3 observations after Sixers lose a defensive struggle to Raptors


Perhaps the best way to describe the Sixers' performance in the first leg of a home back-to-back Sunday night is profoundly cold.

They fell to a 93-88 loss to the Raptors at Wells Fargo Center and dropped to 43-27 on the season.

After two missed free throws by Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes, the Sixers were down 90-88 and took a timeout with a little over seven seconds left. James Harden drove into the paint and was called for a charge on Chris Boucher. Upon review, the officials deemed Harden's foul a Flagrant 1 and Toronto closed out the win.

“I just didn’t think we had the right approach," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “Don’t know why, but we didn’t tonight. Everyone just stood around and watched each other play. That’s not how we’ve been playing. It’s funny, you feel like you’re getting it and then you have one of these. You don’t overdo it, but we did not play with any urgency tonight at all offensively or defensively. And we still held them to 93 points.”

Joel Embiid scored 21 points on 6-for-20 shooting and pulled down 13 rebounds. Harden had 17 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and six turnovers. Tyrese Maxey posted 19 points. 

Pascal Siakam scored 26 and Precious Achiuwa added 21 for the Raptors.

Toronto’s Fred VanVleet (right knee injury management), OG Anunoby (right ring finger fracture) and Malachi Flynn (left hamstring strain) were out. 

The Sixers will host the Heat on Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Here are observations on their loss to the Raptors:

Lots of sparks from Thybulle

A strong Matisse Thybulle offensive start again played a significant role in the Sixers seizing an early lead.

Thybulle scored eight of the Sixers’ first 12 points, sinking two three-pointers and a layup off of a pick-and-roll with Harden. Efficient scoring from Thybulle is always a nice bonus for the Sixers. Twenty-two points on nine field-goal attempts over his last two games certainly qualifies. 

Out of a Toronto timeout, Thybulle picked up Barnes full court and stripped the ball from him, creating a Sixers fast break and Maxey dunk that put the team ahead 28-12. Every opponent knows how dangerous Thybulle is, but we’ve seen that a scouting report generally isn’t sufficient for a young player to grasp Thybulle’s game. 

Thybulle notched another defensive highlight early in the third quarter, sneaking from behind to block a Gary Trent Jr. jumper. And a savvy back-tap on Achiuwa eventually led to two Embiid foul shots. 

Thybulle played 34 minutes, his most since the Sixers' trade for Harden, and recorded 12 points, four blocks and three steals. His play was a bright spot.

Offense a serious struggle final three quarters 

Varied defensive looks are inevitable against teams led by Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.

The Sixers didn’t seem uncomfortable with anything Toronto threw their way in the first quarter, though. The team shot 60 percent in the opening period and had zero turnovers.

Both Harden and Maxey were on the money early as decision makers. Harden hit Embiid with a pocket pass for an easy mid-range jumper, a shot that’s been there frequently for the big man as opponents swarm Harden on pick-and-rolls. Harden also scored a fast-break layup and, in an uncommon occurrence this season, the Sixers did not appear the inferior transition team. 

Maxey bailed the Sixers out of a haphazard zone offense possession by draining a corner three. With a 2-for-4 game from long range, he’s made 100 threes in his second season on 41.3 percent shooting. As a rookie, Maxey converted just 31 triples on 30.1 percent shooting. 

Maxey drove directly into Achiuwa, absorbed substantial contact and hung in the air before conjuring an and-one layup to give the Sixers a 51-41 lead. That sensational play aside, though, the team had a rough second quarter. After scoring 37 points in the first, the Sixers only managed 17 in the second. Embiid and Harden combined for 16 first-half points on 6-for-18 shooting. 

Tobias Harris’ jump shots weren’t falling either — the Embiid-Harden-Harris trio missed every one of its 11 three-point tries in the game — and the veteran forward bumped into foul trouble for a second straight outing. He was called for his fourth foul with nine minutes and five seconds left in the third, leading to Georges Niang’s entry. 

With the Sixers switching on ball screens, the Raptors targeted the Siakam vs. Niang matchup for a few possessions. Niang wasn’t a stone wall, but he mostly held up fine and Maxey swung the game with one of his third-quarter bursts.

He did his part defensively, too, getting into Trent’s body and contributing to an especially engaged, active stretch by the Sixers. Toronto went scoreless for over five minutes and posted just 12 points in the third period. As the final score suggests, generating good offense was a grind for both teams most of the night.

Surprising twist with bench

The matchup with the Raptors figured to be a challenging one for DeAndre Jordan given Toronto’s considerable nimbleness across the board. 

It did not start well. The Sixers lost Jordan’s first stint by five points and the 33-year-old’s play was undoubtedly a key reason why. His defensive instincts weren't sharp and he couldn’t snag any contested rebounds. Toronto crashed the glass hard and grabbed 12 offensive boards in the first half. Barnes leaped for an and-one, put-back layup with 2.9 seconds left in the second quarter, giving Toronto a 57-54 halftime edge. 

“We talked about it all day — about how you have to go block them out first and then turn," Rivers said. “Instead, we turned. They’re bigger, they’re longer. So if you just turn, they’re just going to jump over your back and get the ball a lot, and that’s what they did. We just got our butt kicked.”

The big rebounding disparity magnified the impact of every late-game turnover, including an intercepted Harris post entry pass and a slightly wayward Maxey transition feed intended for Thybulle. If the Sixers make similar giveaways in the playoffs, the team will likely stew over them. 

The Embiid-less second-half minutes were similarly poor for the Sixers. So much is on Harden's plate when he's surrounded by bench players and often must spark something from scratch. He had a tough stretch early in the fourth in which he threw a pass off Jordan's shoulder, conceded a steal to Barnes, and committed a charge.

“For me personally, I’ve got to play better as far as the turnovers — some of them were careless; helping rebound; just small things I can control, I’ve got to do a better job of that and I will going forward," Harden said. 

In a surprising move, Rivers played Paul Reed meaningful minutes for the first time since Harden's debut. Reed didn't do anything outrageous and had a few solid defensive sequences, but he got just three second-half minutes. His presence obviously did not enhance the Sixers' spacing around Harden.

Neither Harden nor Embiid came through for the Sixers in crunch time. Harden missed two foul shots with the Sixers trailing 87-86, and he couldn't convert a layup with the deficit at 89-86. Embiid saw a late turnaround jumper go in and out. 

Embiid was not available to reporters after the game because he was hit in the mouth during the fourth quarter and seeing the Sixers' dentist, a team official said. He'd been listed as questionable for a third straight game with back soreness.

Since sitting out the Sixers' March 5 loss to Miami as part of the plan to manage the left hamstring injury that sidelined him during his final days with the Nets, Harden has appeared in seven consecutive games and averaged approximately 39 minutes. He said he planned to play Monday.

“I’m good," he said. “What is this, 12 games for me? Really like 10, 11 (active). So I’m just trying to keep my pace and my energy up. It’s a lot of minutes and I’m trying to produce, trying to get to the basket. I’m trying to just be involved in mostly every possession. I feel good. I feel good for now.

“I’ve just got to keep going, keep working on every single possession, making sure I’m involved, which comes with cardio and comes with just being on the court and being active every possession.”

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