3 observations after Sixers can't overcome defensive woes in Toronto


It's awfully tough to win in the NBA when you can't string together stops.

The Sixers played from behind Wednesday night in Toronto and never managed enough sustained defensive success to pull off a comeback victory. The Raptors shot 54.8 percent from the floor and 43.2 percent from three-point territory in a 119-109 win at Scotiabank Arena. They improved to 3-2 this season, while the Sixers fell to 1-4.

Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey each scored 31 points. 

Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr. posted 27 on 11-for-16 shooting. Pascal Siakam had a 20-point, 13-assist double-double. 

Otto Porter Jr. (left hamstring strain) was out.

The Sixers will stay in Toronto to play the Raptors again Friday. Here are observations on their loss Wednesday night: 

Embiid has his scoring touch 

As the Sixers know from last year’s postseason, Toronto plays many minutes without a traditional center. 

Scottie Barnes began the game guarding Embiid, though the big man always faces a crowd of defenders. The Sixers focused on getting Embiid touches at the nail to increase the difficulty of the Raptors sending effective double teams. That worked well early, as did just about anything Embiid tried. He bailed out a bad possession with a three-pointer at the end of the shot clock. James Harden (18 points, nine assists, seven rebounds) also got him an easy two points in transition, throwing the ball up to Embiid in the paint for a layup that tied the game at 15-all. Embiid made his first five field goals. 

His physicality was also a big reason why OG Anunoby, Khem Birch and Christian Koloko all accumulated three or more fouls in the opening half. The Sixers tended to look good when their stars attacked in half-court offense as the Embiid-Harden-Maxey trio scored 41 of the team’s 53 first-half points.

The Sixers asked Embiid to hedge on some pick-and-rolls, come up higher than usual on others, and overall do a lot of defending on the perimeter. It frequently left the team appearing vulnerable without a true back-line defender. On his first possession against fellow Cameroonian Koloko, Embiid allowed the rookie to score a rolling layup off of a Fred VanVleet dish. Koloko then had an impressive rejection of an attempted Maxey dunk. 

Offensively, Embiid sure seems to have found a nice rhythm after his 6-for-21 outing last week against the Bucks. He converted a three for the second half’s first points, reducing a Sixers deficit as high as 17 down to seven. Embiid also sunk fadeaway jumpers and spun away from double teams on his way to 12 points in the third. 

Siakam with ample trash-talk material 

In years past, P.J. Tucker’s reputation has been that he’s both very willing and very able to guard opposing teams’ top offensive options. 

On Wednesday, the Sixers put him on Siakam, a decision that couldn’t have turned out much worse in the first half. Siakam started 4 for 4 from three-point range and exchanged words with both Tucker and the Sixers’ bench after a couple of the makes, undoubtedly indicating he’s worthy of respect from long distance. The two-time All-NBA selection had shot 31.8 percent from three over the past two-plus seasons. 

He showed off his strength a bit in the second quarter, too. Though Tucker is the sturdier player at first glance, Siakam was able to grab a defensive rebound, go coast to coast, and displace Tucker with a firm, well-timed shoulder before laying the ball in. 

A major defensive question against Toronto is often simply whether players who are capable long-range shooters but not generally elite marksmen can hit open and semi-guarded threes. The Sixers didn’t have much early luck in that area. For instance, Chris Boucher canned a top-of-the-key triple on his first touch, and he drilled a corner three early in the second to give the Raptors a 43-32 lead. A couple of minutes later, he beat Georges Niang on a back-door cut and slammed in a dunk. 

Wide-open threes are more troubling, and the Sixers permitted quite a few of those. They also let Anunoby drive in for a dunk that stretched Toronto’s advantage to 51-38. With the Sixers’ defense scrambling, De’Anthony Melton stunted out at Anunoby but left him free to explode into the paint. 

The team failed to be disruptive at all in the first half. Toronto had just one turnover before intermission.

The Raptors had the Sixers constantly backpedaling and ended the night with a 29-17 edge in fast-break points. While Toronto is excellent at making players that aren't especially nimble look downright slow, the Sixers can’t just chalk this up to the opponent. Their transition defense had been poor over the first four games, too. 

Not much offense beyond Big 3  

The Sixers played zone here and there Wednesday, something they’d done effectively last postseason in their Game 6 playoff win over Toronto. Trent broke it at a key moment in the third quarter, draining a three that put the Raptors up 81-71. 

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers inserted Paul Reed late in the third. It made sense to change something up given the team’s woes to that point. Reed drew Siakam on a switch and stayed with him well, but the officials whistled a foul on Siakam’s favored left-to-right spin move, a call the Sixers’ bench objected to vehemently. 

The Sixers lost largely because of their defense, but the team's lack of complementary offensive production also hurt. Starting forwards Tucker and Tobias Harris combined for 11 points on 4-for-15 shooting in 65 minutes. Niang and Danuel House Jr. missed threes near the end of the third that could have cut Toronto's lead down to four points. Melton recorded 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting and five assists. In total, the Sixers' other bench players had six points and zero assists. 

Increasingly, it’s looked like Maxey no longer falls under the “supporting cast” umbrella. 

After blocking a mid-range jumper by VanVleet (15 points, eight assists), he burst in for the game's first hoop. Maxey was flawed defensively — like every Sixer — but he did exert good ball pressure at times. On the other end, he sustained an aggressive approach throughout the game and wasn’t deterred by missed threes. Maxey attempted a team-high eight and made four of them. 

Ultimately, this won't be a winning formula for the Sixers. The team wasn't wrong to care about becoming tougher this offseason, but players besides Embiid, Maxey and Harden will need to make important shots. And everyone will have to play significantly better defense than they did Wednesday night.

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