Let ’em Off the Hook – Observations from Raptors 101, Sixers 96

Kawhi after his dagger three in game four
Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors are who we thought they were. They’re a great team but they’re very beatable. That’s why the Sixers took the damn floor!

Now, if you wanna crown ’em, then crown their asses! But the Sixers let ’em off the hook. And now we’re headed to Toronto for game five.

Kinda hard to win when three of your five starters don’t have good offensive games, yeah? Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid finished a combined 14-40 from the floor (35%) while Harris alone was 2-13 from three (15.4%). They just could not find any consistent offense outside of Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, who led the Sixers with 29 and 19 points, respectively.

The offensive struggles were exemplified by a fourth quarter in which the Sixers went about seven minutes without a basket, compounded especially by the ailing Joel Embiid’s poor individual play. It was a “grind it out” affair, as Nick Nurse said post game, and the Raptors simply grinded out more meaningful possessions on both ends of the floor to even the series at 2-2.

That’s the most simple explanation; Toronto just made more plays on a night where the Sixers had a great opportunity to go up 3-1 in this series. Instead, Brett Brown’s team shot 40.2% from the floor, 31.6% from three, and 72% from the foul line while losing in almost every auxiliary category, from second chance points (15-13) to fast break points (17-10) and points in the paint (38-34).

Empty possessions

There was a moment around the 5:30 mark in the fourth quarter where Embiid missed a pair of free throws, which led to this series of offensive possessions that took us to the end of the game:

  1. Embiid lost ball turnover
  2. Embiid hits 1/2 free throws
  3. Embiid traveling violation
  4. missed Harris three
  5. Butler missed three, got his own rebound, got fouled, hit 2/2 free throws
  6. Redick made three
  7. Embiid spin move, miss at the rim
  8. missed Harris three
  9. (Sixers start fouling Toronto at this point)

That was six points the Sixers scored on the eight possessions before they began fouling. They shot 1-5 during that stretch.

Said Brett Brown on the fourth quarter slump:

To be exact there were three turnovers, you miss some free throws, and we missed some layups. You give Toronto credit, their defense went up a new level. It was a close out type of fourth period to go win a game. We went in there 75-75 at the end of the third, and we went into a drought. It was probably a six minute, six and a half minute drought littered with missed layups, missed free throws, some open threes, sprinkled in with some turnovers and I give Toronto credit.

I personally felt like the Sixers got decent looks during that stretch. Embiid’s spin move got him right to the rim, as you can see right here:

That was a killer play, a layup that would have put the Sixers up one with 1:25 on the clock. Instead Kawhi came down and hit that dagger three, which forced Philly to foul.

The Harris threes were clean looks, at least I’d say so. The first one he got up with a pair of Raptors approaching but on the second he didn’t have anyone within 10 feet:

Gotta hit at least one of those shots.

The Redick three was clean enough. I asked Jimmy Butler about the offensive struggles down the stretch and whether or not he was happy with the shots they took:

I really don’t know; we just didn’t make shots. I can’t tell you during that stretch what shots we got but we put the ball up towards the basket and we’re living with it. Everybody took shots that we know and think we can make. When you go back and watch the film we’ll figure out ways that doesn’t happen, but as of right now, I’m okay with every shot we took.

I think I’d agree with that.

The NBA is generally a “make or miss” league, unless you’re Kawhi Leonard. Then it’s just a “make” league. The offensive drought killed the Sixers and that’s why this series is tied.

Joel Embiid’s latest ailment

Fact of the matter is this:

Joel Embiid has had three subpar games in this series. Be it his knee or this virus or gastoenteritis or whatever it is, there just seems to always be something bothering him. And when he wasn’t bothered by some issue, he went out and scored 33 points in game three while adding 10 rebounds and 5 blocks in less than 30 minutes on the floor. This series is 3-1 Sixers if Joel is even close to 75% health, but he’s not.

Brown said that Embiid texted him at six in the morning, basically telling the head ball coach that he felt like shit. Embiid was hooked to an IV and given fluids, and then went out and played at 3:30 p.m.

Brett on Joel:

It’s really just driven out of his health. I got a text from him at 6:20 a.m. this morning telling me that he didn’t sleep all night, he’d really never felt this poorly and he was unsure, ‘coach if I’m going to play, I just want to give you a heads up. I’ll try, but I don’t know.’ That started my day. You start to fast forward about who’s going to come in? How are you going rotate the team, etc? To his complete credit he just kind of willed his way through it and that’s a circular way to answer your question. When I get information of how healthy he is I can better tell you or answer your question. As it sits I appreciate and respect his effort to get out there and play for his team.

