The Sixers went to Toronto with a golden opportunity. If they had won and the Boston Celtics lost, they’d have snagged the chance to move up to third place in the standings. A date with the Chicago Bulls (a possible six seed) doesn’t appear nearly as daunting of a first-round matchup than this versatile and dangerous Raptors (likely a five seed) team does. Their loss positions them for the tougher road.
Not to mention the Sixers would likely be shorthanded if they went to Canada because of Matisse Thybulle’s vaccination status.
But debating the Sixers’ path to the Finals may be a bit presumptuous given some of the current challenges. They allowed 119 points to a team that didn’t even have Fred VanVleet or OG Anunoby. Most likely Pascal Siakam won’t erupt for a 37-point triple-double every night. Precious Achiuwa probably won’t scorch the earth and nail 5 of 7 from distance next game, and if the game were played in Philly maybe Matisse Thybulle could have put the clamps on Gary Trent Jr., who dropped 30 himself.
James Harden finished with 13 points and 15 dimes shooting just 3 of 12 from the floor. His playmaking was solid, but his scoring was lacking. The troubling lack of burst that he displayed to begin this season has only gotten worse over the last handful of weeks. Maybe he needed another two weeks off before the playoffs, that seemed to help for a period following the trade. Who knows....
Despite all of the woes on the defensive end of the court, reporters questioned The Beard about the team’s offense. And the three-time scoring champ’s response was intriguing.
James Harden mentioned the Sixers' spacing multiple times during his postgame press conference. Said it was the biggest problem with the team's offense in the fourth quarter.— Yaron Weitzman (@YaronWeitzman) April 8, 2022
"We talk about it—we gotta work on it. We gotta go out there and do it."
Full quotes below: pic.twitter.com/LgWpNHeI80
Harden focused on spacing, something that wasn’t always there for him in Brooklyn either, when flanked by combinations of DeAndre’ Bembry and Bruce Brown for much of his stint there.
“I think it’s our spacing... I think our spacing helps us with not turning the basketball over and getting quality shots, possession by possession, that’s very very important in the postseason.”
Continued on the theme:
“I’m saying myself and Joel, so him posting up, he has the ball on the elbow, making sure everybody on the floor, whether you’re in the game at that moment or the entire team, knows where to be. When I have the ball on the wing or the top of the floor making sure everybody knows where to be.”
Indeed, the Sixers played well enough offensively to win the game. But the turnovers (they had 16) and offensive rebounds (they allowed 12) were probably the difference. Those do not seem like categories this team is likely to win in a potential first-round matchup vs. Toronto either. So Harden is right, the Sixers need to improve their spacing.
And some of that is simply knowing where to stand and being willing to stand there when he and Joel Embiid go to work.
The spacing wasn’t all bad on Thursday. Before the Raptors hunkered down, the Sixers rattled off a 17-0 run to begin the game. Here, their spacing was on point and it let Embiid cook:
The Sixers shot the ball really, really well from distance themselves. They’re not likely to get 16 triples out of Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Georges Niang, and Shake Milton the next time they meet. It’s a big let down they couldn’t get a win with that precision bombing by several role players.
But there was also plenty of clunky “wait, why are you both here?” offense in that second half as well. And it underscores the impact a major trade can have on a team. There isn’t a lot of time to learn to develop cohesion.
Thybulle, when available, tends to do a lot of what Brett Brown used to call playing “peek-a-boo,” where he may cut, he may settle into the dunker spot and look for dump offs or offensive rebounds. So Danny Green may have been instructed to do some of that, filling in for Matisse.
But it led to multiple possessions where the Sixers just looked out of sorts:
Keep an eye out in these possessions above for Green to do his patented “Green cut” where he slowly changes from baseline to baseline, giving the defense a chance to forget about him. But last night both he and Shake Milton, or he and Tobias Harris would too frequently settle into some sort of long-two-no-man’s-land. Are they spotting up for 12 foot baseline jumpers on both sides of the rim? Are they both in some ineffective dunker-spot-extended? Why aren’t they each in a corner giving Embiid a clean kick out?
