Attacking Embiid became a theme as the night went on, with Achiuwa one of the prime perpetrators. Does he have confidence when he attacks one of the best defenders?
“Yes,” Achiuwa said, “of course.”
Achiuwa has not lacked for confidence during his first season with the Raptors, and the team has nurtured that confidence instead of reining it in to pigeonhole him is to the team’s credit. His offence is much better than it was at the beginning of the year, but it is still an adventure on the right — or wrong — night. His defence? Well, it can change a series.
Achiuwa has guarded Embiid the most of any 76er, but Harden is up next. Embiid has scored 37 points on 15-for-27 shooting against Achiuwa, but the field goal percentage isn’t the point. Embiid has seven turnovers and just three assists, which shows Achiuwa is able to hold up well enough defensively for long enough to allow help to arrive. Moreover, the 76ers have scored only 115 points on the 142.5 possessions he has been matched up against Embiid, per NBA.com.
Meanwhile, Harden is just 2-for-9 against Achiuwa, with five assists and four turnovers. The Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll can be lethal, so having a player who can so capably defend both is massive.
“Guarding Embiid is a team job, but at the same time, he’s the initial defender out there,” Pascal Siakam said. “He’s guarding Harden, and he can guard anybody — and I think that’s huge for us. And then on offence, just taking the shots that’s there. Most of the time, if you have the (centre) on you, you’re gonna have shots. (You have to be) ready to take them and he’s been doing that.”
“He’s a special talent,” said OG Anunoby, whose own defensive versatility has helped in similar ways, with his matchup splits more or less reversed, “and he’s just growing in front of everyone.”
Again, the amazing thing is that this is being allowed to happen on this stage. The Raptors did not always ace striking the balance between developing their young players and wanting to win games this year, but Achiuwa’s opportunities rarely waned. Given the Raptors’ aversion to the very concept of positions, it is ironic that positional scarcity was the main reason for that. The Raptors have no traditional 7-footers, and Anunoby and Birch, two of the bulkier, stronger members of the 6-8 army, were two of the most injured players on the roster this season. That meant Achiuwa had to be out there every game, even if his workload fluctuated. Achiuwa played just 19 minutes per game in February, after averaging nearly 27 in November.
His constant presence meant living with the botched alley-oops and the directionless drives. It also meant allowing a player who took just a single 3-pointer last year in Miami to start firing them, and eventually making them. Achiuwa’s shot hasn’t been much of a weapon in this series, but there’s still time.
In the Raptors’ two wins, Harden is averaging just 18.5 points a game and eight assists while shooting just 32 per cent from the floor. In Game 3 — which the Sixers only won after Embiid’s game-winning turnaround at the buzzer in overtime — Harden fouled out, picking up four of those fouls in seven minutes of floor time in the fourth quarter, which at the very least could be interpreted as poor defence, but could also be looked at as a player subconsciously allowing himself to be removed from the game.
Which sounds a bit far-fetched until you remember that Harden — for all his regular-season accolades and accomplishments — has a list of playoff no-shows long enough that it’s fair to wonder if he’s prone to freezing in the moment.
Harden has played 142 playoff games (and counting), so it’s probably unfair to cherry pick his worst moments — but then again there are a lot to choose from, such as his 2-of-11 clunker with 12 turnovers when facing elimination in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals in 2015, or his 2-of-11 night with six turnovers when facing elimination in Game 6 of the conference semi-finals in 2017, or his 2-of-11 game with five turnovers with the series hanging in the balance in the second round in 2020.
In the seven games Harden’s teams have been eliminated from the playoff since he left his sixth-man role with Oklahoma City, The Bearded One is averaging more than seven turnovers a game.
So when he falters in key moments such as his relative no-show on Monday night — and it’s hard to categorize Harden’s 4-of-11 shooting and five turnovers in a home game with a chance to advance to the second round as anything else — it’s only reasonable that red flags get raised.
“I’ve been saying all season since he got here, he needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself,” Embiid said after Game 5. “That’s not really my job, that’s probably on coach [Doc Rivers] to talk to him and tell him to take more shots — especially if they’re going to guard me the way they’ve been guarding. But that’s really not my job.”
“When I was getting doubled, we were not aggressive attacking the ball,” Embiid added. “We just kept moving the ball around the perimeter, and that gave them time to recover, and that’s why we were not able to get anything out of it.”
Harden’s explanation? “I took 11 shots.”
But the Raptors are part of the problem.
Toronto has used OG Anunoby as their primary defender on Harden so far in the series, giving him someone bigger, quicker, and stronger to try to maneuver around and the results have been telling: The Sixers have scored just 70 points on 104 possessions with Anunoby as the primary defender on Harden and the Sixers guard has scored just 10 points total in five games in the matchup.
