The Philadelphia 76ers (20-10) traveled to Tampa to play the Toronto Raptors (15-15) (yes, adjusting to that is a work in progress). The Sixers were looking to progress their winning streak to three games, and were fresh off Joel Embiid’s first career 50-point outing. The Raptors were looking to push their winning streak to four games. Philadelphia, unable to connect on a field goal for a stretch approaching eight minutes in the fourth quarter, snapped their two-game winning streak with a 110-103 defeat.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
Both Ben Simmons (illness) and Shake Milton (sprained left ankle) returned after missing two games and five games, respectively. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Raptors were without Kyle Lowry (sprained left thumb) and Jalen Harris (Two-Way G-League assignment). Nick Nurse started Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, DeAndre’ Bembry, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam.
Simmons was tasked with defending Fred VanVleet on one possession and OG Anunoby on the following possession early in this game. Those rapid changes in assignment should tip you off that the Sixers’ staff want him ‘roaming’ defensively. We’ve seen that from time to time during the first half of this season. Against a team like the Wizards, where there’s one focal point of the offense, it can be a very frustrating defensive strategy if the game is closer than what seems necessary. But, against a team like the Raptors, who have big, athletic, versatile players, that ‘roaming’ strategy has merit. If Simmons is constantly defending a different player, no one can get too comfortable within the offense. It effectively makes it much more difficult to establish rhythm if there’s no adapting to what the defense is showing.
Blowing early leads has become a bit of a trend for the Sixers as of late. They held a 14-point advantage in the first quarter of this game, but found themselves trailing by 6 in the second quarter. It is not a coincidence that the Raptors seized control once Simmons took his first rest. But, part of why the Sixers’ offense stagnated so significantly was that the Raptors went to a zone defense. The zone made the Sixers uncomfortable, and the offense was reduced to Harris taking a barrage of triples. While there’s no issue to be had with that, Harris missed all six of his attempts. So, the Sixers were effectively getting nothing out of the offense.
“Everyone earns their minutes. It’s always a fair competition.”
Rivers inserted Isaiah Joe in for the minutes that typically belong to Furkan Korkmaz. That decision may mark the end of Korkmaz’s time in the rotation. I can’t say that the change doesn’t make sense, as Korkmaz is giving nothing on offense. When his jumper isn’t falling, his defense is nowhere near good enough to warrant playing time. Rivers did give him some tick, but it appeared out of necessity, as Thybulle had picked up his third foul in five minutes.
Rivers discussed the rotational change after the game. “Just a look,” Rivers said. “Everyone earns their minutes. It’s always a fair competition. So, right now, we’re going with Isaiah.”
As has become common, order was restored once Simmons and Embiid returned to the court. All in all, even with the Sixers converting just 40 percent of their field goal attempts, they led by three points at halftime. That’s a promising indicator of how the game will go should shots begin to find the basket in the second half.
The Raptors very clearly wanted to make Embiid depend on his teammates to win this game. They were double-teaming and triple-teaming him on the catch at every opportunity. But, Embiid handled the pressure with incredible composure, locating teammates swiftly and trusting them to make plays. That trust paid off, as the Sixers connected on six triples in the third quarter and built their lead back to fourteen points.
This game was one of those rare occasions in which the distribution of scoring was quite even amongst Simmons and Embiid. They combined for 53 points in the game. A lot of Simmons’ production was a result of pace stemming from misses and turnovers on Toronto’s side of the court. Embiid wasn’t canning his usual assortment of jumpers. But, he was bruising the Raptors down low and getting to the free throw line.
“After he made the second one, we could’ve gotten out to him a little bit faster.”
There seemed to be a willingness to allow Chris Boucher, a better-than 40 percent three-point shooter, to step into rhythm jumpers from deep. If he makes one or two of the open ones, it’s acceptable because something ultimately has to give. But, the Sixers failed to adjust and allowed him to make five open triples. That is not something that can be tolerated and rightfully leads to questions about defensive focus and strategy.
Tobias Harris seemed to feel the Sixers could’ve reacted more appropriately to Boucher’s outburst. “After he made the second one, we could’ve gotten out to him a little bit faster,” Harris said after the loss. “Just being a little bit more aware that he had it going. He’s been shooting well all year. So, that’s on us as a team. But, their second unit and those guys, they really lifted them up out there tonight. They were able to get out in transition and make threes. So, when we look, like you just said, that third quarter was a huge part of where the game shifted.”
“As soon as I crossed half-court, they sent two-three guys on me.”
The Raptors did an incredible job of countering Embiid’s attack by remaining handsy in the post. Toronto’s length disrupted Embiid. That made it difficult for him to put the ball on the floor and smothering him under the basket. The inability to get anything going zapped his confidence in the guts of the game. That was really all that the Raptors needed. With their typical workhorse struggling to make anything happen, the Sixers went nearly eight minutes without a field goal in the fourth quarter. Against a feisty, talented team like the Raptors, that was enough to change the trajectory of this contest.
Embiid commended the Raptors’ defensive strategy. “As soon as I crossed half-court, they sent two-three guys on me,” Embiid said. “The whole night, I made the right play. I shared the ball and passed it to my teammates. We could have made more shots, a lot of shots went in and out. There’s a lot of shots that I’ll be making all season that I just missed. So, we just gotta do a better job next time.”
If you’re looking for a silver lining in this loss, Ben Simmons was magnificent throughout this game. He scored 28 points to go along with 9 rebounds and 5 assists in his return. Most impressive of all in the box score were the singular turnover and the fourteen free throw attempts (ten of which were made). His aggressiveness picked up where it left off in the Utah game. He appeared hell-bent on getting to the rim regardless of contact. The team’s long-term outlook is just fine with this version of Simmons.
The Sixers (20-11) will play the Raptors (16-15) in Tampa again on Tuesday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM. You can catch it on NBC Sports Philadelphia.