Pair Tobias Harris three, big defensive stands key Sixers to Raptors victory in overtime: likes and dislikes
The Sixers (16-12) hosted the Toronto Raptors (13-17) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to win its fifth game in a row. Toronto wanted to break a five-game losing streak. A clutch Tobias Harris triple and some key defensive stands propelled the Sixers to victory in overtime, 104-101.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.
The Raptors were without Gary Trent Jr., who missed the game with a sore left quadriceps. Precious Achiuwa was out with a sprained right ankle.
Otto Porter Jr. missed the game with a dislocated second toe on his left foot.
Justin Champagnie has a G-League assignment with the Raptors 905 and was unavailable. Jeff Dowtin Jr. and Ron Harper Jr. are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Raptors 905 and were not with the team.
Nick Nurse started Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam and Juancho Hernangomez.
The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who is recovering from a minor fracture in his left foot.
Furkan Korkmaz was out with a non-Covid illness.
Julian Champagnie and Saben Lee are on a Two-Way G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Harris and Joel Embiid.
Not much went right for the Sixers offense in the first few minutes of the game, but one thing that did work to great success was an early touchdown pass from Harden to a leaky Harris for a transition dunk. He’s been doing that a lot more lately, Danuel House Jr. has recently been a memorable beneficiary of one of those long-term dimes. Usually it speaks to the fact that the Sixers have emphasized sprinting out when it’s their turn to run. But they’ve done it more since Harden returned from his injury.
The main thing they do to make all that happen is shoot the ball up the pitch without wasting time dribbling. At worst, Harden retrieves the ball on a rebound or ball, dribbles as he gains momentum, and hurls it onto the floor. At best, he catches and shoots straight ahead at a teammate who leaks out.
The best transition offenses get those passes to the front instead of wasting time dribbling. That’s why you run the three-man weave, as crazy as that sounds at the NBA level. The less you put the ball on the ground, the more efficiently you move it up the field, because passing becomes your only way to advance the rock.
I think it’s fair to say that Embiid has been able to score with much more ease this season than in previous seasons due to Harden’s positional play and his own development as a scorer. But the Sixers can lighten his regular-season load by being a more efficient transitional attack. And right now, they’re picking up a few extra buckets of those Harden hit-ahead passes from misses and live-ball wraps.
The Sixers ironically put some distance between themselves and the Raptors as Embiid went to the bench after playing his first stint of the game. Credit for that goes to Montrezl Harrell and Danuel House Jr., who were dynamite alongside Harden in the six minutes that Embiid charged. Harrell screened and dove hard for the basket, operating quickly with soft touches around the rim to generate some points for Philadelphia. All told, Philadelphia was plus-11 in the minutes Embiid was between the first and second quarters. That’s a big win.
House, on the other hand, chased the ball hard into Toronto’s zone, reaching the rim a few times and even making a nice pass to Harrell out of the ramp. He also hit a pair of threes in those runs in the second quarter.
Speaking of the team’s reserves, Shake Milton is really starting to find his way as a ball handler within the offense. He doesn’t make flashy moves, but Milton has been consistent in finding the passing lane out of pick-and-rolls and finding the connection. Especially great for Philadelphia was its growth as a line-drive finisher of cuts and downhill game in transition. He has no problem taking the ball the length of the pitch himself, finding the edge against slightly unbalanced or out-of-position defenders and attacking space to reach the edge.
He has such long arms that he doesn’t even have to get his whole body around the man who stands in his way all the time. Milton can just reach around and kiss the ball off the glass. He is also particularly adept at changing speeds around the edge, accelerating just as a defender thinks he is resetting possession to create space for looping reverse layups. Milton doesn’t always end on contact, but his play around the rim has given the Philadelphia bench some much-needed energy.
I thought the Sixers had a better offense in the Raptors zone as the game went on. Harden’s dribbling penetration was a catalyst in that regard. He wasn’t alone, however. Other Sixers, from Harris to Melton, got involved in attacking closeouts and got their feet in the paint. North-south attacks from several Sixers created open threes, even though they were off most of the night, and dump-off passes for shots on the rim.