The next-most frequent defender has been Scottie Barnes, who presents a similar profile to Anunoby. The Sixers have scored just 61 points on 63.5 possessions with Barnes guarding Harden, with Harden managing just six points on 1-of-8 shooting.
But Harden has his own issues. Anecdotally he seems to have lost a step since suffering a hamstring tear in the playoffs last year with Brooklyn. He’s shooting just 40 per cent on drives so far against the Raptors — he shot 64 per cent in the 2020 playoffs — this after a season when he shot less than 60 per cent from inside three feet for the first times since his rookie season. Harden has shot 63.7 per cent from that distance for his career, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
By any measure, it’s not the kind of superstar production the Sixers were hoping for when they moved mountains to bring The Bearded One to Philadelphia.
So, how much panic is appropriate? When in doubt, I check with the casinos.
According to our friends at Draft Kings, the Sixers are 1.5 point favorites for Game 6. Their -120 game odds offers bettors an implied 54.5 percent chance the Sixers emerge victorious with their second win in hostile territory of the series. In short, Vegas is thinking Sixers in Six, by the skin of their teeth. Let’s go.
As for the series odds, Draft Kings says the Sixers (-800) have an implied 89 percent chance to advance to the second round, and the Raptors (+550) have a 15 percent chance to move on. Let’s split the difference where the markets are taking their cut, and call it 87-13 percent in favor of Philly. Well, that’s awesome.
That’s a pretty resounding “do not panic” from the teeming hoards of number crunching, anonymous nerds who make lines.
Hopefully it’s merely my self-protective fan instinct speaking now, but I find those odds a bit overconfident.
My concern is that the Raptors should actually be favored in Game 6, and will win that one. And then there would be an enormity of pressure on the Sixers for Game 7 at the crib. This whole season basically feels like a house money, free-roll for Toronto, who only just left the NBA Draft lottery with Scottie Barnes a handful of months ago. They didn’t head into this postseason with the title-or-bust vibes Philly has played with since executing the James Harden trade.
If you’re panic prone, I’m not going to try and stop you. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been operating with a certain level of panic ever since I spotted Ramona Shelburne’s tweet about Embiid’s thumb following Game 3. The truth is that the Sixers probably need Embiid to be near 100 percent in order to win another 13 games, the number they’d need to earn a parade.
The rightful MVP has been nowhere close to that since his apparent adrenaline surge during the second half of Game 3. Harden hasn’t found a way to turn back the clock and inspire confidence that Embiid at 65 percent is going to be good enough to eliminate four teams. So if you want to panic, fine. Knock yourself out. I’ll be doing some also. It’s always something.
I do think the Sixers wrap this up in Game 7, but I will no longer be surprised if they do not. I’d ballpark the Raptors odds closer to 24 percent than 13 to do the unthinkable.
But Dave how can you possibly panic if you’re saying the Sixers have an implied 76 percent chance to make the second round?
Well, I’m having my cake and getting nauseous from eating it too. Should Philly get it done, they’d likely have to turn right around and steal Game 1 or 2 down in perhaps Miami. It’s pretty tough. Or is it?
As a fan, I’m going to do my very best to remind myself: the casinos absolutely love the Sixers’ chances of beating the Raptors one more time this season. I’ll meditate on that until tip off Thursday and commence my hours-long anxiety session until we have a result. Being a sports fan is easy and fun and so can you! I can see a path to the Eastern Conference Finals. And I can see a path towards painful infamy.
We’re at a crossroads and what we need most is some Tyrese Maxey cross-overs.
“I think I’m in a situation where I try to protect it,” he said following Philadelphia’s Game 6 loss to the Toronto Raptors. “So before I even attack or if I even get the ball it’s almost like I’m not playing freely. I’m like if I do this I might get hit or I might get hurt and so I think I just got to get out of that mentally and I guess hope for the best and just be myself and not think about which move can put me in a bad position to get hit or get hurt even more.”
Embiid wasn’t bad by any means on Monday night, but he wasn’t himself. He was 7-for-15 with 20 points and got to the line for just six free throws. Sure, Toronto swarmed him, doubling him on the catch most of the night to get the ball out of his hands, but he wasn’t playing with the same kind of aggressiveness he had earlier in the series.
“I thought he was OK,” Doc Rivers said. “The only time I saw it was there was a loose ball that he clearly could have got. I think it was in the second quarter that he didn’t reach for and I get that. So you’ve just got to live with stuff like that. Those are the ones that he’ll probably later grab but right now he’s probably concerned by (it).”
The Raptors aren’t going to celebrate Embiid’s injury by any means, but they certainly want him to think about the thumb when he’s attacking them on offense. If he’s at all hesitant or unwilling to play with the kind of physicality he’s known for, that’s a major advantage for Toronto.
