The Sixers (1-4) stayed in Toronto for a second game against the Raptors (3-2) on Friday. Philadelphia desperately wanted to get back into the win column to quell the fire of a disappointing start. Toronto intended to push its winning streak to three games. Tyrese Maxey scored a career-high 44 points to lead the Sixers to victory, 112-90.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
Joel Embiid missed the game as part of recovery from a right knee injury. He had been listed as ‘Questionable’ on the NBA injury report up until game time. Doc Rivers defined the injury as “soreness” during his pregame media availability. He added, “I just think every night with Joel is ‘Questionable’. […] We want to make sure he feels great early in the year every night. If it takes up to game time every night, we’re going to do that.” A team source told The Painted Lines it is not a new injury.
Julian Champagnie and Michael Foster Jr. (Two-Ways) are on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, and PJ Tucker.
The Raptors were without the services of Otto Porter Jr., who missed the game due to personal reasons.
Jeff Dowtin and Ron Harper Jr. (Two-Ways) were on assignments with Toronto’s G-League affiliate and were unavailable.
Nick Nurse started Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Scottie Barnes.
The Sixers were going to need someone to step up in Embiid’s absence, and that someone was Maxey. The third-year guard hit four triples in the first six minutes of the game. He finished the first half 10-for-10 from the floor, and 7-for-7 from beyond the arc. Maxey scored 27 points ahead of the intermission. I thought he did a good job of using that three-point stroke to open up his driving game. While there wasn’t much balance between his shots at the rim and his shots from beyond the arc, Maxey didn’t stick outside and neglect his speed. Even as Toronto’s defense pushed him further beyond the arc, Maxey was unphased. And when the drive was there, he got all the way to the rim for a pair of finishes.
But, Maxey also used the dribble penetration to find teammates. He made a very good effort to see the whole floor, rifling passes to the weak-side corner to hit teammates for uncontested triples. The point total obviously stands out, but Maxey looked as much like an unquestioned offensive star in the first half as he ever has. He was the reason the Embiid-less Sixers led by 17 points at the break.
A major contributing factor to the offensive success in the first half in Embiid’s absence was the spacing. That the spacing improved makes sense, at least on paper. Small-ball bigs are going to stay on the perimeter because they’re typically shooters. Tucker’s role, beyond staying active as the connective tissue after setting screens for the ball-handler and rolling, is to stretch the floor with corner threes. I would buy that as the difference if Embiid were a more traditional big, himself. But, he, too, likes to stay outside. The biggest difference, to me, was that there wasn’t aimless wandering from those who didn’t have the ball. Even if they weren’t cutting with intention or screening for teammates, they were moving to open spots. Sometimes filling spaces when you don’t have the ball is as effective as doing other more notable things. In this case, it kept driving and passing lanes much less congested.
Given the Sixers’ defensive struggles, it was an appropriate move by Rivers to bring Matisse Thybulle into the rotation. And to Thybulle’s credit, he was prepared for the moment. He canned a pair of triples in the first quarter, taking advantage when Toronto sold on him as a shooter in favor of extending attention to other more dangerous Sixers.
Thybulle was more than ready to defend, too. He didn’t commit a foul in 22 minutes of action. More than that, the Raptors felt his length throughout the game. He snuck behind unaware ball-handlers, swiping the ball loose and creating transition opportunities for Philadelphia. Beyond that, he was able to make up ground on close-outs that his teammates simply did not have the gift of length to offer. Ordinarily wide-open shots quickly devolved into decently-contested shots. While Toronto made a bunch of open threes in the first half, those looks weren’t there in the second half. As such, the Raptors’ three-point percentage faded as the game went on.
Tucker did a really nice job of sneaking into spaces for long offensive rebounds in the first quarter. He had been in a bit of a lull over the last few games, and Tucker met the task of creating extra possessions for Philadelphia’s offense. The problem is, his offensive limitations are such that any lull in hustle plays essentially silence his offensive impact. It’s not like Tucker is dialing up a barrage of corner threes — he only took one in this game. When he’s not winning those 50-50 balls and beating the defense to offensive rebounds, it’s really difficult for him to make any positive impact on that end of the floor.
