row. The Sixers used a massive second-quarter run to put enough distance between themselves and the Raptors in a 117-110 victory.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Raptors were without the services of Gary Trent Jr., who was suffering from lower back spasms.
Will Barton missed the game with a sprained left ankle. Otto Porter Jr. was out as he recovers from surgery on a dislocated second toe on his left foot.
Dalano Banton has a sprained left thumb and was unavailable.
Nick Nurse started Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl.
The Sixers were without the services of Tobias Harris, who had a non-Covid illness.
Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
It looked like the Sixers might have to battle through some adversity or risk falling into a hole when Embiid picked up his second foul before his regular substitution in the first quarter. Not wanting to compromise Harden’s rotation pattern, Rivers and the Sixers tossed the keys Maxey’s way. A luxury that most teams do not have in a young guard with that level of energy and skill as a third option, sure. But, it’s largely blind faith to assume Maxey can carry a lineup without Embiid and Harden at the spur of the moment, especially given the erratic nature of his play when he was in the sixth man role.
No matter on Friday, though. Maxey led the charge without any problem at all. He knocked in a three, but carved the Raptors up off the bounce. Maxey got to his floater and to the rim off the dribble, finding driving lanes and getting his front foot around the defender in his way. Maxey simply catching the ball became so problematic for the Raptors that VanVleet tried to front him at the top of the arc to deny a touch.
It was only a personal 7-0 run, and it didn’t have to last that long with Harden returning not that much later anyway. But, it was that type of display that can carry your belief in Maxey as a legitimate third star. First, there’s the poise. He reacted just the way you’d want him to, only playing with more aggression but otherwise not altering his mentality at all.
Second, the shot profile was good. Maxey didn’t marry himself to the three-point shot, utilizing his best tools against a physical Raptors defense. Third, he was the standout in a lineup full of players who are simply not as good as he is. Maxey simply reacted to increased defensive pressure and embraced whatever the options were. No compromised decision-making, nothing forced. And it bought the Sixers time at a moment of vulnerability. Those are the moments that are going to matter in a playoff series. Maxey can win you a game when things aren’t going as planned elsewhere. Those periods of stability when the threat of chaos looms are often the differences in series.
The entire story of this game can be summarized in one sentence, really. Philadelphia beat the Raptors into extinction in the second quarter, and Toronto couldn’t get enough good offense going in the second half to complete the comeback. But, how the Sixers took a blowtorch to Toronto in that first half is the more interesting story.
Fresh off some concerning comments about his sore achilles on Wednesday, Harden showed no signs of being hindered at all. He got to the rim with ease most of the night, throwing any Raptor in his way off balance with sharp dribble moves and a quick step forward. As encouraging a sign of how the achilles affects his burst, at least right now, was Harden absolutely dusting Anunoby on a layup in the fourth quarter:
came to play. pic.twitter.com/O4wPByGAoT— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 1, 2023
But, Philadelphia really created its separation in the first half behind Harden’s shooting and quick decision-making. No. 1 felt it from deep in the first two quarters, knocking down triples from both sides of the floor. His last make was a heat check, a near foul from the top of the arc to put the home team up by 24 points in the final minute of the first half.
insane. https://t.co/Qf859LncR9 pic.twitter.com/nkfPX3GE6t— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 1, 2023
Even with his 17 points in the first half, Harden’s contributions extended to the team level. He got off the ball extremely quickly, creating transition opportunities for his teammates even when Toronto had chances to set its defense by hitting leak-outs in stride. Those quick passing decisions extended to the halfcourt, as well. Harden created the advantage for someone else by drawing a shade or a trap, and they either capitalized on it themselves or fed the next guy in line when the helper created an advantage for Philadelphia elsewhere on the court.
The passing was infectious, as it often is when Harden has the offense humming. The bearded guy might be on the opposite side of the floor, but the kinetic energy he creates causes the ball and player movement to carry over to the other side of the floor. Suddenly, the Sixers will run a two-man action, kick to a guy in the strong-side corner, and cut on a give-and-go. Or, there’ll be a flow into a DHO or a pin-down elsewhere.
Perhaps Harden’s existence draws a pair of helpers away from their assignments, even if it’s not necessarily the right practice within the scheme a defense is trying to run. So, maybe defenses are making bad rotations because guys are incorrectly gravitating towards Harden when the ball isn’t in his hands. There were just so many plays in which he wasn’t even part of the action and, yet, the ball flew all over the floor and the Sixers got open shots. The Sixers missed just nine shots and committed just six turnovers the entire first half, leading 77-57 at intermission.
The other central component to the big run in the second quarter was, of course, Embiid. Before the whistles really tightened up, Philadelphia fell back into the two-man game with the big man and the floor general. It wasn’t a huge night of scoring for Embiid, and his jumper wasn’t a big piece in much of anything he did. Rather, he rolled hard to the rim for a number of scores in the first half. He powered home dunks, finished through contact, and was basically unstoppable inside.
