The good news for the Sixers is they’re getting healthier and Tyrese Maxey is playing spectacular basketball.
The bad news is they’ve lost three games in a row, falling to 8-5 ahead of a six-game road trip.
Tobias Harris (COVID-19) and Seth Curry (left foot contusion) returned Thursday night for the Sixers in a 115-109 loss to the Raptors at Wells Fargo Center.
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Maxey had 33 points on 12-for-19 shooting and five assists.
Harris posted 19 points on 7-for-18 shooting, seven assists and seven rebounds.
Fred VanVleet led the Raptors with 32 points and seven assists.
Joel Embiid, Matisse Thybulle and Isaiah Joe remain in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said pregame that Ben Simmons was at the team’s film session Thursday, but he continued to be uncertain on next steps for the 25-year-old, who told the team last month he’s not mentally ready to play.
The Sixers' next game is Saturday night against the Pacers. Here are observations on Thursday's loss:
Maxey was opposed by VanVleet, who scored seven of Toronto’s first nine points and began 3 for 3 from three-point range.
For the most part, VanVleet’s scoring came via “tip your cap” shotmaking. Maxey tried to tightly contest every jumper and limit VanVleet’s ventures into the paint, a difficult task against a very good player. Andre Drummond mainly played “up to touch” in pick-and-roll coverage, with mixed results.
Offensively, Maxey was electric late in the second quarter, going on a personal 5-0 run. Even if he doesn’t end the season as a 40 percent three-point shooter, it’s encouraging that he’s shown no hesitation of late taking any shot that happens to be open.
“His pace. Smart — very intelligent," Maxey said of his takeaways on the VanVleet matchup. “He knows when to go fast, he knows when to go slow; he knows how to change his pace. He knows how to draw fouls. He’s a very smart player, very heady player. I remember, I think I was in ... I don’t know what grade I was in, watching him at Wichita State. I was telling my friends — I was young — ‘I think he’s going to be really good.’ Gets to the NBA and he’s pretty good. It was great competing against him, and hats off to him.”
Maxey was indeed quite young during VanVleet's college days. He graduated from South Garland High School in 2019, while VanVleet played his final games as a Wichita State senior in March of 2016.
In contrast to Maxey, Curry uncharacteristically struggled with his shooting in the first half. He began the game 1 for 7 from the floor but was undeterred and got on track in the third period. Curry and Drummond teamed up for a sharp give-and-go layup.
With the Sixers trailing by 10 points early in the fourth, Maxey rattled off four straight with swift rim attacks. He drew eight free throws (and made all of them), one of the areas where he's demonstrated early-season growth.
Maxey wasn't anywhere near finished, willing the Sixers back into it and ensuring a dramatic conclusion. He tied the game at 107-all with an and-one floater. The 21-year-old loves to compete and has no qualms about taking charge in big moments.
The Sixers couldn't cement a win, though. With the team up 109-107, Drummond was at first whistled for a foul despite cleanly blocking Precious Achiuwa. Though the play was overturned following a Rivers challenge, Toronto won the ensuing jump ball. VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. then each made clutch threes as the Raptors scored the game's final eight points.
“Well, the solution is learn how to throw jump balls," Rivers said with a laugh. “That ball never got above their waist, I don’t think. But I’ve never done it. It has to be pretty hard, because (the officials) all struggle with it.
“That was a big loss of possession. We could’ve come up with the ball. What I don’t like about the rule is actually on the block, we had the ball — we came up with the ball. But we knew it was a jump ball. We had the guys in the right place. The guy just quick-jumped Drum and got to the ball first.”
Harris back in action
Harris scored on the Sixers’ opening offensive possession, taking a handoff from Drummond and driving in for a layup. Rust was not an apparent issue off the bat.
He looked solid overall in his first stint, letting the defense dictate his decision-making and finding open shooters with kick-out passes. Harris also made a nice play slipping a screen, although he was blocked at the rim by standout Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes.
Georges Niang subbed in for Harris five and a half minutes into the game. Expect the Sixers to be careful not to overdo it with Harris’ minutes on their upcoming trip, and aware that his cardio might not be 100 percent for a while.
As the game wore on, it became clear Harris wasn’t quite his normal self. He committed two turnovers early in the second quarter, one when he turned into a post double team, the other when he tossed an overly ambitious pass to a cutting Paul Reed.
Still, it’s positive that he’s been cleared to play again, went 37 minutes and didn't look miles away from his usual level.
Big men battles
Reed served as Drummond’s backup center and made a heck of a play almost immediately after entering the game. He blocked a Dalano Banton layup, sprinted down the floor, accepted a feed from Maxey, and then Euro stepped into a dunk.
Reed blew up several Raptors possessions purely through individual effort. As the first quarter wound down, Reed poked free a steal, scampered down the floor and gave the ball to Harris, who banked in a long three. Unfortunately for the Sixers, Harris released the shot just after the buzzer.
A negative note on Reed — and it's absolutely nitpicking given how well he's played in shorthanded situations — is that he's passed up a few open threes. Reed was a good shooter last year in the G League and would clearly be more valuable at the NBA level if defenses need to respect his jumper. Even short of that, it disrupts the offense's rhythm when Reed considers a three and then decides against it.
For some reason, the Raptors tried time and time again to dunk over Drummond. He denied attempts by Barnes, Achiuwa and OG Anunoby. Drummond limited Achiuwa to a 1-for-10 shooting night.
Though Drummond pulled down a game-high 12 boards, rebounding was a problem for the Sixers, especially during a pivotal third-quarter Raptors run. Toronto made much of that push playing a zone defense as Furkan Korkmaz missed four three-point tries in less than three and a half minutes.
“I thought we lost our pace in the stretch where they made the run," Rivers said. “That’s what I was on (Maxey) about. I asked our guys when we made the run back, ‘What was the difference?’ And they all said, ‘Well, we pushed the ball back up the floor, make or miss.’ During that one stretch we were walking the ball up the floor, and I thought that got (the Raptors) running.
“I thought their zone hurt us a little bit. We didn’t get into our stuff, our zone O, quick enough. And then on misses, they just shoved it down our throat and got to the basket I think four or five straight times. I thought that was the turning point of the game.”
Shake Milton was far more efficient off the bench than Korkmaz, chipping in 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting.
Korkmaz is 5 for 29 from the floor over the last two games, but Rivers isn't worried.
“The bottom line is we’re going to keep throwing him out there and we want him to keep throwing them up there," Rivers said.