After Philadelphia got handily trounced in game one of the Eastern Conference Semi’s even the few optimists left seemed to wilt a bit. But they may have underestimated Sixers’ Head Coach Brett Brown’s ability to make adjustments, Joel Embiid’s health, Jimmy Butler’s clutch DNA, Ben Simmons’ defense, JJ Redick’s defense, Tobias Harris’ resolve and the team’s bench depth. But now the Sixers will have to tackle a problem that has plagued them regardless of their opponent: turnovers.
Standing in the way of a 3-1 series lead for the Sixers now is a home victory this Sunday where they will need to limit their turnovers. But doing that has often proven a bit too much for this team. If the Sixers lose game four they’ll probably lose the series... and it will probably be because they hemorrhaged turnovers tomorrow. That can’t happen. How have they fared so far?
In game one the Sixers had 16 turnovers to the Raps’ 10.
In game 2 the Sixers had 20 turnovers to the Raps’ 13.
In game 3, the Sixers had 13 and the Raptors had 9 (including zero non-garbage time 4th quarter giveaways for Philadelphia).
The Raptors are highly adept at capitalizing off of these mishaps.
Turnovers forced isn’t something we typically measure in a box score for defenders but maybe it should be because:
A) forcing a turnover keeps an opponent from getting a shot up. If a team averages around 1.09 points per possession (like the Sixers and Raptors do) you’re saving about that much on average at a minimum. But there are other benefits.
B) Some turnovers (like a drawn charge or well-timed flop might lead to an offensive foul which can send a key starter to the bench for a long time and get them closer to the free throw penalty so the next foul leads directly to shots. Sometimes they also lead to technicals when guys get frustrated.
C) Turnovers are often of the live-ball variety and those transition opportunities present exciting fast-breaks and high-efficiency, high-octane offense which can ignite a home crowd or silence a road one.
Because these plays can drastically alter a game’s momentum, I watched each turnover the Sixers had this series to see if there were ways to avoid a few for game four.
Here is a video of how a bunch have looked this series. I picked a few from each of the starters and I assigned evil turnover-demon nicknames for each player’s turnover alter-ego so it’s less painful to watch:
Here are my big picture takeaways:
1) Pascal Siakam and Danny Green are a problem
Siakam is a nightmare in the passing lanes. Danny Green is the absolute close-out master. They both have great feet, hips, length and impeccable timing. Lots of turnovers come off these two baiting the Sixers into thinking they have a passing lane or an open shot. They utilize the rarely discussed “no-look defense” where they pretend to cover someone else or fake a rotation and then dart back to the ball. It’s not nearly as heralded or practiced as much as the no-look pass but it’s often worth points saved.
2) Lowry is a pitbull, a ballerina, and Denzel Washington rolled up in one
Kyle Lowry is taking his lumps in the media for his lack of offense and much of it is fair, but he’s also balling on D. Lowry gets up into your chest and plays physically. He has a really rare combination of sweet feet and sturdy lower body, plus core strength. He can mirror you 30 feet away, or surprise you with his power in the post. He stays in your chest and makes you very uncomfortable. Tobias Harris has not been able to take much advantage of his size over him and Harris has really struggled to take him off the dribble.
When Lowry pushes you, he’s sneaky and gets away with it. If you push him back he channels his inner actor and like Daniel Day Lewis or Denzel he can deliver a best-actor worthy performance and fling himself backwards to draw offensive fouls or even fines. He’ll need the offense too though because the next three games of this series could define (or salvage) his legacy. His desperation makes him scary.
3) Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol are like Pete Sampras
Of course these two cause turnovers also but they do so less aggressively than some of their counterparts. Their style is a bit different. They play a less aggressive version of defense (think tennis legend Pete Sampras who’d simply return your ball almost blandly ad nauseum until you made a mistake). Well coached, they simply stay in front of you and force a hard pass or tightly contested shot. Sometimes they surprise you by keeping up with your quickest move and you just bounce the ball harmlessly off your foot out of bounds or travel. They’re not the speediest but they’re just speedy enough and both very powerful with elite timing. They’ve forced a fair amount of turnovers this series.
4) The Sixers turn the ball over routinely when they try soft lobs into the paint.
Sometimes Philadelphia underestimates Marc Gasol or Pascal Siakam’s reach and ability to recover from helping off someone else. Siakam especially has been living off of baiting the Sixers to throw lobs (like off their horns action sets) then gobbling them up. Lollipops that have worked for most of the year work a lot less against this rangy team. The Sixers usually enjoy a big size mismatch but not this series. Consider this image detailing height by minutes played courtesy of our own Andrew Patton:
They’re big but quick too.
5) Way too many turnovers are not even forced
Here is the lowest hanging fruit we’re looking for. Of course it would be nice if the Sixers could correctly read a defense and avoid lobbing a ball to a weak-side help defender. But that’s probably harder to avoid than the turnovers of the unforced variety. These are often mental lapses and sometimes simply random mistakes.
One problem Philadelphia has had this series is passing the ball too hard from close-range or bobbling the catch. The team steps out of bounds too much in the corners or gets stripped. Perhaps Eagles’ stud tight end Zach Ertz can remind the guys (Embiid or JJ Redick especially) that looking the ball in and catching it is the most important thing and worry about
breaking tackles dribbling or shooting later.
6) Traveling: the Sixers are getting called for lots of walks
Some of these traveling calls are from the post and some from spot ups or jump stops. It’s frustrating because a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo occasionally gets away with what feels like 5 steps. But the Sixers need to be reminded when posting or spotting up and driving: to make absolutely certain they bounce the ball before their pivot foot leaves the floor. And also to stagger the foot they land with on jump stops. The league is happy to give top tier players a third step so long as they go: right-left-right, or left-right-left. They’ll whistle you if you hop off the right to split a double and then land on the right. For whatever reason the officials are looking to call the types of walks they often let go in this series. Philadelphia needs to adapt.
7) Plenty of the turnovers are coming because players are not seeing the simple open pass
Predetermining to shoot is something everyone from Jimmy Butler to Embiid to Harris on down to James Ennis or Jonah Bolden has been guilty of. There is often a wide open swing pass for them because help has come to force the turnover and they walk into the trap hellbent on shooting and miss the open man and cough it up.
Keeping turnovers and the points allowed off turnovers to a minimum could be the difference between a commanding 3-1 lead or relinquishing home court back to a very dangerous club. Exorcising a demon that has plagued the Sixers for two years now might just be the key tomorrow. They need to keep the unforced turnovers to a minimum at the very least because more often than not, the Raptors are running the other way for buckets when you make a mistake.