76ers

Raptors 101, Sixers 96: Kawhi Leonard answers in Game 4 as series goes back to Toronto tied at 2-2

Raptors 101, Sixers 96: Kawhi Leonard answers in Game 4 as series goes back to Toronto tied at 2-2

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You have to give the Toronto Raptors credit.

After getting crushed in Game 3, they got off to a strong start in Game 4. Even after the Sixers took a lead in the second half and looked poised to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, Toronto fought back.

On the back of Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors were able to even the series at 2-2 with a thrilling 101-96 win in Game 4 at the Wells Fargo Center Sunday afternoon. The series heads back to Scotiabank Arena for Game 5 Tuesday night.

Here are observations from the loss:

• Leonard has been the Raptors’ only consistent threat offensively and the Sixers turned up the heat on him. Leonard went 6 of 10 in the first, but also committed four turnovers. They consistently double-teamed Leonard just about every time he made a move toward the paint. The pressure seemed to bother Leonard early and expose the fact that, for as great of a scorer as he is, he’s not that great of a passer.

But Leonard eventually got his, willing the Raptors to a win with a 14-point third quarter and eight-point fourth. He finished a point shy of his second 40-point performance of the series.

The team’s defense on Pascal Siakam has been so much better since his 12-of-15 performance in Game 1. He missed his first eight shots in this one. The Sixers are taking away his fast-break opportunities and forcing him into taking shots he doesn’t want to take.

• I’m not sure about the guy we saw in Game 1, but the Jimmy Butler we’ve seen in the last three games has been an absolute monster. He made a big jumper in the first quarter to stop the bleeding early and prevent the Raptors from piling on. He also made a huge three to close out the first half and get the Sixers within two.

Nick Nurse tried using little-used Patrick McCaw on Butler, but to no avail. McCaw was fighting, but Butler is just so damn strong. On one finish in particular, he took the ball right to the chest of Serge Ibaka. He finished through contact and probably should’ve gotten and and-one opportunity. Nurse eventually used Leonard on Butler. If that continues, Ben Simmons needs to win his matchup.

Fans chanted “Jim-my But-ler” throughout the fourth quarter and he earned it. He scored 10 of his 29 points in the final period and continued to play hard-nosed defense.

• Joel Embiid struggled yet again offensively, but his defensive presence was felt throughout. He was there to deter Leonard from getting to the rim. His help defense overall was outstanding as he viciously blocked two of Ibaka’s dunk attempts late in the second quarter.

Embiid had a tough go in the fourth quarter, making just 1 of 4 from the line and committing two crucial turnovers. Whether it’s physical or mental, the Sixers need way more out of the All-Star center, who finished with just 11 points on 2 of 7.

After the game, Embiid was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection.

• Tobias Harris didn’t have his most efficient game. He went just 2 of 13 from three and 7 of 23 overall. It was nice to see Harris playing without hesitation, but he missed a couple big threes that could’ve changed the momentum of the game. Harris is getting good looks. The Sixers need him to make them.

• This is simply a JJ Redick appreciation observation. He’s quietly been good on both ends during the series. He’s worked his butt off on defense, fighting through screens and taking elbows to the face.

Meanwhile, he’s still managed to hit big threes and his movement without the ball helps the entire offense. For a guy who almost got played off the floor in the second round against Boston last season, Redick is playing tremendously. He hit 4 of 7 from three and 6 of 9 overall for 19 points.

• It seemed like Nurse was pulling out all the stops and rightfully so. He used McCaw in hopes of getting a defensive spark. He used Marc Gasol with Ibaka in an attempt to go big and Ibaka rewarded him with strong minutes. After making successful adjustments in Game 2, it’ll be up to Brett Brown to adjust yet again in Game 5.

• James Ennis didn’t record his fourth straight game in double digits, but that didn’t mar his effectiveness. He was still providing energy, hitting the glass and making winning plays. Can’t give Elton Brand enough credit for getting this guy in a second-round pick swap with Houston.

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

On so many levels, the Sixers’ season hasn’t gone as planned. Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced the NBA to suspend play, the team was in an unenviable spot.

If the regular season is over, which seems like a distinct possibility, the Sixers would finish as the East’s sixth seed. A combination of fit, underperformance — especially away from the Wells Fargo Center — and injury put them there.

But if the NBA does resume at some point, where does that leave the 2019-20 Sixers?

There’s a train of thought that this break could benefit the Sixers. It’s a fair line of thinking. In fact, there may not be a team that would benefit more. 

Ben Simmons, who has been sidelined since Feb. 22 with nerve impingement in his lower back, will have more time to recover. Back on March 11, before we learned later that night that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus, Simmons spoke before the Sixers’ game against the Pistons. 

The All-Star point guard said he had “no pain” and was “confident” — though he did not give a timeline for his return. Earlier that day, the team released a statement which said Simmons would be re-evaluated in three weeks. That would put the re-evaluation at around April 1, with no indication the NBA season will resume any time soon.

Other than Simmons, the other four members of the regular starting lineup have dealt with injuries this season. 

Joel Embiid tore a ligament in his left ring finger and had a left shoulder sprain. Josh Richardson has dealt with injuries to both hamstrings, among other things. While Tobias Harris (right knee contusion) and Al Horford (left knee soreness, left hamstring tightness) haven’t missed much time, they’ve also been banged up this season.

