The Worst Way to Lose – Observations from Raptors 92, Sixers 90

Kawhi Leonard game seven buzzer beater
Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I didn’t even look at my wife or dog or newborn child when that shot went in. I just saw Tobias Harris’ face and thought to myself, “God, I can’t even imagine what that must feel like.”

Hideous way to lose for the Sixers, who somehow found a way to take game seven to a buzzer-beater despite starting 0-9 from the floor, shooting 24 fewer shots than the Raptors, and losing in just about every significant statistical category. They were out-rebounded, lost the turnover battle, and again couldn’t do much in transition, yet somehow, some way, this came down to a Kawhi Leonard double-doink to eliminate the Sixers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the second straight season.

I logged off of Twitter at 9 p.m. last night, mainly because I didn’t want jabronies spoiling Game of Thrones. But I’d be lying if I didn’t mention an added benefit, which was avoiding the knee-jerk reaction that I’m sure was just appalling last night. Just wretched. I’m not going anywhere near sports radio today, because it’s just going to be pro-Brett people and anti-Brett people yelling into their phones and delivering corny absolutes like “this guy must go!” or “It’s not his fault!” It feels like there’s zero middle ground, as thought fans either loved this team and coach or were actively rooting for total failure.

We can get into all of that this week, but first let’s actually talk about the game itself.

Offensive execution, or lack thereof

They just didn’t get it done down the stretch, turning their five final offensive possessions into just three points. That’s similar to game four, when they turned eight possessions into six points, only the difference then was that they were getting good looks.

Last night, the Sixers did this with their sub-three minute offensive possessions:

  • shot clock violation (out of a timeout)
  • Butler air ball (might have been tipped/blocked)
  • turnover (out of timeout)
  • Kyle Lowry foul, Butler hits 1/2 free throws
  • Serge Ibaka foul, Embiid hits 2/2 free throws

And then the bucket the Sixers got to tie the game came on a rare transition opportunity, when Butler turned a missed Kawhi free throw into a layup on the other end.

I want to get into the video here, but first, two things:

  1. Butler turned his ankle shortly before the three-minute mark.
  2. A complication was having to put Jimmy on Leonard defensively, since Ben Simmons had picked up his 5th foul a little more than halfway through the fourth quarter.

I’d keep those two things in mind when watching Butler on these plays. Maybe they affected him, maybe they didn’t. I’m not sure, but it wasn’t ideal to have Jimmy defend Kawhi AND run the late-game offense.

Anyway, here’s the first play:

I don’t have any problem with the play. It’s that dual-action elbow set they’ve run a bunch of times this postseason, mostly with success.

Just several execution mistakes:

  1. Embiid lets Marc Gasol push him off the elbow
  2. Harris waits too long to get the ball to Embiid, and by then he’s all the way out at the three point line
  3. Redick makes the right read, just could have gotten more zip on that return pass to Embiid
  4. Ben Simmons’ man (Serge Ibaka) rotates over to double Embiid
  5. Embiid puts Butler in a terrible position with 2 seconds on the shot clock

There’s a lot of bad to go around there. Butler is asking Embiid to take the shot while Simmons stands in the dunker spot, since he can’t shoot. I’d blame this one mostly on Embiid and Harris for wasting a ton of time getting into the play, then Embiid for hanging Butler out to dry.

The next play was a Butler/Embiid pick and roll:

This is mostly on Butler for running around like a chicken with his head cut off, but:

  1. Embiid is slow to set the screen. They don’t even begin their action until 13 seconds are left on the shot clock.
  2. Butler should have hit Embiid on his roll to the rim.
  3. Jimmy had an open shot coming off the Embiid/Lowry screen, but didn’t take it, nor did he drive on Gasol.
  4. Simmons again can’t do anything but stand in the dunker spot.

Butler really hurt himself by picking up his dribble there, because he didn’t have enough time when Redick got him the ball back.

