Sixers Left Grasping for Answers as Series Heads Back to Toronto for Game 6

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

The Philadelphia 76ers were riding high up 3-0 in their first round series against the Toronto Raptors. Joel Embiid had knocked down a game-winning three in the final seconds of overtime in Game 3 and the Sixers went into Game 4 with a chance to get their first sweep of a seven-game series since 1985.

Since then? Everything has come crashing down on top of the Sixers, who lost Games 4 and 5 in convincing fashion. They have now become the team looking for answers on how to close out this series and potentially avoid being the first team in NBA history to lose a series in which they had a 3-0 lead.

The pressure is building on the Sixers, especially head coach Doc Rivers. After doing a great job formulating a successful game plan to beat Toronto in the opening three games of the series, he has failed thus far to come up with any adjustments to help fix the team's stagnant offense. His teams have a history of struggling in close-out games.

The Sixers' offense got off to a good start to the series, averaging 121.5 points per game while shooting the ball efficiently and playing relatively turnover-free basketball in Games 1 and 2. Since then, the team is averaging 98.0 points per game and turning the ball over 17.3 times per game.

The offense was incredibly stagnant in the loss in Game 5. The Sixers scored 88 points, shot the ball 38.3 percent from the field and committed 15 turnovers. Two issues really stood out in Game 5, a lack of ball movement leading to an over reliance on isolation basketball and an overall hesitancy in the team's decision making out on the floor.

The lack of ball movement and sense of hesitancy combined to result in a lot of poor shots, especially from three-point range. The Sixers took 37 threes, the most of any game in this series, connecting on just 27.0 percent of those attempts. There was a lot of standing around, nowhere near enough drives to the basket and no consistent attempt at getting the ball inside the paint. There were numerous wasted possessions consisting of the ball being passed around the perimeter or James Harden dribbling the shot clock down to a few seconds before flailing a three or dumping the ball to someone else for a contested shot.

With Fred VanVleet out due to a left hip flexor strain, the Raptors utilized a bigger lineup that gave the Sixers fits offensively. All of a sudden, there was nobody to pick on defensively in the Raptors starting lineup. Each of their starters has a ton of length and they utilize a switch-heavy style of defense, making it tough for the Sixers to penetrate into the paint on drives to the basket.

One way to create separation and get the ball moving towards the basket is to utilize the pick-and-roll. The Sixers had a ton of success after the Harden acquisition with the pick-and-roll between Harden and Joel Embiid. They only went to this action twice in Game 5, with it resulting in an Embiid bucket and a turnover on an alley-oop attempt because Embiid left the ground too early.

Embiid also needs to do a better job consistently fighting for deep post position. He has a huge size advantage, with Toronto's biggest player standing at 6-foot-9, and should be able to outmuscle them to get good post position nearly whenever he wants. The clip below shows multiple examples throughout the series of him scoring easy baskets off getting deep post position:

Toronto does a good job of sending quick double teams at Embiid, making it more difficult than usual for him to put the ball on the floor. Getting the ball to him in deep post position allows him to just turn and shoot before the double can come over. While he struggled in Game 5, he had success whenever he made a concerted effort to get good post position. He shot 6 of 7 on shots around the rim, but he did not consistently look to score inside and played a role in the Sixers' stagnant offense.

If the Sixers are to break out of their offensive funk, they will need a combination of a stronger effort from Embiid and more efficient, aggressive play from Harden. The two superstars are both, to different extents, struggling this series against Toronto. Harden scored just 15 points while dishing out seven assists and committing five turnovers in Game 5. A lot of his turnovers were uncharacteristic and careless, something not usually seen from him. The clip below shows a few of his turnovers from his overall poor performance on Monday:

Harden, whether because of age or not being fully healthy (multiple hamstring injuries over the last two seasons), has looked far from the scorer he once was. He has become one of the league's top distributors, but the Sixers simply need him to be more aggressive as a scorer in this series. He took only 11 shots in the loss in Game 5. While he has not shot the ball efficiently in this series (37.3 percent shooting from the field), the Sixers still need him to make more of a concerted effort to put the ball in the hoop.

Embiid, when asked about Harden's lack of shots in Game 5, spoke about how he wants him to look to find his shot more often:

"I’ve been saying all season since he got here, he just needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself," Embiid said. "That’s not really my job. That’s probably on coach to talk to him and tell him to take more shots especially if they’re gonna guard me the way they’ve been guarding, but that’s really not my job."

The Sixers' offensive struggles were team-wide in Game 5. While Embiid and Harden both need to play better offensively going forward, the Sixers will be in rough shape trying to close out this series until they rediscover the ball movement and crisp, clean type of basketball they played with in the first two games of the series.

"We all need to be better," Embiid said after the loss in Game 5. "Offensively, we missed a bunch of wide-open shots and at times, I just felt like we just invited when I was getting doubled, we were not aggressive attacking the ball. We just moved around the ball on the perimeter and that gave them time to recover and that’s why we were not able to get anything out of it. If that’s what they’re gonna keep doing, we gotta take advantage of it."

The Sixers' stagnant offense headlined the issues and talk coming out of Game 5, but they were also poor defensively. Embiid had one of his worst defensive performances this season. He looked unengaged on that end of the floor, allowing the Raptors at one point in the third quarter to attack him on several consecutive possessions. The clip below highlights a few of those plays where Toronto drew him out to the perimeter before driving right around him for a layup, dunk or foul:

Embiid is typically a great defensive player. Seeing the Raptors attack him repeatedly on that end of the floor was shocking to say the least. He had been having a good defensive series, but his defense in Game 5 left a lot to be desired. The Raptors scored 56 points in the paint and shot 66.6 percent on shots from inside the three-point line in Game 5. Whether it was just one very bad, unengaged game from him defensively or partially a result of him battling through his thumb injury, the Sixers cannot afford to have another game where he plays like that defensively.

Rivers claimed after Game 5 the Sixers have another "gear we have that we haven’t used over the last couple of games." That claim will be put to the test as the Sixers head up to what will surely be a wild atmosphere for Game 6 in Toronto on Thursday night.

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