By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) December 22, 2017
Toronto 114, Philadelphia 109 – Box Score
So much about Thursday night was familiar behavior from the Sixers, agonizingly familiar. First, the team played a familiar rope-a-dope concerning the availability of Joel Embiid. After Adrian Wojnarowski’s ESPN report that the big man would miss an additional two games before returning for the Christmas Day matinee against New York, the Sixers actually upgraded Embiid to probable heading into the game against Toronto. All day long, we heard from teammates about how great JoJo looked in shootaround and how they would be surprised if he didn’t go out there.
Of course, right before the game, Embiid was ruled out for the third straight contest. Why bother getting our hopes up? Also, a particular ‘screw you’ to anyone who decided to trek down to the Wells Fargo Center upon positive reports that Embiid would suit up. Given the team’s abysmal history handling medical updates, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the organization is sowing confusion on that front yet again. Good thing Bryan Colangelo is such a great communicator with the media *eats own fist*.
Then, on the court, Philadelphia followed a familiar road map of late where they jumped out to a huge lead, only to blow it in the second half. This time around, the Sixers held a 22-point advantage in the third quarter before the Raptors went on a 22-2 run to draw back within a bucket. The Sixers maintained a slim lead until just inside of 5 minutes left in the game, when Dario Saric fouled Kyle Lowry on a three-point attempt; the former Villanova star sank all three foul shots to put Toronto ahead 101-100. After Richaun Holmes and DeMar DeRozan traded buckets, Toronto created just enough separation that the Sixers never took a potential game-tying or go-ahead shot attempt in the game’s final few minutes.
Granted, the team was without two starters in Embiid and J.J. Redick. But how does the same team that built a 22-point lead in the first place fall apart so rapidly? The Raptors were on the second night of a road back-to-back; their energy should have tailed off as the game progressed, not the other way around.
Instead Toronto grabbed 19 offensive rebounds on the night, as the Sixers had only a 58.7% defensive rebounding rate. That’s a facet of the game that comes from effort and discipline and shouldn’t take such a nosedive just because Embiid is out. Ben Simmons grabbed a lower than normal 6 rebounds, and Richaun Holmes wasn’t particularly good on the defensive end (he was active on the offensive glass, as usual). Trevor Booker was especially poor in this area though, grabbing just 1 defensive rebound in his 15 minutes of play. He also turned it over 3 times, with two coming as a result of a three-second violation and a charge. Not a great night for the big man version of T.J. McConnell.
The Sixers were also dominated in terms of getting easy points at the charity stripe. DeMar DeRozan went off for a career-high 45 points, both making and attempting more free throws than the entire Sixers team (DeRozan went 13-15 himself, while Philadelphia as a whole was 10-14). Toronto was 32-35 at the line as a group, making it a lot easier to come back from a huge deficit when you’re getting free points with the clock stopped.
Coming off a game where he was criticized for only taking 6 field goal attempts, Ben Simmons was certainly more aggressive against the Raptors, shooting 9-14 from the floor for a team-high 20 points. Unfortunately, the uptick in assertiveness came at the expense of his playmaking, with the rookie turning it over 7 times against just 4 assists.
Five of Simmons’ giveaways were very poor passes when he drove into the lane and whirled it out either out of bounds or into the waiting arms of a Raptors defender (his 7th and final turnover was a garbage offensive foul call that overturned a basket with two minutes left in the game). These are part of the growing pains for a rookie, learning to strike the proper balance between being overly passive and aggressive to the point that you’re making costly mistakes.
There were positives for the Sixers, even amongst all the negativity. Primarily, Dario Saric was a man possessed, falling a single assist shy of his first career triple-double with a line of 18 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. Saric had a great “inside-inside” game working, where he was able to back defenders down and fit pinpoint passes in tight corners to his frontcourt partner for an easy lay-in; 6 of his 9 assists went to either Amir Johnson or Richaun Holmes for shots around the basket. It bodes well that Saric could work well alongside Embiid in more than just a “spot up on the perimeter” type role.
Robert Covington bounced back from his worst shooting performance of the year to knock down 5 of 12 attempts from behind the arc for 19 points. Unfortunately, he was the only Sixer to make more than one three. Jerryd Bayless going 1-7 certainly wasn’t doing the team any favors.
With the loss, the Sixers have lost 4 straight and 8 of their past 9 games. They’ll have a tough time breaking the skid when they again face the Raptors Saturday night, as that contest will be on Toronto’s home court and Philadelphia won’t have a rest advantage. While the roster isn’t really deep enough to overcome the absence of two starters, the fact that they keep building these double-digits leads late into the game (only to blow them) shows they’re at least capable of competing. Hopefully, they put it together for a full 48 minutes for a change. But unlike reports of Embiid being ‘probable’, I’m not holding out hope.