Here’s the third play, and this one is the worst of the bunch:

This one was also coming out of a timeout. They go to Butler on the near side, then run staggered screens for Redick on the opposite side.

I’m not a huge fan of this because staggers with Redick are more effective when Embiid or Simmons are the ball handler. This way, when Redick comes off the screen, if his shot isn’t there, it’s usually because he draws the weakside wing defender and can simply play Tobias Harris or Mike Scott for a three point attempt instead.

This time, Butler is deferential, goes back to Embiid on the perimeter, and then Harris tries to come around for a handoff. Simmons just sort of wanders down into the post and doesn’t look for the ball at all. He also got nothing on Kyle Lowry on the second stagger screen.

Brett Brown touched just barely on the Simmons thing when asked about how his group meshed at the end of the year:

I thought they were great, I thought that at the end of the season we were playing good basketball, I thought that they came together from a chemistry standpoint in a real expedited way. They surprised me because there’s some firepower there. I think that they co-existed well, there was sacrifices made all over the place. Ben as an example, we ended up playing a lot of middle pick-and-roll with Jimmy as one example, and I was proud with the way guys came together.

They sacrifice of playing middle pick and roll, which people called for all year long, is that Simmons was relegated to just standing off the ball instead. In a perfect world, with a roster that makes sense, you don’t have to sacrifice anything.

So yeah, just ugly execution all around, bailed out on the fourth and fifth possession by Toronto fouls. It’s a shame it came down to this, but I think if we did a Sixers’ “premortem,” as Brett likes to say, no one would be surprised that late game, half court offense would be their undoing.

Joel Embiid and the double team

It kills me watching Joel in the post, because sometimes he throws these brilliant, Jokic-type passes from double teams, and other times he looks like he’s never seen a double in his entire life.

The thing about last night is that Toronto wasn’t even disguising these doubles. They weren’t digging at him. They weren’t trying to make him overthink the play. They were throwing hard doubles off the catch and trying to pin him away from the basket. Then they eliminated the skip pass by typically bringing Ben Simmons’ defender down from the weakside elbow instead, which I will show you right here:

Oftentimes Embiid had nowhere to go, because he can’t play cross-court to Harris, and Ennis and Redick were not doing enough to come back, receive the ball, move it to the second side, and force Toronto rotations. Typically they can get the ball to Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler, attack the close out, and then good things happen. Philly just was not attacking off the dribble at all last night, be it against close outs or high and tight perimeter defense.

This is how the above still frame played out last night:


Good cut by Ben Simmons, but it’s Embiid’s only option, and even then he almost falls over and loses the ball. Ennis doesn’t help that play because he’s standing too close to Redick. Toronto also recovered really well on most of Joel’s nearside passes coming out of the post.

Other times, Embiid was just totally unaware of what was going on around him, like the play where he simply stood on the elbow and Kawhi took the ball out of hands and ran down the floor for a bucket.

So when people inevitably say “Embiid needs to get his ass on the blocks,” you need to consider the following:

  1. the point guard doesn’t shoot, which invites frequent doubles on Embiid when he’s in the post
  2. Joel needs to improve his awareness and urgency at recognizing digs and doubles
  3. nearside shooters have to help him out instead of running away from him
  4. wings need to attack close outs

You can sit here and blame Brett Brown all you want, which is fine, but I think slightly misappropriated. What I mean by that is that any blame directed at Brett is less about the coach calling up plays that put Embiid down there, and more about the macro-level design of using a non-shooting point guard who complicates Joel’s ability to get good looks in the paint in the first place. This is why Embiid is always standing around on the perimeter, because his skill set does not mesh with Simmons’ skill set.

Either way, it all comes back to Brett, of course, but I think people are looking at it the wrong way. Joel also simply just needs to play with more awareness in general. The frequency with which he falls asleep on the offensive end is alarming, as is the dribbling on the perimeter and lack of care for the ball in general.