— Have the Siakam doubters eaten enough crow yet? At his first all-star appearance 26 months ago he told me in a 1-on-1 about where he’d go from there: “I don’t put any cap on anything. I never put any cap on anything I could accomplish, and I’m not going to start now.”
What a ride it’s been for Siakam. From hero, to goat and back to hero. What a rebirth. LeBron James had cautioned at that all-star weekend when asked about Siakam: “It’s not promised that you’ll be here (at the all-star game) next year. But the way he’s playing, he’ll probably be here a lot,” James had said. And he looks right on both counts.
How far can Siakam go? Kawhi Leonard closed big playoff games the way Siakam has the last two. Vince Carter did at times. DeMar DeRozan and Chris Bosh never did as Raptors. And he did it with all-star Fred VanVleet out and rookie standout Barnes at far less than 100%.
— OG Anunoby has thrived on the biggest stage. He’s been dangerous offensively, but even more impactful on defence. As a key part of the switching, earth-shrinking group of long-armed disruptors the Raptors employ, Anunoby has been nothing short of a menace. Whether he’s bothering James Harden, doing his best against Joel Embiid or limiting Tyrese Maxey, Anunoby is basically conducting a masterclass of how to defend.
Harden is not his old self by any means, but he can’t seem to do anything against Anunoby. It should be noted that even when he was an MVP favourite, Harden had issues having big nights against Anunoby. It was the rookie version that held Harden to 8-25 shooting in a Raptors win and then two of Harden’s worst shooting games the next season as well.
— Anunoby is as good as it gets defensively. The only thing stopping him from getting the votes to land on an all-defensive team are how many games he misses each season.
— Ja Morant won most improved player (doesn’t make sense to me, he was already a sure-fire all-star, it would be like last year’s sixth-place finisher Luka Doncic having won last year), but did anyone improve as much in-season as Precious Achiuwa? And he isn’t done yet. He’s getting better as these playoffs go along. Joel Embiid looked exhausted and Achiuwa took it right at him. That needs to continue.
— Didn’t expect Khem Birch to get the start after he didn’t play following six first quarter minutes in Game 4. Birch was good in that one, but it appeared they wanted more offence out of their centre. Instead he was back and had another great first few minutes before tailing off. The eight Raptors rotation players all gave their all and each contributed to the win in a true team effort.
There wasn’t much to argue after the opening two games in Philadelphia. Toronto arrived undermanned, with starting shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. suffering from a virus that rendered him a nonfactor and veteran reserve Thad Young nursing a taped-up left thumb. Add in the Game 1 ankle sprain to rookie of the year Scottie Barnes, who was out in Games 2 and 3, not to mention the knee injury that rendered starting point guard Fred VanVleet ineffective before he went down with a hip flexor strain in Game 4 and, well, let’s just say for an ugly moment there the Raptors were a shell of their short-benched selves.
But a lot has changed since the Sixers went up 3-0. It has become clear that the torn ligament in the shooting thumb of Philly centre Joel Embiid is a major hindrance to the scoring champ’s productivity. While it’s true Embiid hit the spectacular game-winning three-pointer in Game 3 while nursing the same injury, he wasn’t the same in Games 4 and 5. He’s gone from averaging 28 points in the opening three contests to 21 in the most recent two. He’s thinking about the injury. And it bodes well for Toronto.
“I’m in a situation where I try to protect (the injured thumb),” Embiid said after Game 4. “Before I even attack or before I get the ball, I’m not playing freely. I’m like, ‘If I do this, I might get hit, or I might get hurt.’ ”
You don’t need to be a soft-to-the-touch psychologist to sense the tension in Sixersland. On Monday, Rivers pointed out Embiid’s reluctance to snatch a loose ball for fear of further injuring his thumb — which, by the way, the Sixers have insisted can’t be made worse — and you could almost hear the coach’s eyes roll.
“You’ve just got to live with stuff like that,” said Rivers, who was clearly having trouble living with it. “Those are the ones that he’ll probably later grab. But right now …”
76ers centre Joel Embiid and Raptors counterpart Khem Birch wait for a call after getting tied up in Game 5. Embiid’s effectiveness in the series has waned since the Sixers took a 3-0 series lead.
Right now, the coach seemed to say, Embiid is being what he’s always been: easily swayed by the setback of the moment. As for Embiid, when he was asked if he’d like to see teammate James Harden attempt more than the 11 field goals he launched in Game 5, with Embiid passing frequently in the face of clockwork double teams, he was quick to point at his coach.
“That’s not really my job. That’s probably on Coach to talk to him and tell him to take more shots,” Embiid said.
Harden, too, dished off blame. “If everyone’s in their spots and knows what they’re doing, our offence will run a lot smoother,” he said, pointing to a lack of on-court organization that is either an indictment of the coaching staff or unnamed teammates.
