Raul Neto

The Sixers (42-29) battled with the Toronto Raptors (51-19) on Wednesday evening. It was the second leg of their only back-to-back in the Orlando bubble. Prior to the game, the 76ers learned that they were locked into the sixth seed in the East, a date with the Boston Celtics guaranteed.

Before diving into what we saw in the Sixers’ penultimate regular season contest of the bubble, some notes:

Contextual Notes

Joel Embiid, who missed Tuesday’s game after suffering an ankle injury in Sunday’s game, was available to play. Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Josh Richardson were also available after missing Tuesday’s game. When I asked Brett Brown about their statuses in his pre-game media availability, he stated that none of the four would be held to minute restrictions. However, he did intend to monitor their minutes and work with them to make a collective decision as to how many minutes they would play.

The Raptors were without the services of Serge Ibaka (right knee contusion) and OG Anunoby (right knee soreness) in the contest.

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse took the night off. He handed the reins to assistant coach Adrian Griffin.

First Half

Tobias Harris has developed a tendency to beat defenders closing out on him when the extra pass comes his way. He catches, shows a slight hesitation or fake to get the closing defender to commit, and then drives baseline. This straight-line drive aggressiveness from Harris is doing three great things for the Sixers–creating space on the perimeter, adding a layer to his off-the-dribble scoring game, and getting him to the free throw line. The interior defense is collapsing on Harris, who has a vacant line to the cup, and he’s able to find open shooters on the perimeter. When the Sixers are moving the ball and pulling defenses out of their desired positions on the floor, the offense is significantly more dangerous. Crazy concept, I know.

The Bigs Are Getting Better

Al Horford has looked revitalized since play in the bubble began. Horford is taking advantage of higher pick-and-pop usage, and is looking much more comfortable within the offense–from both a fit perspective and a health perspective. The veteran big is averaging over 11 points per game on 53.3% shooting from beyond the arc. He’s also pulling down over 11 rebounds per game. Horford is moving his feet better, as well. He has shown an ability to deploy short bursts from the post to maneuver around defenders and get to an unoccupied rim with ease. Most encouraging is Horford’s on-ball defense. He’s been noticeably resistant to wings attacking him straight-on from the perimeter. If nothing else, one might suppose that he’s helping his trade stock this off-season.

Joel Embiid was quicker and less frustrated against Marc Gasol in the first half of this game. He wasn’t letting a lack of success, in the past or in the present, get into his head. Rather, he was making decisions as soon as he received the entry passes. However, Embiid was not enjoying the fruits of his progression, as he finished the first half with 8 points (1-for-4 shooting) and 5 turnovers.

The officiating in the bubble continues to be embarrassingly bad. From players blatantly stepping out of bounds to obvious fouls detectable by both the image on the screen and the sound of the contact, the missed calls have been horrendous. Obviously, the concern of exposing older, high-risk officials to the virus is much more important than the outcome of basketball games. But, there was clearly going to be an experience issue with narrowing the eligible officials down based on age. The professional referees need to make professional-level calls.

Second Half

Embiid left the game in the second quarter after being hit on the wrist by Marc Gasol. He came back briefly, but was declared out for the remainder of the game when the second half began. Mike Scott started the half in his place.

The Human Pogo Stick

Norvel Pelle continues to show promise as a secondary jumper at the rim. If he times his first jump incorrectly or comes down with a teammate’s or his own blocked shot on the offensive glass. He pops right back up to recover and finish the play as best he can. It is particularly effective when bigs use fakes in the paint to get defenders up in the air. If Pelle bites, he is back up in recovery before the defender can even make a secondary move to get around him. If a teammate gets blocked or misses a finish, Pelle is right there to clean up the second chance opportunity, assuming he holds the box-out on the offensive glass. 

After the game, I asked Al Horford what has stood out about Pelle in his rookie year. The veteran center offered high praise: “His presence on the defensive end. He’s fearless, he’s gonna go up and contest anybody. He’s a great rim protector. Offensively, he’s the kind of guy that puts pressure on the rim. You can throw lobs to him. For being his first year, and given all the circumstances we’ve been dealing with, he’s been great. He’s been very professional, very focused. I’m glad that he’s getting opportunities to show what he can do.” 

Signs Of Life From Korkmaz and Neto

Furkan Korkmaz finally found a rhythm from beyond the arc. It is not a coincidence that it came in tandem with his minimizing his pre-shot movements. Korkmaz abandoned dribble moves and extra footwork, and stayed within his comfort zone with attempts coming off the catch. The results were staggering, as Korkmaz finished with 21 points on 5-for-9 shooting from downtown.

Ever since Brett Brown revealed that Neto wouldn’t be in the rotation come playoff time, the reserve point guard has played some of his best basketball of the season. A lot of it has to do with changing speeds and adding a countermove when he drives to the rim. The inspired and in-control Neto is allowing the game to come to him, and he’s averaging 19.5 points with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.5:1.

The Sixers rested Richardson, Horford, and Harris the majority of the second half. The bench was unable to hold the lead, and the Sixers fell, 125-121, to the Raptors. Philly (42-30) will take on the Rockets (44-27) at 9 PM on Friday. The game will be televised on ESPN. It will be their last seeding game before the start of the playoffs.