RE: the crying, I personally see nothing wrong with it. I don’t think Joel Embiid is a “pussy” for crying after a game seven loss; I think it shows that he cares. Is it a little immature? Yeah, sure, maybe it is. But what if the guy walked right into the locker room, got changed, and brushed off reporters instead and told us to fuck off? That’s not what we’re looking for.

If you’re asking me, I’ll take a crying guy who actually gives a shit vs. a non-crying dude who doesn’t care.

Offensive rebounding

Long rebounds were a killer last night, just a total back-breaker. Toronto snagged 16 offensive boards and scored 12 second half points. They beat the Sixers 49-41 on the boards, which helped cause that ridiculous gulf in total field goal attempts, 89-65 in favor of the home team.

the absolutely insane thing here is that rebounding was a massive strength for this team all season long. I’m sure Embiid and Harris playing extended minutes probably took a bit out of their legs, but in game seven you just have to empty the tank if you’re gonna get the job done.

Among the 16 teams in the postseason, this is where Philadelphia ranked coming into this game:

  • defensive rebounding percentage: 75.9 (4th best)
  • offensive rebounding percentage: 33.2 (1st)
  • total rebounding percentage: 54.8 (1st)
  • opponent offensive rebounds per game: 8.6 (6th best)
  • opponent rebounds per game: 39.3 (1st)

Toronto was 15th among 16 playoff teams in offensive rebounding. They really did not bother the Sixers in this area all series long, not until game seven. Ibaka, who was poor in the first half of the series, finished game seven with 17 points and eight rebounds, four of which he pulled off the offensive glass. The Sixers got basically nothing out of their bench in a crunched, seven-man rotation, scoring eight points via Mike Scott and James Ennis, while Toronto got 21 total from Ibaka and Fred VanVleet.

Brett on being out-rebounded:

The two things that you’ll think about all summer, that’s one of them, and we’ll go back and we’ll look at it, where we could’ve done better than that. And there were some dry possessions there at the end that we put Jimmy in the middle of pick-and-roll and did some things – J.J. hit that big bucket, that three prior. But there was probably two for sure, three if I remember correctly, that you needed to get a shot. And I give Toronto credit, they were switching a lot and us in front of them, but those two areas are what I’ll be curious to go back on and look at the tape and remember as I sit here 15 minutes after the game has ended.

And of course you have to credit Nick Nurse here, because he made the obvious adjustment about halfway through the series to play Ibaka and Gasol together to combat Philly’s size and effectiveness on the glass. That finally paid off big time in the game seven win.

Nurse on Ibaka:

He was obviously really big out there. He had a couple of offensive put-backs, he rebounded, he was rim protecting – I’m not sure if he blocked any shots or not but he was maybe altering a few – and he grabbed a few rebounds.

And he was confident on offense, I thought. There was a stretch there where he was maybe the second most confident guy out there behind Kawhi, it’d get kicked out to him and he was just pulling it or he was flying inside, getting a dump-off and he was finding a way to get it in. It was big. We talked about the size being an issue for us, I liked the look of that lineup, Kyle as kind of the floor general out there and then a bunch of big guys … it didn’t seem to cause us too many problems on the defensive end especially.

Toronto was very shaky offensively for large stretches of this game. They looked deferential to Kawhi, like a lot of guys weren’t too confident putting shots up. I think that’s a disappointment as well, the fact that the Sixers played some good defense and kept the Raptors off-kilter offensively, and just couldn’t do enough in the half court to take game seven on the road.