Speaking of good reason to believe in a Raptors comeback, Rivers is a career 15-31 in post-season closeout games. Those 31 losses are an NBA record. Pat Riley ranks second in that category with 27, but Riley has 40 closeout wins. So, yes, Rivers has some scars to go with the 2008 championship ring he won helming the Celtics.
Who’s the superior tactician in this series? Toronto’s Nurse, who is now 4-1 in elimination games during his short career, is certainly the profession’s golden boy.
It’s hard to do when you’re healthy and playing. It’s infinitely harder when you’re injured and simply focused on getting back on the court.
But somehow through it all Raptors head coach Nick Nurse and his staff had enough healthy bodies to finish the year with 48 wins and a fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
And now those lessons learned as they played through injury and illness and overcame one absence over another just plugging the holes with that favourite athlete manta ‘Next man up’, the Raptors are once again putting them to use in a playoff run that looked dead on arrival but now feels destined for another series.
Perhaps without all those injuries, Scottie Barnes isn’t ready to assume the role of No. 4 in the rotation in terms of minutes and importance to the team.
The NBA Rookie of the Year was always going to get a long look and extended minutes, but would he have got the experience leading this team in the absence of those key players had everyone stayed healthy?
Barnes in no way looks like a rookie in this series. A rookie gets stepped on by Joel Embiid and can’t feel his foot for a couple of days doesn’t come back three games later and just resume his experience.
With Fred VanVleet out Barnes had no time to baby his injury. He figured that out in a tough regular season.
Does Precious Achiuwa, a guy who looked out of control for a large chunk of the early part of the season, suddenly have the discipline and the confidence to look Embiid in the eye and basically tell him he’s no longer going to be allowed to do what he wants.
Embiid had his way in the first three games of this series but in the last two Achiuwa has been a huge reason – along with Khem Birch and Siakam, and Thad Young – for why Embiid is looking and sounding so frustrated.
As Achiuwa took his seat at the podium to discuss the Raptors improbable and potentially historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit after a Game 5 win, he answered every question about his state of mind before the first one was uttered.
As he adjusted the microphone to make sure his words were clear Achiuwa suggested to one and all that his “drip” or outfit for the evening was deserving of some praise.
That’s a far cry from the Achiuwa who previously entered these podium interviews looking nervous and unsure of himself.
The Raptors have been the better team for the last eight quarters of this series, and that’s because their defense has finally figured out how to guard MVP-finalist Joel Embiid and Co. The Raptors held the Sixers to just 88 points on a series-low 38.3 percent shooting on Monday after holding them to just 42.5 percent shooting in Game 4. They forced 16 turnovers for the second straight game — including four on Embiid and five on James Harden — and took advantage with 24 fast-break points.
Most importantly, the Raptors have figured out how to guard the trio of Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey without fouling them after the Sixers got to the free-throw line at a league-high rate during the regular season and first two games of the playoffs. After going to the line 34 and 30 times in Games 1 and 2, the Sixers have been limited to 20, 25, and 20 free throws over the previous three games, with the Raptors even winning the battle in Game 4, when Pascal Siakam got to the line 15 times himself.
“I think if we can keep those guys, Harden and Embiid, to around five or six or seven free throws apiece, rather than double digits, we stand a much better chance,” Nick Nurse said after the game.
They’ve limited the Sixers’ trio of stars by executing on their frantic and aggressive style of defence to perfection, finding that balance of playing with aggression but being smart enough to not foul. They’ve successfully taken the ball out of Embiid’s hands (or at least not given him good post position) by beating him down the court and denying the ball. And they’ve kept Harden and Maxey in check by running them off the three-point line and forcing them to make tough floaters over the second line of the defence.
Their rotations have been crisp and the closeouts controlled, with the Raptors limiting the Sixers’ big-three to a series-low 47 points on Monday, with Embiid dropping just 20 on 7-15 shooting and six free throws.
“I talked about it after the first two games and you guys asked me what the hell’s wrong with your defense? And I said: ‘everything.’ And I meant kind of all those foundational principles: First transition was a huge problem. We weren’t good at that at all. Our ball pressure wasn’t good enough. Our shot contesting wasn’t good enough and our rebounding wasn’t good enough,” Nurse said about the defensive improvement. “Those are our four foundational principles, and we’ve just gotten so much better at all four of those and then it allows us to get our defense set and then we can get to some of the schemes and things we’re doing.”
Maybe equally impressive as the defence is the composure that the Raptors played with on the offensive end despite having the lead all game. Usually, young teams — especially ones playing away from home without their only real point guard — tend to struggle to keep leads in that environment, allowing other teams to go on runs and make the game interesting. But the Raptors kept the lead to at least 9 for the entire fourth quarter, answering the Sixers every time they threw a punch.