The Sixers’ road struggles against the Raptors continued Sunday night, even in a game that did not take place in Toronto.
Playing at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, Florida, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sixers fell to the Raptors, 110-103, dropping to 20-11 on the season.
Ben Simmons posted 28 points, nine rebounds and five assists, while Joel Embiid notched 25 points and 17 rebounds the game after scoring a career-high 50. Danny Green had five steals and two blocks but fouled out with 6:40 remaining.
Fred VanVleet (23 points, nine assists) and Pascal Siakam (23 points, eight assists) were standouts for Toronto, and Chris Boucher’s 5-for-6 night from beyond the arc hurt the Sixers.
The Sixers and Raptors will conclude their two-game mini-series Tuesday night. Here are observations on Sunday’s game:
Simmons picks up where he left off
Playing in his first game since scoring a career-high 42 points, it seemed none of Simmons’ offensive aggression faded during his illness-related absence. He scored five of the Sixers’ first seven points by pushing the ball ahead in the open floor whenever possible and plowing through contact to reach the rim.
Simmons maintained that approach throughout the entire first half, shooting 6 for 8 from both the field and the free throw line. His sharp defensive instincts were on display, too.
Following his 10-for-14 evening at the foul line, Simmons is 22 of 27 on free throws over his last two games.
“Sometimes it just takes a little bit before you see what we’re trying to do, and Ben’s doing it," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s aggressive; he’s getting to the basket; he’s making plays; he’s forcing double teams with his speed. And our goal before the year was to see if he could get to the foul line 10 times a night, and he did that.”
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse mentioned before the game that the way potential All-Stars play against his team typically impacts how he votes for the Eastern Conference’s seven reserves, which will be announced Tuesday night. We’re assuming Simmons boosted his case for being on Nurse’s ballot with his performance Sunday.
Raptors (relatively) slow down Embiid
Six-foot-seven OG Anunoby took the opening tip-off against Embiid as Toronto started out by playing small ball. The Raptors tried to stymie Embiid by fronting him and immediately sending traps whenever he caught the ball anywhere near the basket. Familiar foe Aron Baynes also factored into Nurse’s diverse defensive game plan and started the second half, though true 1-on-1 chances were very sparse for Embiid.
While he wasn’t nearly as good as normal in the mid-range and shot 6 for 20 from the floor, Embiid's decision-making was generally solid when double teamed.
“As soon as I crossed half court, they sent two, three guys at me to make sure that I wasn’t going to be the one that beat them tonight," Embiid said. “Overall, I thought I stayed within myself and within the team concept, and I made a lot of passes out of it. We just didn’t make enough shots tonight.”
Toronto’s defensive scheme was conducive to three-point opportunities for the Sixers. The team went 11 for 37 from long range, its most three-point tries in a game since Jan. 14. Embiid’s passing led to several crisp possessions in which the Sixers swung the ball around the perimeter and forced Toronto to scramble. To the Raptors' credit, they're a strong defensive team on those types of sequences.
Simmons acknowledged what Toronto did well defensively while noting the Sixers missed shots they usually make, a consensus among the members of the team that spoke to reporters after the game.
“They cover for each other, communicate and move pretty well," Simmons said. “I think overall, we got a lot of great looks on offense. They just didn’t fall. … It’s just the way the game went.”
Tobias Harris had an uncharacteristically rough first quarter, shooting 1 for 9 from the floor and being scored on a couple of times in isolation against Siakam. None of the shots he attempted were inadvisable, but his misses allowed VanVleet’s flurry of four three-pointers to swing the momentum in Toronto’s favor during a 20-2 run to end the quarter.
He fared better after that, recording 13 points on 6-for-17 shooting and seven assists in the game, but the Sixers could’ve used a more effective third scoring option Sunday night, especially when Embiid and the team as a whole were having trouble producing down the stretch.
Searching for answers with the bench
Shake Milton returned after sitting out five games with a left ankle sprain, and he was the Sixers’ first substitute. He replaced Simmons, whom Rivers later played with four members of the Sixers’ second unit. It’s become clear to Rivers that using all-bench lineups is a dangerous game with the current roster.
“We’ve got to have Tobias, Joel or Ben with that unit,” he said Friday. “And when we don’t, sometimes you just look at the lead. Tonight was one of those things where honestly, I was just looking at the score. You could see it’s going to be one of these games where it’s going to come down to the end. We used the second unit in the second half to get to eight minutes. That’s what we were trying to do.”
Isaiah Joe was part of the rotation again, while Furkan Korkmaz did not appear until Matisse Thybulle picked up his third foul (and a technical) early in the second quarter.
Korkmaz’s place has felt tenuous for a while, especially so after he’d made only 3 of his last 19 field goals entering Sunday’s game. His defense and decision-making have certainly not been positives either. He was 0 for 2 in two first-half minutes against Toronto.
Joe played several strong defensive possessions when matched up with Norman Powell, tracking him well off the ball, eliminating potential driving angles and taking a charge on one play where Powell tried to power through the rookie.
Speaking after the Sixers’ shootaround Sunday morning, Joe credited the team’s veterans for helping him adjust to not having much certainty about his playing time in the NBA.
“Even when I come in, take some shots and miss them or make them, they’re always keeping me up and telling me that this is just part of the job, it’s part of the game,” he said. “Just working every day, continuing to grind, and everything else is basketball — nothing changes.”
Unlike Simmons, Milton did not hit the ground running in his return. He missed his first five field goals before breaking the ice by knocking down a three-pointer from the top of the key in the third quarter. Milton later drained two more threes and finished with nine points on 3-for-11 shooting and two assists in 29 minutes.
“Keep working on it," Rivers said when asked about his bench, which was outscored 35-16 by the Raptors' second unit. “It’s 31 games into the season. It hasn’t been this way all year with our bench, it’s just been this way lately. We’ll work our way through it. I thought in the second half, we never matched up correctly as far as in transition. I thought that’s where they beat us more. And then we couldn’t score. We’ll fix it.”