Other notes:

  • When the Sixers struggled to start the second half, Brett Brown called timeout, then came back on the floor with the Harris/Embiid/Redick elbow set that has been successful this postseason. Tobias got a post up and bucket out of it. Thought it was a good call by Brett, and the same exact thing they tried to run in the fourth quarter. They executed it literally 30 minutes prior.
  • Greg Monroe played less than two minutes and the Sixers looked totally lost. Then Philly went small in the second half with Mike Scott, resulting in two layups for Toronto in two possessions, with Embiid barely able to get a breather.
  • Ben Simmons again went with the no sleeve and shorter leggings look.
  • Kyle Lowry literally tackled Ben Simmons in the 4th quarter under the basket.
  • Kawhi was 2-17 from three in games five, six, and seven.
  • I wrote about 90 of these day-after posts this season, and they can sometimes run 2,000 words, which is a bitch. But they generally did very well traffic-wise, so I appreciate you all taking the time to read them.

10 Responses

  1. Even worse to witness the game in person. It’s going to be a long drive back to Philly. #TTP

    1. Get yourself some legal dank bud while you’re up there for the ride back

  2. BS supporters need to admit he needs to develop a J.
    Ppl like the Cuz and Johnny marks saying he doesn’t have to shoot are stone cold idiots.
    Teams recognize this and on defense they don’t even play him, which results in double teams on embiid, butler, etc….
    Embiid needs to get his azz in the paint, the whole game he was on the perimeter, lol, so stupid.
    Which leads you to believe that brett doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, so he may need to go.
    Roster needs a solid 6 man also. Reddick was a 6 man in LA, but he’s a starter on the 6ers.
    Huge glaring issues with this team

    1. Supposedly, Brett did tell Embiid to getting the paint, but the big man thinks he runs the team so he just refused to do what his coach told him.

      Which speaks volumes about the coach and this soft crybaby


  3. Oh that’s okay. we’ll do better next year….

  4. Sources say Embid has put on 15 pounds since the end of the game and this morning. He is going to show up for training camp at 350lbs… time to trade Embid for the unibrow and remove soft Simmons shaking/hiding in the corner of the room and get whatever you can for him.

  5. A few things:

    1. Brown’s biggest mistake in last night’s game was rarely having Embiid down low. And while I agree with your assessment that is b/c Simmons can’t and won’t shoot the ball, there are ways around that. In such a low scoring game, getting Joel in the block makes sense a good amount of the time. Easier shots, getting Toronto in more foul trouble and getting to the line. Give Butler the ball more up the court in the second half of that game to allow Embiid to get low more often.

    2. While I think Embiid crying at the conclusion of that game was not embarrassing or immature on its own, I wholeheartedly think Embiid having to be consoled by the freaking Toronto Raptors players is ridiculous! Sorry, they are your opponent until you are off that court. That shouldn’t happen. And, combined with his other antics/issues throughout this series, his crying gets lumped in with all of that unfortunately.

    3. This game did not come down to that final amazing, devastating, greatness-defining, one-out-of-10 lucky shot. This game was lost on three consecutive possessions by the Sixers that were ALL essentially shot-clock violations within three minutes to go. That CAN’T happen. And that lack of execution is much more on the players than it is on the coach.

  6. This is years after the fact, but these plays in this game always stuck with me. I know it’s a tough loss for philly fans, but as a neutral observer I always remembered the defense the raptors were playing here. The Lowry Leonard siakam ibaka gasol lineup was an unbelievable defensive group, and as much as these plays went down in history as bad offense by the sixers, I always come back to them as jaw dropping defense. The raptors are flying around the court, doubling, switching, trapping, ball denying and face guarding in perfect harmony with one another; each player seemingly knowing he can really go after his man because the guy behind him will cover any mistake. Their ability to double, stay with their man, AND stay perpetually in the passing lanes is really extraordinary. Each raptor is making a bunch of quick decisions based on how to use every inch of court strategically and rotate like madmen because someone is always able to cover two sixers at once. I know there are things the sixers could do better and the plays don’t strike me as particularly inspired but that is the thing about the defense this raptors group was playing in this game: you have to be perfect in order to even have a chance. I’m not a great basketball historian but speaking personally, I am not sure I’ve seen defense like this before or since.

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