The Philadelphia 76ers fell in a hard fought game to the Toronto Raptors (that’s a familiar sentence) and it is concerning that they’ve lost every close game recently, especially against the other top teams in the league. More concerning is the fact that this is very likely a preview of their first round playoff matchup, and the Raptors really seem to have their number.
An Inevitable Clash
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press vis AP
The Sixers currently sit in the fourth seed in the East, and the Raptors sit in the fifth, matching them up in the first round. The Chicago Bulls would need a miracle to catch the Raptors for the fourth seed, so that’s simply not going to happen, so the Raptors are locked in. The Sixers could get as high as the second seed (although that has issues of its own) but it’s not terribly likely either. Not nearly impossible however, but this loss to the Raptors hurts. For the Sixers to have any chance to improve, they need to win out which isn’t impossible against the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic. They lose the tiebreakers against the Milwaukee Bucks (head-to-head record) and the Boston Celtics (division record) so tying is not an option.
The Bucks would need to lose both of their next games against the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers for the Sixers to have a chance, and that’s not going to happen, so let’s take a look at the Boston Celtics. They have what should be a tough game against the Memphis Grizzlies, currently the second best team in basketball by record. The problem is the Grizzlies are solidly locked into the second seed, being eight games behind the Phoenix Suns for the first seed, and 4.5 games ahead of the third seed Golden State Warriors. Their team is quite young, so many of the starters probably will play (not including Ja Morant who is dealing with injury), but how much they’ll play is anyone’s guess, except it’ll almost definitely be below 30 minutes meaning it will be a tough ask for them to beat a full strength Celtics team. So, barring some pretty crucial chokes, the Sixers will be meeting up with the Raptors for the first round.
A Preview of the Away Games
Due to the recent, very disappointing news that Matisse Thybulle is not fully vaccinated, unless he gets jabbed pretty much right now he will not be allowed in Canada and there aren’t any current indications that Thybulle is going to change his mind. Maybe with the Sixers and Raptors all but locked in now that will change, but based on current information he won’t be available for two games guaranteed. That means this was the full strength Sixers in Toronto, making it a pretty worthy preview of those games.
Danny Green is the Thybulle replacement, and honestly given what happened on Thursday, it might equal out offensively and defensively. That’s only if Green is as hot as he was though, and he was on fire against Toronto. He was 6-7 from three, including a four-point play and scored 18 points. That’s more than any game Thybulle has played in this season. In terms of spacing, it didn’t really look like the Raptors were doing any less to clog the paint against Joel Embiid and James Harden, which makes it imperative that Green makes them pay for leaving him wide open. He absolutely did that, and Thybulle will be much worse at doing the same thing. In that way, Green is a major plus over Thybulle, and even if Thybulle is available it’s for this very reason Green might be the better choice anyways. Him, or Georges Niang, who is often the guy who runs with the starters when the Sixers need to catch up. Then again, Danny Green is also not going to shoot 6-7 every night, no matter how wide open, and there were defensive deficiencies with him on the court.
Defensively, they didn’t necessarily hunt Danny Green, but in the second half especially his man was scoring on him quite a bit. To be fair to Green, Pascal Siakam was the main driver of the Raptors’ success and it’s unlikely Thybulle would help much there. On the other hand, Gary Trent Jr. also went off, and that would be the most likely matchup for Thybulle. Thybulle defending him instead of Green could’ve been a major difference maker. Additionally, Fred Van Vleet didn’t play, and he’s another guy that Thybulle could be tasked to defend, as he specializes in smaller wings and guards.
All things considered, it sort of ends in a wash. If Danny Green can shoot that well, he’ll definitely be the better option as the Sixers need to punish double teams and stacking the paint against Joel Embiid. Shooting 6-7 is no easy task though, and if it’s much worse than that, then the defensive help Thybulle can bring against the Raptors second and third best offensive threats will be incredibly valuable.
Triples over Doubles?
Moving on to some other notes from this game that could preview a future Raptors-Sixers series, is the staggering of the Philly “Big Four” in terms of scoring threats. While most of the time coach Doc Rivers has been running them in twos, this game he was often using them in threes. Whether that’s because Thybulle was out or not, it’s an interesting deviation this late in the season. The right combination still doesn’t seem to be found yet, but a hierarchy needs to start forming. At the bottom of the totem pole should be Tobias Harris, who needs to be taking the least shots and a significant portion of those shots need to be threes. So far, that’s pretty much played out unless he gets really hot, and then it’s fine to feed him. Embiid will obviously take the most.