No, I don’t know how Embiid is always sick or seemingly dealing with some ailment. Maybe he’s not eating right. Maybe he’s staying out too late. Maybe it’s both. We know about the Chic-fil-A story via Landry Shamet but otherwise I don’t know what Joel is doing with his time outside of the stuff that pops up on social media. We all hear things, but it’s hard to know what’s real and reportable and what isn’t.

Here’s what Embiid said:

Didn’t have a good night, didn’t sleep, was throwing up, got an I.V. at 6 in the morning. Thought I’d try to play, try to get the win. Obviously it wasn’t enough.

It sucks, but you have to focus on the right thing if you’re in that type of situation. I usually tend to focus defensively, especially when I go into games and I know that I don’t think I’m going to be as aggressive as usual. Just got to focus on the defensive end and that’s what I try to do.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out Embiid’s defensive efforts, as he mentioned. He contested a team-high 15 shots and again had the best individual defensive rating out of the starting five (98.6). Two deflections and two blocks also. They just needed him on the offensive end and didn’t get anything out of him.

And I don’t blame Brett for Joel’s usage, because Embiid was similarly sick in game two, the stomach issue, and one of the two field goals he hit in the entire 48 minutes was the spin move that essentially won the team the game and stole home court advantage. I’m in the camp that says, “it’s playoff basketball, your superstars need to be out on the floor.” You can disagree, and that’s fine. Maybe Butler was the better 4th quarter choice last night, but again, I just go back to last week’s evidence to justify Brown’s Embiid usage.

4th quarter rotational chess

You could say the Sixers won game three when they made a big run to start the 4th quarter while Kawhi Leonard sat on the bench.

In game four, Kawhi logged 32:31 by the end of the third, and again Nick Nurse gave him a rest to begin the 4th, opting for a lineup that looked like this:

  1. Kyle Lowry
  2. Danny Green
  3. Pascal Siakam
  4. Serge Ibaka
  5. Marc Gasol

Brett Brown went to the same lineup he started at the beginning of the 4th quarter in game three, which was:

  1. Jimmy Butler
  2. JJ Redick
  3. James Ennis
  4. Tobias Harris
  5. Joel Embiid

Leonard came back in at the 10:00 mark, with the Sixers only able to build a two-point lead in those two minutes he sat on the bench.

Embiid then went out of the game at the 7:36 mark with the Sixers leading 84-81, and the Raptors were able to go on a brief 4-0 run before Brown called timeout at the 5:42 mark to get Joel back in the game.

So not a ton of separation for either team in the moments where key players were rested in the 4th. Nurse was able to give Kawhi that brief rest without being punished for it, while the Sixers went -4 in that stretch where Joel had to come out for a little less than two minutes. That set us up for an incredibly tight game coming down the stretch.

Toronto’s adjustment

In addition to getting Leonard through the game without issue, Nick Nurse handed 32 minutes to Serge Ibaka and paired him with Marc Gasol as a way to go big and combat Philly’s size.

For the most part, that worked, and Ibaka and Gasol finished +7 in 23:25 on the floor together

Said Nurse on that:

I think the biggest thing I felt tonight was the rebounding. It just felt like we were getting pushed around a lot by the glass the last two games. That would happen with our small lineup, they were just throwing it up there and revving their engines and flying to the rim. Tonight we just had more size, that way, and it kind of looked like the rebounds were affected by that.

Yeah. The rebounding finished 43-43 last night, with Toronto snagging 8 on the offensive glass and the Sixers 11. In game three, Philly won by a +10 margin on the boards.

Brett Brown said he felt like the Sixers did alright with the Gasol/Ibaka big lineup:

I think we did fine. Rebounding wise you could feel our physicality. We tried to do some stuff with Tobias, with Serge trying to chase him a little more. It’s stuff we’d talked about. But like I say, they effectively played six players and he did a great job. Serge and Marc, you’ve got two veteran, physical players, I thought they were outstanding. Marc especially hurt us with, I thought, efficient play and some threes and so on. But I didn’t feel like we were unprepared. I do give them credit for the way they performed but it wasn’t something that caught us off guard.

That’s fair, and I think one of the more simple explanations for last night’s result is that Toronto just got more out of guys not named Kawhi. They got 14 points from Kyle Lowry and 16 from Gasol. Danny Green went 8-8 from the foul line. It was essentially a six-man rotation with Fred VanVleet playing 7 minutes, Patrick McCaw 5, and Norman Powell 4.

