After taking a 3-0 series lead over the Raptors, and having two opportunities to secure a sweep and some valuable extra rest ahead of the second round of the playoffs, the Sixers have stumbled through the last two games. What felt like a comfortable series is now far more tense at 3-2. And while the Sixers may well finish off the Raptors in Game 6, their performance in two straight losses has been seriously disappointing to say the least.
From some breakdowns on defense and Joel Embiid playing one of the worst defensive games you’ll see from him, to a whole array of offensive issues, the Sixers had problems at both ends of the floor in Monday’s 103-88 Game 5 loss.
“I just thought they were the tougher team all night, they were more physical all night,” Doc Rivers said after Game 5. “I don’t think it was the second quarter. I thought it was throughout the game. I thought they attacked us, we didn’t attack back. We didn’t get in the paint enough and it led to shots. I thought we took a lot of tough shots tonight.”
The Sixers’ offense was useless. They shot just 38.3 percent overall and 10-of-37 from three, with 15 (sometimes completely careless) turnovers, giving the Raptors more of the transition opportunities they thrive off, allowing 24 fast-break points. With Embiid having a quiet 20-point game, Tyrese Maxey having another cooler scoring night with 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting, and James Harden lacking in aggressiveness and downhill burst for only 15 points on 4-of-11 shooting, the Sixers’ offense stumbled along.
Fred VanVleet’s absence due to a hip injury has led to the Raptors fully leaning into just how massive and switchable they can be. The 6-foot-5 Gary Trent Jr. is their new smallest starter, surrounded by the rangy wingspans of 6-foot-9 forwards who can switch everything, contest Harden’s drives and more ground-bound attempts at the rim, and fly out to three-point shooters even better than before. It’s thrown off the Sixers, and they haven’t adjusted their approach accordingly.
So, what needs to change?
Embiid is fighting on despite having a torn ligament in his right thumb that will require surgery in the offseason. Understandably, he hasn’t been as comfortable being physical and creating in the same way offensively.
“I think where I’m really affected is I’m in a situation where I try to protect it,” Embiid explained following Game 5. “So before I even attack or if I get the ball, it’s almost like I’m not playing freely where I’m like, ‘Well, if I do this I might get hit or I might get hurt.’ So mentally, I’ve just got to get out of that and I guess hope for the best. And just be myself and not think about which move could put me in a bad position to get hit or get hurt even more. So I’ll work on it.”
If Embiid isn’t playing in the more assertive, interior style that was overwhelming the Raptors’ lack of size at center to start the series, that alters the Sixers’ whole offense. If he isn’t dominating matchups against smaller defenders (albeit multiple defenders at once), using his strength advantage, getting to the free throw line a ton, and crashing the offensive glass as he can in this matchup, the Sixers simply won’t be the same team.
One way Embiid found more success early in Game 5 was by getting easier finishes from duck-ins by the basket. Consistently trying to find more of those opportunities — both by establishing better positioning and ideally getting more stops defensively to set up chances for him to run out in transition — would help somewhat.
Beyond that, more pick-and-rolls could help get Embiid moving downhill. The Sixers hardly used Harden-Embiid pick-and-rolls in Game 5. It is trickier when the Raptors are switching with larger lineups, but even if the action doesn’t generate a good drive for Harden or a clear dive/lob down the lane, Embiid can still set up inside, seal his man, and wait for an entry pass. From there, if a double comes and can’t be beaten, the ball can be swung and others have to attack Toronto’s rotating defenders accordingly.
Due to his injury, setting up Embiid with any more duck-ins and pick-and-rolls could be easier for him than handling the ball as much from the perimeter. Simply put, though, the Sixers just need Embiid to be as aggressive as possible. He won’t be at his best while injured, but if he can find the mindset he wants, he can likely manage a better approach than what we saw on Monday.
If he does bring it, that will be more important than anything else in getting the Sixers’ offense back on track.
James Harden has to change, too. Well, at least as best as he can.
How much a full offseason to work on his body and hamstring could help remains to be seen. But for now he simply doesn’t have the burst or elevation to beat guys off the dribble and score like the Sixers need him to. Nevertheless, there were still times in Game 5 when he passed up opportunities where he could have tried to drive or shoot from outside, or made careless passes. Lacking speed can’t be accompanied by passivity.
The Raptors badly dominated the battle of the paint on Monday, outscoring the Sixers in that area 56-36. Correcting that is something Doc Rivers and players emphasized afterwards.
“Give Toronto credit,” Rivers said when asked about Maxey and Harden’s off scoring nights. “I thought they defended both guys pretty well. We’ve got to get James going downhill in some more actions that he likes, and more comfortable. I just keep saying with Tyrese, we’ve just got to get the ball in his hands more. We just do. I said it all game. I thought in the third quarter we had a rebound, we finally threw it to him in transition, and he got down the floor. He’s just not getting the ball in transition enough, and that’s on us. We have to do it.”
Apart from Embiid and Harden doing more to get into the paint, there are a few other adjustments the Sixers could try to get to the rim more and help their offense in general.
This includes schematic changes from Rivers. After using more of the Harden-Maxey duo earlier in the series and leaning heavily on their small pick-and-roll action to lead the offense without Embiid, the Sixers have gone away from that over the last couple of games. It was highly effective to open the series. And while VanVleet’s absence means there isn’t a smaller, hobbled player to drive at, using Maxey’s speed against larger defenders before they can switch or recover could still be a helpful way to lift the offense, especially when Embiid’s off the floor.
The Sixers have started using more James Harden-Tyrese Maxey pick-and-rolls against the Raptors, and it's working well in a few different ways.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) April 20, 2022
Here's a quick breakdown of a few examples ( sound on): pic.twitter.com/yYrKBmW0UE
Giving Maxey more control of the ball in general could help. If Harden is going to have a tough time getting into the paint and finishing, let Maxey give the offense some extra juice. He hasn’t been as efficient the last three games, but his speed and dynamic finishing is still something that gives the Raptors problems. At the very least, Maxey has a better chance of getting to the rim out of dribble hand-offs and pick-and-rolls than Harden does at the moment.
Then, when extra help comes, Maxey has to be ready to make the right simple passes to keep the ball moving.
“They’re helping extremely hard, so when I do get in the lane, I’ve got to kick it out and trust,” Maxey said after Game 5. “Tobias told me one time when I got into the paint, ‘They’re collapsing so hard that everybody’s open on the outside.’ So, just got to be able to get into the paint and create for others. And then put the ball back on the floor [off of] closeouts.”
If Rivers wants Maxey to have more control, he as the coach needs to help implement that into the offense.
Tobias Harris, who’s probably been the Sixers’ most consistent player this series at both ends (even after an off shooting night on Monday), was fair to highlight the team’s lack of intensity.
“I just think overall, execution-wise with our game plan, it wasn’t to the best of our ability defensively,” Harris said. “We never brought the fight to them in the beginning of the game, really. Didn’t match their physicality. From there, we were playing catch-up the whole game. But really, I didn’t think we did a good enough job of stopping them, and being able to get enough stops to gain momentum on the offensive end. We didn’t do a good enough job scoring the basketball, but we didn’t help ourselves in being able to get in transition well by getting some stops.”
The Sixers’ approach to Game 6 essentially needs to be the opposite of what we saw on Monday. Their energy and physicality at both ends needs to be ramped up immediately. Without that and some of the offensive changes mentioned above, this series could take another turn for the worse in Game 6.
The Sixers looked like the clear-cut best team in Games 1 and 2. It’s time to prove again what they’re capable of.