Did the Raptors defense confuse them? They look like they’re slot receivers settling into a pair of four-yard curl routs on a 3rd-and-12 and the defense is just begging someone to throw them the ball.
Also, how come when Harden and Embiid play two-man game, there’s sometimes two spot-up shooters close in the same corner? Should Milton be setting a hard hammer screen for Niang or replacing someone else? Rewatch the clip above and focus on the guys without the ball. That’s probably at least some of what frustrated Harden.
There’s another play in that clip where Green cuts baseline and Harden spots up in the corner. But after a swing-swing the ball finds Harden who doesn’t want to take the three and settles for a floater. If Danny is the only one of the two of them who would shoot on the kick out then Harden should have been the one to cut, right?
It reminds me a bit of the “right guy, wrong responsibility” offense the team was playing at this point last season. Spot-up shooters run pick-and-rolls, ball handlers playing off the ball, etc.
So the Sixers, like Harden says, can iron out these wrinkles. For example, if they’re back here for the playoffs, Green should do more corner spot up (the dude drilled six threes, and could have probably gotten up another three wide-open ones) and less peek-a-boo dunker spot midrange meandering.
If they want someone to do that, it should probably be a more reluctant shooter like Tobias Harris, for example.
But the biggest problem of all, goes beyond the rest of the regular season. It goes beyond the upcoming playoffs, which seem destined to be very very disappointing. It leaves the Sixers with a whopper of a conundrum on James Harden’s next contract. Because he’s having much more trouble as a scorer and finisher than they likely bargained for.
The Sixers play the Indiana Pacers again. And it’s going to be another creepy reminder of potential opportunity cost in their Ben Simmons blockbuster when they get another close look at Tyrese Halliburton. They probably thought long and hard about trading for him, and like most of us, simply preferred Harden.
Hopefully Harden’s hamstrings are why he’s having this much trouble as a play finisher:
If it’s the hammy’s slowing him down that might imply better things to come after a full offseason working with Team VP of Athletic Care Simon Rice. Maybe like Chris Paul he can shake it with a plant-based diet. Perhaps a coaching change and some free-agent pick ups for more willing shooters would enhance the spacing too.
With Joel Embiid’s MVP on the line, with the Sixers likely falling down to the four seed for the playoffs, it’s hard not to look back at some of their big spotlight test games. How would the standings look, how would the MVP race look, if the Sixers won a couple big-test home games that they lost.
The Raptors trailed by as many as 15 tonight before coming back to beat the 76ers, 119-114, behind Pascal Siakam's 37-point triple-double.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 8, 2022
For Philadelphia, it's their 7th loss this season after leading by 15+ points, 2nd only to the Knicks (8) for most in the NBA. pic.twitter.com/2j5iXPtH8g
In too many of the the Sixers’ biggest test games recently, they’ve not gotten Embiid enough help. Much of it is tactical. It was a pleasant surprise to see Doc Rivers give Paul Reed a shot vs. the Raptors Thursday. He benched DeAndre Jordan vs. the Milwaukee Bucks and the Raptors suggesting on some level this coaching staff knows DJ isn’t the answer in must-win games vs. top teams; which makes how much Jordan we’ve seen lately all the more maddening. Why not rehearse for the scenarios that matter?
There’s still low hanging fruit all over the place for this team.
Reading how many of the intuitive rotational experiments (like playing Matisse Thybulle and Danny Green at the same time to bolster a defense that gets nuked every time Embiid sits) have yet to be tried is very weird. Cookies Hoops’ Ben Detrick pinpointed several things the team should try in that post above, with fun art too.
The Sixers can take James Harden’s advice and touch up their offensive issues. But then there’s still the defense, and Harden’s scoring woes that may prove trickier fixes. Two games to go, not a ton of time to build chemistry.