Ibaka did put up some horrendous bricks in this game but ultimately finished 6-12 with 12 points and outscored the Sixers’ bench by himself. His three blocked shots were more than effective. It was really the first influential game he’s had all series, and the Sixers got very little offensively from their bench as Greg Monroe, James Ennis, and Mike Scott shot 4-15 on the evening.

Kawhi Leonard I think stated the obvious post game, but it’s something we sort of forget, and it’s the fact that Ibaka isn’t a center, he’s a power forward who had been asked to play center for the Raptors in games one through three:

Now a lot of teams play small ball or just leave once center or a four-man who is really a tweener, can shoot the three, draw it, and basically Serge is not really a center, he’s a power forward. When I first came into the league this was how basketball was, for the most part. It didn’t feel that different. We did a good job working on it in practice the last two days. Those guys space out the floor well got to their spots and Serge played good tonight, 12 (points) and 9 (rebounds), he blocked shots.

As such, Ibaka’s usage as a power forward saw Tobias Harris get matched up on him rather frequently. We talked a lot in the first three games about Embiid taking advantage of the Ibaka minutes when Gasol was off the floor, but because they were often paired together last night, Joel wasn’t able to get as many favorable block matchups as he had been earlier in the series:

courtesy: NBA Stats

That’s a 3-9 shooting night for Harris against Ibaka, including 0-4 from three. They were only able to get Embiid on Ibaka nine times because of Toronto’s adjustment, and Joel was 1-2 on those possessions.

For Gasol then, Joel saw 54 possessions against the veteran, shooting 1-4 from the floor. Sickness aside, it was a good tweak from Nurse, but if Harris could have hit anything last night, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Tobias shot a team-high 23 shots last night and only made 7 of them.

Other notes:

  • Norman Powell’s early minutes went to Patrick McCaw instead.
  • Ben Simmons only made it to the foul line once last night and missed both free throws. He finished with 0 turnovers but only threw 4 assists. More on Ben in a sidebar.
  • Turnovers weren’t an issue last night. Philly committed 13, leading to 14 Toronto points. Toronto committed 14, leading to 15 Philly points. That’s a wash.
  • Greg Monroe had two layups rim out. He was fouled on at least one, but no whistle.
  • Terrell Owens was shown on the jumbotron. Big pop from the crowd. I wonder how Donovan McNabb would be received.
  • Boban coming in before halftime to guard the inbound pass was pretty good theater.
  • Philly crowds are never in sync. The “defense” chant had two different groups of people yelling “defense” at different times last night. It’s not hard to figure out because you just go along with the music.
  • The Raptors missed their last two free throws of the game, so the 25 people remaining in the building won free Wendy’s Frosties.
  • 95% of the celebrities at Sixer games are current and former Philadelphia athletes. Then there’s M Night Shyamalan and maybe a local rapper. That’s usually the pattern.

7 Responses

  1. Embiid does ANYTHING yesterday and we win and pretty much punch our ticket to the ECF. But here we are again….lamenting a loss after a mystery Joel ailment. Ben with 5 points and a -15 +/-….its so frustrating.

    Jimmy Butler stepped up when needed and nearly won the game his damn self. Pay the man.

    1. Don’t worry The Knicks will pay him plenty. Him and KD will be running the division next season in New York.

    2. Tobias does ANYTHING yesterday and we win. Guy wants a max and goes 2/13 from deep. Embiid was at least a presence defensively.

  2. If you were Jimmy would you want to be here, your going to get paid just a matter of its 4 years or 5…
    Your an Alpha and deserve to be treated as such…
    This city loves a guy who can’t even play, cause he’s fat, he’s out of shape, and doesn’t value basketball just tries to get by on talent alone.

    If Ben is only gonna give me 10 points fine, but then he has to do a better job on Kawhi not like he’s overexerting himself on the offensive side of the floor

  3. Is Embiid dying?

    I never heard of a 25 year old with all these mysterious injuries and ailments that only seem to occur the morning of game day. Most 70 year olds these days are in better shape than this dude.

    He makes Carson Wentz look like a resilient picture of health in comparison.

  4. Trust the Process. Don’t worry, we have a “generational player” in Ben, Don’t worry, Embiid’s the “most unstoppable player in the league”. What, me worry? We have a Process based on losing. What could go wrong?

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