The Sixers’ defense, as an overall product, was much better in this game. I thought the small-ball was particularly effective in junking up passing lanes for Toronto. As such, Philadelphia did a good job of disrupting rhythm from ball movement. Toronto hasn’t been known as a good halfcourt offense under the current stars, and the Sixers held them to 16 fast break points in the game. The more the Sixers took away the three-point line as the game went on, the more Toronto struggled to put together consistent offense.
Melton was as big a contributor to that as anyone was. He got his hands in on drivers all night long, knocking the ball loose and turning the Raptors over on their attempts to crack the interior on dribble penetration. Even if they weren’t trying to get inside by driving, Melton intercepted attempts to make passes inside, turning the home team over that way, as well.
Amazing what a little effort will do for your defense, isn’t it?
It wasn’t the best night for Harden. 11 points with four assists against five turnovers. But, he had a couple nice drives with power. It wasn’t so much his burst that was working. Rather, he used his strength to muscle around individual defenders as he drove to the basket. The physicality drew him three shooting fouls as he fought his way to the rim for a trio of buckets.
It was an absurd Maxey game. After the 27-point eruption in the first half, the Raptors put some size on Maxey to keep him quiet in the third quarter. but, the third-year guard found his star level again in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 9 made threes, tying Danny Green and Dana Barros for the franchise-lead in three-point makes in a game by an individual Sixer. But again, he didn’t abandon the drive. Maxey banked in an incredibly difficult floater as he faded out of bounds with a Raptor on his hip. He then knocked down a pair of triples, one popping out of a ball screen he set for Harden and the other pulling up on Siakam in transition. He had a couple of enormous games against the Raptors in last season’s playoffs, and the Raptors couldn’t contain him on this night, either.
It was refreshing to see the Sixers’ defense figure something out. But, it all started with effort. Where was that effort in the first five games? It would’ve been one thing if they were making chemistry-induced mistakes and the effort was good. But, the effort was disgraceful in the first 5 games. Maybe it’s something to build on, but they didn’t have to put themselves in a 1-4 hole before something clicked.
As much as the defense improved, the Sixers still gave up far too many threes on drive-and-kicks and left-to-right ball movement. They still don’t have great communication on switches, and they’re falling asleep at times, late to contest jumpers and surrendering back-cuts to athletic opponents. Friday was a start, but it needs to be better. Rewarding Thybulle with more opportunity will help.
On the topic of defense, it seems like Trent Jr. cans every rhythm jumper he gets if there isn’t a hand in his space. Maybe key on him in transition or just don’t give him practice-level looks at threes?
Two Sixers were mostly absent in this game. Harden just wasn’t aggressive, only taking 9 shots on the night. I thought he could’ve asserted himself more to balance things out when Toronto extended pressure on Maxey in the third quarter. The other invisible Sixer was Harris. His shots in the lane were dreadful, and he drew dead on open threes. And, boy, did he get a lot of open threes in this game. Simply a brutal showing for him.
It felt like the Sixers had a couple of possessions in the third quarter in which they didn’t want to shoot. They were second-guessing themselves, and didn’t know when to stop moving the ball and finally shoot. It junked up their offense a bit in the third frame, a quarter in which they only scored 16 points. It ultimately did not matter in the game’s outcome, but it was weird. As if they were stuck on being selfless and collectively lost their sense of shot selection.
Georges Niang was tasked with guarding Siakam late in the third quarter. That matchup went exactly as you thought it might go, and the Raptors were able to build a bit of momentum. When you’re 1-4 and trying to close out a road win without your best player, that matchup is never necessary.
In extending pressure on the ball-handlers, Toronto trapped Maxey and Harden at the halfcourt line throughout the second half. The other three or four games on the court have to do a better job of helping their teammates when that happens. Harden and Maxey needed to do a lot of work to keep the ball safe. It took too much time for their teammates to slide up and retrieve the ball to break the traps.
Even when the Sixers broke the traps, they rushed their offense. There was a bunch of passing into nowhere because they were unwilling to wait for congestion to dissipate. The Sixers were just throwing the ball away and letting Toronto run in transition. Not a winning formula in the fourth quarter. They’re lucky they have Maxey!
Melton is quickly joining Harris and Thybulle in the Can’t Make Layups club. Not exactly a club you want to be in.
The Sixers (2-4) will visit the Chicago Bulls (3-3) on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 8 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBA TV.