The Sixers on Monday exorcised two demons.
After nearly blowing a 21-point lead, the Sixers managed to take down one of the East's elite, holding on for dear life in a 117-111 win (see observations) over the Raptors during a Martin Luther King Day matinee game at the Wells Fargo Center.
Coming into today, they were 0-8 against the likes of Boston, Cleveland and Toronto — the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. They had managed just one against the Raptors in the last five seasons combined before today's win.
It took a strong defensive effort against Toronto's dynamic backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Philly native Kyle Lowry.
"We tried to keep fresh bodies on them and we ended up doing quite a bit of switching," head coach Brett Brown said. "I think that the rules, by and large, of what we were doing in pick-and-roll were solid, I thought we executed them well. But I think that individually we understood that those two, when they get going, generate most of their wins and we understood that and I give credit to our guys, a collective group of guarding them."
As a team, Toronto shot 40 percent from the field and just 28 percent from three. A big part of that, as Brown alluded to, was the Sixers' ability to stifle DeRozan and Lowry. The duo combined to score 37 points on 11 of 34 (32 percent) from the field.
Other than giving a stellar effort against Toronto's All-Star guards, the Sixers didn't help themselves out too much. They turned the ball over 21 times against the second-best team in the conference and lived to tell about it.
There were some anxious moments down the stretch, but the Sixers held on.
"I think it shows how good we can be," backup point guard T.J. McConnell said of the win. "Twenty-one turnovers is ridiculously bad. Obviously blowing that lead ... we just got to be more mature with leads like that and continue to execute and lock up on defense and limit turnovers."
McConnell was nothing short of spectacular. The third-year guard scored a career-high 18 points on 8 of 13 from the field. He also added eight assists, six rebounds, three steals and a dustup with DeRozan in the second quarter, which resulted in double technicals (see video).
Big man Joel Embiid, who was spectacular in his own right with 34 points and 11 boards (see video), was effusive in his praise for McConnell.
"He was great the whole game," Embiid said. "He brought some energy. We moved the ball with him on the court and he found me. He's a great piece for us and he helped us a lot."
The Sixers had been in this situation before and they're likely to see it a lot more as the season goes on. There was a particularly odd sequence with the Sixers holding a 113-108 lead with 25.3 seconds remaining in the game.
McConnell stole an inbounds pass, which led to a Robert Covington missed layup. After Lowry turned the ball over again, Ben Simmons came up with another steal. He proceeded to miss a dunk which Embiid rebounded and then missed a layup of his own before eventually getting fouled.
All of this could've been avoided if the Sixers just took the rebound and dribbled the ball out.
"All we've got to do is dribble it out and instead we're playing volleyball," Brown said. "Just dribble it out and spread it out and just win the game.
"That's the stuff that keeps me up late — really, really late — at night, but we found a way to win. To our team's credit, we went on a 7-0 run when the game was in the balance.
"It's not a mystery to me why this stuff happens. And it's not as simple as, 'OK, now you know why you're sick, here's the medicine to fix it.' It's growing a bunch of young guys. It's part of the challenge."
A second-half collapse avoided with a win over an Eastern Conference giant will hopefully provide the Sixers a remedy going forward.