All of this to say, maybe this break — as unfortunate as it is for the sport and for the world, really — winds up benefiting the Sixers. Everyone will be back to Point A when/if play resumes. If you’ll recall, the Sixers started this season 5-0. It seems like a distant memory, but it happened. Perhaps returning to full health will ignite a similar run.

Now, for the glass half-empty version.

Though being healthy will help, it won’t solve the myriad issues the Sixers had with their roster construction this season. If both Embiid and Horford are healthy, Brett Brown seems hellbent on trying to make the combo work. So far this season, the evidence has been against that being fruitful.

Richardson and Harris have had their moments this season, but neither has been exactly what the Sixers expected. Richardson’s skillset is one the Sixers need, but he’s on pace to have the worst three-point shooting season of his career. While Harris has been solid, he hasn’t been the near-max player the team thought they were getting.

As for Simmons, he was playing easily the best basketball of his career before his injury and seemed to be a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Will he be able to round into form and get ready for the playoffs in a hurry after such a long layoff?

Then the seven-foot, 280-plus pound elephant in the room — will Embiid be in good enough shape to play in an NBA game when the time comes?

The Sixers may be the most mystifying team in the NBA. It’s entirely possible they come out guns blazing, get their act together and go on a run. It seems just as feasible that their fit issues fester, and they’ll get bounced in the first round.

So while the basketball hiatus may benefit the Sixers, they’d still have to take advantage.

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

The Sixers had so many options heading into free agency last July.

We don’t know yet exactly when free agency will begin this year because of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the suspended NBA season. Whenever it does happen, though, the Sixers won’t have as many possibilities. 

The decisions to give Tobias Harris a five-year, $180 million contract and guarantee Al Horford $97 million over four years are the two clear, primary reasons the Sixers won’t be in an especially flexible position. In Year 1, those moves haven’t panned out as GM Elton Brand and the front office would have hoped.

In one major way, Horford has actually provided what the Sixers expected. As a backup center, he’s been quite good — the Sixers have a plus-5.2 net rating when Horford is on the floor and Joel Embiid is off it. He’s been much better than a hodgepodge of Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Jonah Bolden. 

However, many of the reasonable concerns that came with signing Horford have come to fruition. The Horford-Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of any two-man Sixers lineup that’s played at least 500 minutes together. If you want an idea of just how poor the offense has been when the two have shared the floor, consider this: Their 100.6 offensive rating together is almost six points worse than any of the Sixers’ two-man pairings last season (minimum 500 minutes). 

Though Brett Brown was talking about aiming to further develop Horford and Embiid together as recently as the day before the season was suspended, that combination is a problem. It’s not what the Sixers would have planned when they signed Horford, but the decision to move him out of the starting lineup in February was very sensible.

Horford has shot more three-pointers than ever in his career, but not at an efficient rate (33.7 percent, his worst mark since the 2014-15 season). We thought he’d likely decline in the later years of his contract and be costing the Sixers money at 35 or 36 years old. To put it bluntly, he’s cost the Sixers money in his first season, and has not fit well. 

Harris, in his ninth NBA season, has improved defensively, is second on the Sixers in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, after an 0-for-23 nightmare of a stretch, has shot 39.1 percent from three-point range. He’s the only Sixer to have played in every game, and younger players like Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok have praised his mentorship. All of that matters and is positive, but Harris has not been worth $32.7 million this season.

The main question now — outside of when basketball will return, of course — is whether the Sixers can repair their mistakes.

Is there a team out there that would be willing to take on Horford’s contract and give up any value in return? The Kings, who reportedly were expected to make a “massive offer” to Horford in free agency, are one team it would make sense to engage. Sharpshooter Buddy Hield would presumably be the name of interest.

Trading away Harris looks much less likely, although we’ve learned not to rule anything out during Brand’s brief tenure. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers receiving a worthwhile return, and Brown and Brand have often portrayed Harris as being an emerging player. They believe he’s going to get more and more comfortable and effective as a primary scoring option.

Josh Richardson, who’s suffered a variety of injuries in his first year a Sixer, is on a team-friendly deal. He shouldn’t be untouchable, but his perimeter defense and shot creation are important for this team, and they come at a good value.

Ben Simmons and Embiid are not what’s wrong with the Sixers and should not be traded at this stage. The pieces around them are the issues. Of course, judgement of whether those are issues the Sixers can overcome is incomplete. We don’t know yet how this roster would fare in the playoffs, and Brand has insisted his team was built with the postseason in mind. 

The Sixers would currently have a first-round pick in the draft — the top-20 protected Oklahoma City Thunder pick they acquired in the Markelle Fultz trade would convey — and that’s one of the ways they should be able to improve their roster. They’ve hit on Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Thybulle in the draft over the last couple of years. With how Brand has constructed the team, targeting a perimeter player who can shoot, capably create his own shot or do both would appear an obvious priority.

Fundamentally, nobody envisioned this NBA season unfolding the way it has. Whatever is next and whenever the offseason eventually begins, the Sixers will have to discern the best methods to address the unpleasant surprises of this season. 



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