Game one didn’t go as planned and the Sixers got beat badly. Game two was a dramatic turnaround and they made key adjustments and won, especially defensively. The outcome of each game implies they may have played really well in one and not in the other but life is never that simple, right? They did some things better offensively in game one than they did in game 2. They did some things worse in game 2 but still got the win. All that matters now is improving upon what they did and being prepared for the well-coached Raptors to counter.
Here are four pieces of low-hanging fruit to incorporate for game 3.
1) The Sixers need more paint touches that lead to clean passes
I’m not sure how reliable this type of data from NBA.com is but here are the “paint touch totals” over the Sixers’ last two games in Canada:
Sometimes the Sixers motion offense would generate lots of passes but none of them seemed to gain an advantage when the ball doesn’t touch the paint:
Even if we know for certain that say Butler has gotten more than 5 paint touches this series, as it states above, the reason I looked this stat up was because the film suggests the Sixers aren’t getting nearly enough paint touches. Too many possessions they’ll iso from up top or run motion or a pick-n-roll and settle for a tough shot without ever once getting the ball into the paint.
This is especially bad against Toronto because they’re one of the most reactive defenses in the NBA. If you get the ball into their paint, they’ll often swarm the ball and leave wide open shooters.
The Raptors are sagging so much defensively it feels like there are many plays every Raptor has a foot in the paint! Before you remind me that the Sixers often have poor spacing because of their personnel, it’s not so simple. The video below shows that there are in fact moments where they are creating open opportunities but either not seeing them, not finishing, or turning it over. The Sixers’ awareness and execution offensively has been very poor. That’s the bad news. The good news is that’s often the type of thing that improves when you play in your own gym.
Check out some of the right ideas but missed opportunities here:
2) Moving in tight spaces
Because the Raptors pack the paint so tightly, the Sixers stars are tempted sometimes to try and split it for dunks and kick outs. But it hasn’t always gone according to plan. Their execution in tight spaces can be a lot better. Watch as both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid bungle their footwork and get called for steps:
Now turnovers like these are tempting to throw your hands up and say “just don’t be a doofus next time” or blame the refs for inconsistency. That’s fair.
But there is an opportunity here. Long gone are the days when LeBron James was being called for traveling and defending himself by saying it’s a legal “crab dribble” (essentially the travel that Simmons was called for in that clip above).
The NBA decided a few years ago to try to add some clarity to the traveling rules with the gather provision.
In doing so they opened up a bit of a loophole for masters to exploit and essentially gain an extra step. Guys with long-strides and dazzling euro-steps (like Simmons and Embiid) can both utilize this more than they do.
Players like James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo are masters at splitting a double by hopping off one foot, and then making absolutely certain they first land with the opposite foot, and then take yet another step after that.
Watch Giannis at the 1:03 mark of this video. He hops off the left foot as he gathers the ball to split the double, ensures he lands on the right, then changes directions one more time and dunks off his left. The Sixers athletic stars are leaving points on the table not using this one more:
3) Marc Gasol is no Al Horford defensively
Embiid was able to utilize his edge in quickness on one of the biggest plays of the game. Marc Gasol isn’t what he once was and getting him out deep and matched up onto quicker players can be relied upon more when the series arrives in Philadelphia. He isn’t infallible despite the track record against Joel. It seemed like there were moments when Joel realized his speed was a bigger advantage than his power.
Mike O’Connor of the Athletic called targeting Gasol in the pick-n-roll one of the few bright spots from game 1, and it could have been utilized more still in game 2.
4) Harris in the corner
One of the Raps favorite things to do is help off of a corner spot up player. It may sound counter intuitive since teams work so hard to protect against corner 3s, but they’re offering it provided you make a very difficult pass. The Sixers haven’t tried it much, but it might be worth exploring because Harris is too good of a shooter to be given this much space on a shorter-distance triple. It might be a good way to create some more easy looks for him. Ben here sets the back pick for him but Kawhi Leonard never really seems to worry about it:
Hopefully the Sixers can hammer these points a bit in game 3.