The Sixers have the NBA’s MVP, but do they have enough around him? The question has been asked and answered before, but rarely as demonstrably as it was on Sunday night. The only encouragement to take from a 110-103 road loss to the Toronto Raptors was the fact that it should be impossible to ignore.
The Sixers need to figure out their bench, and it is looking increasingly likely that they will need to look outside of themselves in order to do it. That might not be the sexiest observation, but two weeks remaining before the All-Star break and a month to go before the trade deadline, the Sixers are suddenly looking like a team that is fatally incomplete.
The disconcerting thing about a loss like this one is how familiar it looked. While this has not been a banner season for Toronto, the Raptors looked exactly like the team that has long given the Sixers fits. The Sixers can tell themselves that the shots didn’t fall, and that they are not the first team to lose a game when that happens.
“It was just one of those games,” Tobias Harris said afterward.
But it was also one of those games that seem to be cropping up more often. Dwight Howard scored four points. Shake Milton scored nine. Isaiah Joe scored three. That was the extent of the Sixers’ bench scoring: 16 points on 5-of-19 shooting. That’s not going to get it done, especially not against an opponent capable of playing postseason-caliber defense. Even on a night where Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons combined for 53 points on 15-of-31 shooting, the Sixers rarely looked like a team that was capable of emerging with a victory.
“It hasn’t been this way all year with our bench,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s just been that way lately.”
At some point, though, Rivers and Daryl Morey are going to have to come up with some better answers. If the Sixers are going to win a title with Embiid and Simmons and without adding another substantial piece, this might be the season in which they are best positioned to make it happen. That is how well Embiid is playing.
On Friday night, he established himself as the clear choice as the NBA’s first-half MVP when he became the 11th center in NBA history to score 50 points and grab 17 rebounds in a game. The last center to finish a season averaging 30-plus points per game was Moses Malone in 1981-82. Heading into Sunday night, Embiid was averaging 30.5, and he was doing it with an unprecedented level of efficiency, boasting an effective field-goal percentage of .579. The number of players who have finished a season with both of those marks? Zero.
As long as Embiid is in the game, those numbers will continue to accrue. That might sound like a dangerous statement to make, given the maddening inconsistency that we’ve previously seen from both the big man and his team. But these are not your pre-pandemic Sixers. Heading into Sunday night, Embiid had scored 30-plus points in 13 of his 24 games. Last season, he scored 30-plus in 12 of 51.
Even in a game in which Aron Baynes helped hold Embiid (relatively) in check, you still saw the improvement. Before this season, the Raptors had held Embiid under 18 points in 11 of the 19 games they’d faced him. In his last seven games against them, he’d averaged 11 points while shooting a combined 22-of-71 from the field. Included in this stretch was the worst single-game performance of his career, an 0-for-11 stinker in November 2019 in which he played 32 minutes and did not score a single point.
On Sunday, Embiid struggled to get to the rim against some sturdy defense from Baynes. He missed 14 of the 20 shots he took and was a nonfactor down the stretch. At the same time, he scored 25 points, giving him 54 points in his last two games against Toronto.
“With Joel, honestly, you pretty much believe that he can score on anyone,” Rivers said before the game. “We’re gonna go to Joel every night.”
Even on the night where Embiid isn’t at his best, it’s the little things that hold his value. Early in the first quarter, the Raptors had a possession in which a ball screen enabled Norman Powell to beat Danny Green at the top of the key with a crossover that opened up a gaping lane down the left side of the paint. Down in the restricted area, Embiid immediately recognized the developing situation and slid to his right, walling off the basket so effectively that Powell did not even think about attacking the basket. Instead, Powell dribbled to the baseline and settled for an off-balance pull-up over a fully extended Embiid, a low-percentage shot that clanked off the rim and sparked a transition opportunity going the other way.
The gravity that Embiid is bringing to both ends of the court is the sort of thing that the Sixers need to take advantage of. He might be capable of scoring 30 points per night, but a championship team is not one that requires that he do so. There is a lot that is going right for the Sixers this season, and they have the best record in the Eastern Conference to prove it. Harris’ resurgence, Seth Curry’s emergence, Simmons’ developing aggression -- the key now is to find a way to hold a lead when they aren’t on the court.
The season is still young. Shake Milton is still getting his legs back under him after a five-game absence. Rivers is still finding out what he has in players like rookie Isaiah Joe. At some point, though, the Sixers are going to need to settle on an answer.