Can the Sixers offense get back on track in Game 6 in Toronto?
On Tuesday, before the Sixers flew to Toronto for a Game 6 that very few expected over the past week, Danny Green said a term Brett Brown often used: appropriate fear. This, of course, means he was born with Gregg Popovich in San Antonio.
“It’s human nature when you go big, you’re kind of relaxed and comfortable,” Green said. “In no way, shape or form, in any situation, you can’t be comfortable or relaxed. So we have to be much more focused for 48 minutes. You have to be sharp offensively and defensively. We can’t just expect for things to happen and be given to us.
How much of the Sixers’ drop in the last two games is Toronto improving its game, and how much are the Sixers letting go of the rope? Neither option is encouraging for the Sixers, but if it’s the latter instead, they can prove it by taking care of business in Game 6 and avoiding an elimination game with historic implications.
So how could the game play out if Toronto continues to desperately play basketball and the Sixers go into Game 6 with some of that appropriate fear for the first time in a week? For argument’s sake, let’s assume the Raptors make a few more open 3-pointers in Game 6, and the Sixers get back on track after a cold Game 5. Finally, let’s also assume that Joel Embiid doesn’t play one of the worst defensive games of his career, leaving Precious Achiuwa and OG Anunoby past him and running through his chest for layups.
The Sixers left themselves open to being on the wrong side of a cold night. But so far, we generally know what we get when the Raptors have the ball. Pascal Siakam is going to have a heavy workload, Gary Trent Jr. is going to come off the screens, and they’re going to hunt Tyrese Maxey and Georges Niang and attack them in isolation. To tell the truth, this is not the most complex scheme.
The results were also similar. The Raptors have gone between 106.4 and 112.4 points per 100 possessions in their last four games (per Cleaning The Glass), consistent numbers slightly below average. The other end of the floor, where the Sixers began to catch fire and steadily got worse on offense with each game, is where the series tipped.
So what can they do?
For starters, it’s worth noting that the personnel has changed for both teams. Fred VanVleet is the heart and soul of the Raptors, but he plays injured and is a prime hunting target for James Harden and Maxey on the other end of the floor. The Raptors are giving up 126.5 of 100 points when VanVleet is playing and just 99.5 when he’s sitting. Small sample and all, but it’s generally what we’re looking at.
Do you remember the Harden-Maxey two-man game from games 1 and 2? It’s much harder for Harden to attack this game when Scottie Barnes and Anunoby are changing.
Much has been said over the past two days about Harden’s lack of shot attempts, in part due to Embiid saying it’s “not really my job” to tell Harden to take more shots. And for anyone watching this series, in which Harden is shooting 37% from 2-point range, it’s clear he needs to strike a more nuanced balance than “more shots.”
Take this play above, for example, which only comes down to a missed shot in the box score. But that play was just as damaging as a pick six turnover. Harden was out of the game as Siakam shoved the ball on the floor and got Chris Boucher an easy dunk, four-point swing. The Sixers need Harden to make the most of his isolations, but be smart about who and where he attacks.
Harden’s scoring is way down from his prime, but that hasn’t stopped him from slashing weakside shooters for early games. With that in mind, perhaps the best way to judge him is by how effectively the team scores.
“We need James, but it’s not just about scoring for us with James. It’s just playing,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We showed him he has the ball a ton , the most minutes in possession (of) anyone in our team by far. But we have to be better at doing something with it, be more organized and have better space.
Harden and Embiid minimizing choppy drives that end in missed shots is key. The Raptors will only run when the opportunity presents itself. It’s not just when the Sixers’ turnovers come into play, but also the wild shots of Harden and Embiid. If they miss a shot and fall to the ground, the more athletic Raptors go for the races.
The Raptors are a methodical team in the half court. They will look for isolations and chances to escape. Per Inpredictable, Toronto is averaging 16.2 seconds per possession on shots. That ranks 17th out of 20 playoff teams. But excluding defensive rebounds, the Raptors are averaging 9.6 seconds per shot (sixth of 20). They are the definition of an opportunistic racing team.
“They run when they can, but when they don’t, they run the 22-second clock,” Rivers said.
On the Sixers’ side, a major pre-series storyline was Matisse Thybulle’s unavailability for games in Toronto due to his vaccine status. But Game 5 was a disastrous outing for Thybulle simply due to his extreme strengths and weaknesses on the pitch.
the difficulty Thybulle had the shot in Game 5 was problematic, but Toronto is at the point where they are actively running away from it. Watch where Boucher, the longest player on the Raptors roster, helps Thybulle defend Embiid on that possession.
The Sixers roster is slim, but without Thybulle, everyone with the possible exception of Paul Reed can make a 3. Could we potentially see Furkan Korkmaz in Game 6? Korkmaz can space the floor, but he was also a 29% 3-point shooter this season, and he seemed to completely lose confidence in his jumper after a good first few weeks.
One of the ways the Sixers keep playing is by using Embiid on the free throw line. They’ve run this set multiple times, making it difficult for Toronto to double up and turn because the ball doesn’t have much to travel when it’s in midfield. Another element that seems to work is when the Sixers get movement off the ball, specifically Tobias Harris’ cut. Toronto is all about Embiid.
The double drag for Harden and Maxey could have some success, especially with Embiid slipping early and allowing Toronto to switch screens.
When Embiid posts, finding traffic lanes is important to Harden, Maxey, and Harris. Watch here on this post-up where Embiid is doubled over the top and Harden just drives straight into the paint when Siakam isn’t fully spinning.
That’s not to say some of it won’t come down to defense. The Raptors shot 51% in Game 5. Rivers cited a stat Thursday that the Sixers played against set defense 67% of the time in Game 5. Embiid explained after the game how those early ducks for strikes deep couldn’t happen in the second half because the Sixers played against a set defense.
Can the Sixers play with that appropriate scare and avoid the wrong kind of story? We will find out on Thursday evening.
“We don’t have a choice now,” Green said. “We either have to crash or fold.”
(Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)