The distribution between Maxey and Harden remains the sticking point. Maxey, who has arguably been the better pure scorer during Harden’s tenure overall, too often gets lost in the shuffle. He is playing too well to not be taking more shots than he is, and games like this where he is hot and Harden isn’t, he needs to be the second option. Obviously Harden helps Maxey get open, as Maxey’s three point percentage has skyrocketed with Harden on the team, and Harden still had 15 assists despite shooting poorly against the Raptors, but Harden still took more shots than Maxey despite going 3/12 and Maxey going 7/11. That needs to change. In fact, when Maxey is playing this well, even when he shares the floor with Joel he should be a bigger part of the offense. Instead, he gets near completely phased out, especially in crunch time. If Rivers still sticks with the trios, Maxey and Embiid should not play together, as too often Embiid just dominates touches.
Causes for Concern
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press vis AP
Finally, there are a few more things here or there that should concern the Sixers and their fans. Harden’s patented step-back has been ice cold recently, and he even air-balled the last one he took against the Raptors. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and Harden shouldn’t lose what makes him successful, but the scoring output has left much to be desired recently. Maybe he rounds back into form come playoff time, but banking on that isn’t a winning proposition. That’s why Maxey needs to be a bigger part of this offense, with Harden continuing his elite playmaking. Fifteen assists is fantastic, and he was hitting wide open shooters all night, as evidenced by the Sixers insane three-point percentage as a team. He needs to keep the facilitating, but maybe cut down on the attempts when Maxey is shooting well and Harden clearly isn’t.
Beyond that there are two issues that unfortunately have plagued the Sixers in these types of games all year and are unlikely to fix themselves come playoff time. They’ll just have to live with them, and hope it doesn’t bite them too hard. Turnovers are continually an issue in these games that come down to the wire. Embiid at times falls way too in love with his ball-handling, and will throw the ball away or get stripped a lot when he starts forcing things. The Sixers also have some questionable hands, they don’t seem particularly adept at securing the ball in the air and that also leads to some baffling turnovers. Harden, due to his immense usage, is also good for a few TOs a game, but if he has a 15:3 AST:TO you can’t complain about that at all. He’s the only truly competent dribbler on the team, and anyone else putting the ball on the floor is liable to lose it. Embiid isn’t going to abandon his hero ball proclivities at this point, and the rest of the players aren’t going to suddenly get way better at dribbling, so it is what it is.
Secondly, the defensive rebounding of this team is bad at times, atrocious at others. Embiid is a fine rebounder, but considering his size it’s hard to say he’s outstanding at it. Not only that, with how often the Sixers funnel drivers into him and he has to continually contest every shot, he’s simply not in position to rebound the ball, and that’s not his fault. Playing with two undersized fours for the most part in Tobias Harris and Georges Niang also doesn’t help that area. Look no further than the dagger play against the Raptors, where Siakam beat Harris off the dribble, forced both Harris and Embiid into the air on his first attempt and then was able to hit the ground and jump again to rebound his own miss before hitting an and-one to seal the game.
One factor that may help is more playing time for Paul Reed. He’s incredibly high energy and more willing to crash the boards compared to pretty much any other Sixer, and while he’s undersized for a true center he’s still the second tallest guy on the team right now. The problem with Reed though, is that while it somewhat solves the rebounding issue, he doesn’t help beyond that. His struggles seem mostly mental, getting caught out of position on both ends of the floor, and will make bone-headed plays that coaches can’t stand. He did great to grab a steal on defense, then for some reason tried to push the pace himself which resulted in immediately dribbling the ball off an opponent’s leg which ended in a wide open three for the Raptors. He doesn’t add much more than a lob or put-back threat on offense either, which to be fair is about the equal of DeAndre Jordan, but even then he seems to get involved too little. He’s truly a double-edged sword, but he’s young enough that maybe those issues can get ironed out quickly. It’s pretty clear that Jordan is not the answer, but as of right now Reed doesn’t seem to be much better. Game +/- is often the most useless stat, but it’s certainly not a good sign that he was -13 in ten minutes of play.
A Troubling Preview
Luckily, the Sixers will have home court advantage over the Raptors at least, so they’ll only have to deal without having Thybulle for at most three games. That being said, this was not an encouraging preview, as the Raptors were without two starters and still won, and the two things the Sixers struggle with the most (rebounding and turnovers) the Raptors’ length makes them elite at, ranking second in both offensive rebounds and steals as a team. The 76ers’ can still win obviously, as the Raptors don’t have anyone that can truly matchup against Embiid, but this was probably the second worst matchup they could’ve gotten, next to the Brooklyn Nets. Heck, this might be worse in terms of how the teams play. It’s not all doom and gloom though, considering that if the Sixers get past the Raptors they’ll be on the better side of the bracket. The 1,4,5,8 side should avoid the Celtics, Bucks and Nets until one of them emerges into the Eastern Conference Finals (assuming the Sixers make it there too of course), and based on the teams at full strength those three are scarier than the Miami Heat. First things first though, is beating the Raptors, and based off this preview it is not going to be easy.