Seven Takeaways From Wednesday Night's Sixers Win Over the Raptors
There is one place the season has not stopped.
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As I’ve taken great glee in pointing out to anyone who will listen, the Sixers have no road games remaining against teams above .500 this season. The good news there is of course that the door is open for them to go on an end-of-season run -- the kind that still has a certain breed of Process Old-Timer reminiscing about the good ol’ days of Belinelli and Ilyasova -- to maybe scrap their way back to home-court advantage in the East. But the bad news is that they’re out of games that actually, y’know, matter: They’ve proven who they are both at home and on the road, and this is who they’ll be until the playoffs start on April 18.
Nonetheless, a good home showing against an East rival like the Toronto Raptors is always a good idea -- keeps the team morale up in between Matisse Thybulle TikTok posts, at the very least. And that’s what we (mostly, kinda, sure close enough) got last night, as the Sixers beat the Raptors 105-103, in a win that will still cause most Sixers fans to roll their eyes when they think back on it. It’s their third win in a row, at least, keeping them a half-game up on Indiana for the 5th seed, and just a game back of Miami (who escaped a loss themselves by the margin of an already-receding Duncan Robinson hair in Chicago) for fourth.
What’s worth remembering from this one, for better and worse? Let’s run down my biggest takeaways.
1. Not the most impressive Joel Embiid stat line you’ll ever see (24 points, 9 rebounds, four assists, a couple blocks), but for my money, the best game he’s played against Toronto since the windmill dunk game in Round Two. The deja vu was real and shitty as he went at Marc Gasol -- who of course was back healthy for this one, with no signs of having just missed 17 of his last 18 -- three times in the team’s first five possessions, badly missing on a turnaround jumper, struggling through contact for a whistle that never came, and then spinning into a double-team turnover. You could practically see Gasol closing the lid on the basket, the shadow of November’s 0-fer already looming.
But then he slowed down, got Furkan loose in the two-man game for a couple big early threes, and only took four shots the rest of the half -- three of ‘em from deep, hitting two. I’ve always said that Jo is at his best against matchups like Gasol when he doesn’t try to force things down low, and this time he seemed to finally agree with me, picking his spots and letting it fly when open. Of course there were still a couple pointless pump-fakes and drives that accomplished nothing except making me throw my remote against the wall. But generally, this was one of the smartest, best-executed offensive games from Joel that I can remember, and that 16-footer he hit against Gasol on the wing with just under a minute to go was probably the game’s biggest. A true leadership performance from the best player on the court.
2. Good golly, does this team miss Ben Simmons on defense. The other side, too, but at least with the return of Embiid and the emergence of Shake Milton -- more on him in a sec, natch -- they’ve found ways to manufacture something close to a comprehensive half-court offense. D is another matter, especially against a team with as many long, athletic, versatile forwards as the Raptors. Pascal Siakam in particular tore Philly up early, scoring 14 points in the first quarter, as Tobias Harris (nope), Al Horford (lol nope) and Mike Scott (nope nope nope) took turns trying to stay in between him and the basket. Eventually Brett Brown had no choice but to give Embiid the assignment for a couple possessions, slowing him down but leading to a couple comical possessions of Alec Burks trying to not get plowed through by Gasol in the post.
It’s a problem, and it will be until Simmons gets back -- assuming he even does. One week into his most recent “re-evaluated in three weeks” stretch, Ben could be seen on the bench with Philly tonight, and even kicked the ball around with Jo and Furk a little during shootaround. When pressed about Simmons’ progress, though, Brett seemed the tiniest bit frustrated, saying he was pleased with his star point guard’s attitude, but that he’d encouraged the rest of the team to approach his possible return with “appropriate empathy and fear.” We’ll see what that means!
3. At this rate, Jeff McDev is going to run out of “Shake”-related songs to set No. 18 highlight videos to by the time the playoffs roll around. (Actually, never mind, there are 300 million “Shake” songs, so he’s probably good until at least next preseason.) Another huge night for our Stealth Damian Lillard -- 25 points and five assists, and again, it’s not so much the numbers as how he gets them. When Shake is going, he makes basketball look self-explanatory: he hits open threes, he attacks closeouts and connects on the floater, he catches defenders off-guard with the occasional unexpected burst, and before you know it he’s got 20. It’s all so simple, yet it’s stuff seemingly no other Sixer has ever been able to manage.