Few Sixers have been more reliable this season than Harris. His adaptability to a more catch and shoot based role has made the attack all the more coordinated than last season. Philadelphia needed all three on Monday, Harris hit one from the right corner to give the Sixers a three-point lead late in overtime, then one from the left corner, plus the shooting error. Unfortunately for Harris, on reflection, Tucker was called for an offensive error, and that second triple was taken away. But certainly some big shots from the oft-criticized striker.
The Sixers had some really good moments early in this game defending at half court, creating live-ball wraps and forcing Toronto against the shot clock with some disciplined bleachers. But Toronto’s attack on the half court was nothing short of terrible early in the game. No meaningful dribbling penetration, passing to nowhere and limited self-creation. Hard to really differentiate between a good defense and an offense that is just awful.
Things started to flow Toronto’s way as they went zone against the Sixers offense. There were some bad conversions, like Embiid kicking to Shake Milton as Toronto collapsed on him in the post, only the pass flew out of bounds. There was also one play where he flipped the ball when trying to dribble into a Raptors mob.
In the end, I didn’t mind Philadelphia’s shots in the zone. They had some nice ball swings that paid out open triangles. But the three-point shooting wasn’t there for Philadelphia early on, especially from Melton, who went 0-for-4 deep in the quarter.
However, it’s certainly fair to say that they haven’t properly attacked the zone in other ways. Post-entry passes for Embiid weren’t great, and the shots he got were largely forcible. But even if the threes didn’t fall, Embiid didn’t have to be the safety plug. Philadelphia made very little effort to cut around the ball to enter the zone. They lacked movement and there was no discernible effort to set up screens to get Toronto to even think a little bit about how to run its zone.
The bizarre thing is that the Sixers have used their own zone defense much more often in recent games. You would think they would know how to attack a zone with more power and conviction if they feel comfortable defending a zone.
I try to avoid criticizing bad movie nights, but this one is unavoidable. The Sixers would have outplayed this game long before overtime was even needed if Melton had knocked out one of the nine open threes he missed. It was hard to believe in real time. He got a dozen awesome looks from deep down, and just couldn’t hit the nail in Toronto’s coffin. Bad luck there, for sure. But just a downright brutal shooting night for him. Whether it was from the wings or from the corners, no dice.
Philadelphia let Toronto back into this game with its three-point defense in the third quarter. The Raptors were much more aggressive in controlling the ball, reaching the lane and forcing Philadelphia into rotations. Toronto got stares from three who either just beat the game or were naked in the amount of coverage. Late closeouts will occur from time to time. You don’t stop that. But there were also a few failed assignments in the transition that gave the Raptors open threes. Not a great effort to contain the Raptors after a fairly uninspired offensive in the first half.
On the other side of the field, the Sixers’ three-point shooting was somewhere between poor and mediocre. They missed way too many open cans, and most opponents would take advantage of that and take the game away from them. There is inherently some luck involved in not getting stung despite giving up so many open shots. It’s also hard to knock down the hammer when simply missing open shots. But it also didn’t feel like the performance was that great. Throughout the second half, the ball stalled and the Sixers beat the Embiid-Harden pick-and-roll to death when they failed to make delay plays for Embiid at the elbows. There weren’t many multi-layered screening actions. They didn’t make Toronto work. It was all formed around the drive-and-kick game.
Toronto had already done most of the damage before Rivers put this lineup in, but the head honcho decided to close out the third quarter with a lineup of Milton, House, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang and Harrell. Given that group’s limitations at both ends of the floor, Rivers basically conceded it would be a one-possession game or worse heading into the fourth quarter.
The Sixers made this win much harder than it needed to be. It really felt like they let it run between the third and fourth quarter. Simply put, just a tainted display of shotmaking by the staff on the floor. No matter how hard Harden tried to spray the ball across the floor, no one even came close to put the ball in the basket.
Even with the best staff on the floor, there was no movement in the attack in the late game. The Sixers waited way too much for Harden to make something happen. Well, here’s an idea – move around the field and Harden will make something happen. Even if he wants the three non-Embiid teammates to spread the field, they can cut around the baseline or flip possessions. Just do it something.
The Sixers (17-12) will host the Detroit Pistons (8-24) on Wednesday. The tip is scheduled for 7 p.m. Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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