I feel like we say this all the time, and it comes off as hyperbolic. But, it’s statistically quite true. The partnership between Embiid and Harden is simply unstoppable.
A very good first 24 minutes of halfcourt defense from the Sixers, as a whole. Crisp rotations, disciplined contests, timely close-outs. Everything was on point and in sync.
No “Likes” column is complete on this night without mention of the Paul Reed/Jalen McDaniels/Danuel House Jr. trio off the bench. That group is long, athletic, and strong enough to be legitimately good on defense. The Sixers can go switch heavy with them in the game, suiting a Harden-led lineup quite well. They totally stalled Toronto’s offense in the second quarter, forcing them into difficult late-clock threes and junk at the rim that didn’t have much a prayer against good contests.
Reed definitely looks more comfortable within the offense than McDaniels does right now. But, those two seem to have a nice chemistry brewing. Reed flows into screens and quickly and aggressively rolls to the basket, turning his head to stay aware of passes coming his way as he moves through spaces. When he’s not rolling, he’s lurking in the dunker’s spot and stepping into dunks or layups when Harden hits him with a dump-off pass. Reed killed the Raptors doing that in his minutes. Toronto lost the first Embiid minutes by one point. They were outscored by nine when Embiid was on the bench. That’s a devastating outcome for any team opposite the Sixers.
Reed is quietly beginning to see the floor better, too. He’s made some nice passes around the floor as a roller, serving as a connector within the offense. He also sees cutters around the rim, feeding a plunging teammate as he navigates the tight spaces around the baseline when he gets the ball under the basket.
Back to that chemistry between Reed and McDaniels for a second. As raw as they both are, it’s sometimes chaotic as all hell. But, they’re teaming up to make plays on the basis of athleticism. It’s often accidental. It’s often not pretty. But, they’re finding ways to score off each other, coming up with second-chance opportunities off their or teammates’ misses. The duo is even combining to make defensive plays, working together to stop a shot at the rim in one second-half sequence.
If McDaniels gets beat, Reed is there to cut off the angle. If Reed can’t get to a ball around the rim, McDaniels is there to contest or block a shot. The Raptors have beaten the Sixers in recent years because they win the athleticism battle handily. Philadelphia gave them a taste of their own medicine with the Reed/McDaniels duo on both ends of the floor. Reed, by himself, was one of the most important players in the game for the Sixers.
I think Rivers has to give that trio a legitimate look in the playoffs. The athleticism is exactly what you need to lean into switching when Embiid isn’t on the court. Them-plus-Harden and one other guy is interesting enough in theory to offset whatever potential downsides the coaching staff sees.
As good as the Sixers’ offense and halfcourt defense were in the first half, this game should’ve been over at halftime. Philadelphia shot nearly 80 percent from the field before intermission, yet only led by 20 points. The Sixers took their foot off the gas after Harden’s heat-check three put them up by 24 points in the final minute of the second quarter. They gave the Raptors something to build upon at halftime and then let Toronto all the way back into the game with bad transition defense in the second half.
I thought other issues were pressing the wrong buttons in drop coverage, getting caught on screens, and over-rotating. VanVleet struggled mightily in the first half, and then proceeded to knock down a number of big shots in the second half. Tucker dropped too far off behind screens, giving the Raptors guard space to pull-up for open threes. Maxey and other Sixers got caught on off-ball screens, forfeiting open looks from deep, too. And as the Raptors worked the ball around the floor more, they stretched the Sixers on defense. There were a number of Toronto possessions in which the Sixers over-rotated in anticipation of the next pass, only to leave the Raptor currently in possession of the ball with a wide-open three.
I feel like I do this too often, but it’s authentic. This officiating crew stunk. The only thing they did well was not bow down to the Raptors’ whining. Nurse and the players on the court made their feelings known on every anti-Toronto call. Unfortunately for them, there wasn’t much room to bargain because they got a very friendly whistle on defense. Part of why Embiid couldn’t establish himself in this game was that the Raptors went full Jordan Rules on him. Embiid went to the line for 12 free throws, but you could’ve added 10 to that total if this crew actually watched the game.
I mean, seriously. A foul on a fading VanVleet three with Toronto down eight in the final 10 seconds of the game? Really? People wanted to get on with their nights.
If that fourth-quarter display of offense was the best the Raptors can do, they should blow it up. Anything that wasn’t a VanVleet three was a midrange jumper or Barnes trying to find a way to get close to the rim. Perhaps the Raptors expensed too much energy trying to fight back and ran out of gas late, but it was brick city for them in crunch time. Might be a couple years and some soul-searching before that group wins multiple playoff series in one postseason again.
The Sixers (51-26) will visit the Milwaukee Bucks (55-22) on Sunday. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.