It’s not gonna be every night with Shake, and there’ll probably be a point in the playoffs -- particularly if Ben never shows -- where we need to ask more from him in the lead guard position than he can really give us. But man, watching him on this Sixers team right now is like discovering a button on your SNES controller that you never realized was there, and suddenly understanding why your older brother kicks your ass in Street Fighter II every time. Was it always supposed to be this easy? Have other teams known this all along?
4. Speaking of getting numbers: Throw a bunch more onto the pile for Big Al Horford, who continued his two-week run of stellar production with an 18-11-5 line, with two turnovers and only one “ah, nuts” clap. He’s now averaging a neat 20-10-6 over his last five games, on stellar 55% shooting (including 41% from deep), certainly his best statistical stretch since joining the Sixers.
And yes, I can already hear you coughing in the back there: There is in fact a “but…” and it’s that Al was still useless down the stretch, and his defense was absolutely garbage throughout. He took only two shots in the fourth quarter, one of which was an end-of-shot-clock heave, and he particularly hurt the Sixers up two with a half-minute to go when he passed out of an open three to a much-less-open Matisse in the corner, who tried in vain to drive to the hoop and ended up getting his shot blocked. And he was woefully overmatched trying to hang with any Raptor not named Gasol, with Siakam and OG Anunoby treating his defense like a polite suggestion on the way to layup after layup in the fourth quarter, as the Raps cut the Sixers’ lead from 13 to 4 in the space of two minutes.
That’s right, folks: We’ve all lived long enough to see the day when Al Horford is actually playing significantly worse than his numbers. Save us, Vlade. For the Pickswap fifth anniversary, if nothing else.
5. I know it’s unfair to harp too much on it on a night when he was otherwise pretty good: 22 points on 9-18 shooting, nine boards, a couple big defensive plays down the stretch. But goddamn if I wouldn’t have traded Tobias Harris for late-’00s Eddy Curry tonight after he missed an absolute gift of a technical free throw with 90 seconds to go and the Sixers up three. I knew he was gonna miss it, you knew he was gonna miss it, Shake knew he was gonna miss it, Deathwish Brett probably knew he was gonna miss it -- I don’t know the exact numbers on Tobias’ technical shooting this season, but they have to be at Ben Wallace levels.
Can we please let Joel, who’s repeatedly proven a great clutch FT shooter, hit two more to ice this one in its final seconds, and is better on the whole from the line this year anyway, just take all the techs from now on? We’re already giving Tobi plenty of free money off the court.
6. And yeah, probably time to talk about the heart attack that led to those Jo free throws. The Sixers had pushed the lead back up to eight with two minutes to go, seemingly on track to cruise to the victory (ROFLCOPTER), when Nick Nurse unleashed the full-court press. And just like it did in December, the press turned the Sixers into overmatched eight-year-olds in a game of keep away against a bunch of post-puberty middle schoolers. Three combined turnovers, including one with just eight seconds to go and the Sixers up two that led to an almost entirely wide-open Serge Ibaka three -- which he thankfully clanked off the front rim. (Karma for last year’s Game 7, perhaps, though would still argue that the Raps got the better of that trade-off.)
I don’t even know what to make of it at this point. Blame Brett Brown if you want for the team not being prepared to handle a little pressure, but… actually, you know what? It’s fine. Blame Brett Brown, no buts. Like many other things, this may or may not actually be his fault, but either way he looks increasingly sure to not be here next year, and increasingly comfortable with that being the case. I’m still never gonna feel great about scapegoating him, but if someone has to take the fall for this team’s sins, we may as well get our money’s worth.
7. One good thing about the coaching in this one, though: I loved the decision to have Matisse Thybulle shadow Fred Van Vleet like he was Avery Bradley covering Shake Milton. FVV’s crafty, and he got Matisse for a couple cheap fouls and wriggled loose for a layup early, but Thybulle also pried the ball from him a couple times -- and even when not, Van Vleet had to work for absolutely everything, ending with just 11 points on 4-13 shooting. Kyle Lowry may be Toronto’s most valuable guard, but Van Vleet is the swing piece for them, and essentially removing him from the equation was huge for the Sixers’ ability to keep Toronto in check in this one.
Not the thing a lot of people are going to be talking about from this one -- particularly with the way the game ended -- but a smart, creative decision from Brett and the coaching staff, essentially out-Nick Nursing Nick Nurse. We can only hope we get to see Matisse wreak such holy hell on Van Vleet for four to seven games in the playoffs this year that FVV has to have another kid just to snap out of the slump.