In today's newsletter:
- Thoughts on last night's game
- The stat that mattered
- Quotes from the game
- Where things stand
- Full press conference audio
- Link roundup
As I've spent the last few games watching the post-thumb injury version of the team, I've found myself trying to answer one very simple question: who are the Philadelphia 76ers?
It's a question you wouldn't normally find yourself asking when talking about a 50-win team that is up 3-2 in the first round of the NBA playoffs, but these are not normal times. And with the Raptors now forcing a Game 6 after being down 3-0, something that has happened just 13 times in the previous 144 instances when a team was down 3-0 in the NBA playoffs, you're left wondering what the Sixers have to rely upon to avoid NBA infamy.
Since Daryl Morey took over the team, virtually every move has added offensive firepower and floor spacing around Joel Embiid, typically at the expense of the team's defense. That became even more pronounced when Ben Simmons took his ball and went home following last year's Pass, leaving the Sixers without one of the two main defensive pieces that effectively plugged the otherwise gaping holes in the team's perimeter defense. Slowing down dribble penetration has become a monumental undertaking in this current iteration of the team, and as a result the Sixers' defense gave up 110.7 points per 100 possessions this year, the worst rate of the Joel Embiid era.
They compound their mediocre half-court defense with inconsistent effort in transition. They routinely get beat on the boards, the worst offensive rebounding team in the league that is middling at best on the defensive glass. On the other end of the floor they're far from an elite shooting team from the perimeter (6th in percentage but 23rd in attempts), and are woefully short on depth, relying on players like Georges Niang (exposed defending the perimeter), Matisse Thybulle (a liability on offense and unavailable for half the series) and Paul Reed (played roughly zero high-leverage minutes in the regular season because the coaching staff took to long to realize DeAndre Jordan was cooked) to flesh out a depth chart.
Yet coming into the series many, myself included, assumed that this would all be covered up by two very simple reasons: the Sixers had Joel Embiid, and the Sixers had James Harden.
Through the first three games against the Raptors that largely appeared to be the case, especially on Embiid's part. He spent the first game diagnosing Toronto's double and triple teams with ease as the Sixers executed their offense to near perfection, then bullied the Raptors inside in Game 2, leading to 14 free-throw attempts, before capping it all off with the biggest shot of his career to give the Sixers a Game 3 victory, and a seemingly insurmountable lead in the series. Over the course of NBA history teams that are up three games to none have advanced a perfect 144 out of 144 times.
The Sixers weren't perfect, but they had an MVP caliber player performing at an MVP level. That was their identity.
That all changed when Embiid hurt his right thumb dunking in Game 3. Or when he got it got caught in another player's jersey. Or...nobody's really sure when the injury happened but the Sixers haven't felt like the Sixers ever since ESPN confirmed that Embiid had a torn ligament in his right thumb, an injury that would require surgery to fix. Their identity has, seemingly, been missing.
Over the last two games Joel Embiid has shot just 15 combined free-throw attempts, compared to 25 in the first two games of the series. He hasn't made a 3-point shot over that span and has just three combined offensive rebounds. Save for a brief first quarter stretch last night where he seemed hell-bent on establishing deep post position, Embiid hasn't been a dominant force inside.
Some, if not all, of that is understandable given the thumb, not only because of the pain I'm sure he's experiencing as he attempts to play through it, but also because of the importance the thumb has on simple things like holding, shooting, and passing a basketball. It's a pretty important digit.
Which all made it incredibly disappointing that the Sixers have come out with such a shitty effort these past two games. They've been outworked, consistently, over the last 96 minutes of play, spared from completely embarrassing blowout losses mostly because Toronto has shot just 16-65 on pretty good looks from deep. Think about that: they've lost two straight potential closeout games, one on their home floor, while Toronto is ice cold from the perimeter. And while Pascal Siakam's Game 4 performance might have included a bunch of tough, midrange jumpers he's not always going to make, we just watched Joel Embiid treat Precious Achiuwa like he was prime Dirk Nowitzki on the perimeter in Game 5, closing out on him in an uncontrolled manner and regularly getting blown by in a way I've never seen Embiid get blown by before.
Joel Embiid was hunted on defense last night, which is not something I imagine I've typed very many times in my writing career. He had all the energy of a mid-December game against the Sacramento Kings.
This, of course, was all supposed to be addressed with the acquisition of James Harden. He was supposed to help alleviate the Sixers' over-reliance on Embiid in the half-court, to be the high-level perimeter initiator that Embiid has never had. But Harden looks virtually nothing like the Harden of two years ago. So far in the playoffs, he's shooting just 36.4% in the half-court, which even when adding in his free-throws and 3-point attempts comes out to just 0.897 points per play. He's shooting just 35.5% on shots out of isolations, which has accounted for nearly half of his overall possessions against the Raptors. He gets Khem Birch isolated on him after a switch and looks overmatched. Khem Birch.
If ever there was an instance when the Sixers needed Embiid's co-star to step up and carry the offense, creating high-quality looks for not only himself but for his teammates, it was last night, and he couldn't. He just, physically, couldn't. And when he failed to do so he compounded that by dribbling the air out of the ball and throwing lazy, inexcusable pick 6s the other way.
Harden, at this stage of his career, seems to be at his best when he's in a role tasked with making Joel Embiid an even better version of himself, when they can dial up the pick-and-roll, force the opponent's big to step out on the perimeter and give Embiid a 4-on-3 in the short roll. But as Embiid has become limited with the thumb injury, and as Toronto realized they should switch everything on the perimeter (which has become easier with Fred VanVleet out of the lineup), those opportunities have dried up, and the Sixers have dialed up the Harden/Embiid pick-and-roll less and less frequently over the course of the series.
If Embiid's at 70% effectiveness because of his thumb, I'm not sure Harden can currently be the version of Harden that they need him to be.
If I were setting odds, I'd still give the Sixers a better than 50-5o chance to win one of the final two games in this series and avoid infamy. But that's increasingly coming down to the simple fact that it's tough for any team to successfully stave off elimination four games in a row, not because of any real confidence in the Sixers. I think the Sixers will find a way to win one of these last two games, I just don't know how. Because truth be told I don't know who this team is or what they can comfortably rely upon, and that's not the most reassuring statement to make, even if they are able to close this series out.
The stat that mattered
The Sixers averaged just 77.4 points per 100 plays in the half-court, according to CleaningTheGlass. That is abysmal. Not only is it the worst half-court performance of the series for the Sixers, but there were only three games in the regular season where the Sixers performed worse, and two of them were against the Boston Celtics.
They said it
"I've been saying all season, since he got here, he just needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself. That's not really my job, that's probably on coach, to talk to him and tell him to take more shots, especially if they're gonna guard me the way they've been guarding. But that's really not my job." – Joel Embiid, on James Harden being more aggressive on offense.
The thing is, I'm not sure that Embiid's correct here, as I'm not sure how much Harden can ramp up his individual scoring while still maintaining a shred of efficiency, especially in this matchup.