The troubling thing about the Sixers’ current straits is their lack of obvious solutions. From a personnel standpoint, they are who they are, and the Raptors are who they are, and the advantage seems to have swung toward Toronto’s style of play. In Game 5, the Sixers seemed powerless to keep the Raptors out of the paint. Toronto finished the night shooting a remarkable 34 of 51 from two-point range despite shooting just 27% from deep. This was just the fifth time in NBA playoff history that a team made at least 66% of its two-pointers while missing 73% of its three-pointers.
“Every single guy, I felt like tonight, had an advantage taking us off the dribble,” coach Doc Rivers said after Game 5. “I know our weaknesses, I do know that, and so we need to figure out a way to get those weaknesses more help.”
Rivers can bristle all he wants at his reputation for blowing series leads, as he did after practice on Wednesday, but stopping the Sixers’ current free fall is completely on him. Yes, he needs to figure out a way to keep the Raptors from getting into the paint at will. But he also needs to better leverage his own team’s advantage in offensive skill. These Sixers aren’t going to win many games when they score less than 100 points. Rivers’ approach needs to reflect that reality.
1. Tell Tyrese Maxey to let it fly
The Sixers don’t need him to be the guy he was in Game 1, when he scored 38 points on 14-of-21 shooting. Right now, the Game 3 version of Maxey would be fine. He wasn’t great, turning the ball over five times and shooting 1-for-5 from three-point range. But at the end of the day, he scored 19 points on 18 shots. He and his teammates both need to understand that he is the antidote for those stretches of the game when shots are hard to come by. As long as Joel Embiid is limited by his thumb and James Harden is struggling to convert inside the paint, he is the guy who needs the ball in his hands at the end of the shot clock. In Games 4 and 5, he attempted 12 and 14 shots. The goal should be 18-plus.
2. Get into the paint
The Sixers can’t afford to waste possessions on low-percentage shots. Embiid is the only player on the team who should be taking 18-footers. In Games 3, 4, and 5, players not named Embiid shot 4-for-19 on two-point attempts from 12-plus feet. In Games 1 and 2, they were 4 for 9. You can argue that the long twos are a second-order effect of offensive dysfunction early in the shot clock. Whatever the case, the Sixers can’t have Maxey and Tobias Harris pulling up in no-man’s land.
3. Ignore what you can’t control
I don’t know if we’re seeing the results of Nick Nurse’s lobbying efforts earlier in the series, but the biggest difference between Games 1 and 2 and Games 3 through 5 is at the foul line. If that sounds like a cop out, consider the numbers. In the first two games of the series, the Sixers outscored the Raptors by 26 points at the foul line and 35 points overall. In the last three games, they’ve outscored Toronto by one point at the foul line and have been outscored by 20 points overall.
Sixers (vs. Raptors) from the foul line
Game 1: 29/34 (19/23)
Game 2: 26/30 (10/12)
Game 3: 15/20 (12/18)
Game 4: 21/25 (28/35)
Game 5: 16/20 (11/13)
The drop-off isn’t a mere byproduct of Embiid’s injury, nor of a more laissez-faire approach to Harden and Embiid. In the first two games of the series, Harden and Embiid combined to average 20 foul shots per game. In the last three, they’ve averaged 15.3. The rest of the team has seen its average drop from 12 attempts to 6.3 attempts per game.
4. Get Harden out of his own head
I disagree with the pass-first/shoot-first binary that people are using to dissect Harden’s play this series. Embiid used the framing after Game 5, telling reporters that he wants to see his teammate shoot more. There is some truth to the notion -- it’s going to be difficult for the Sixers to win if Embiid is hurt and Harden is only attempting 11 shots, as he did in Game 5. But the lack of volume is more a byproduct of Harden’s indecisiveness off the dribble. In Games 1 and 2, the Sixers’ best offense came when Harden was shaking things loose off the dribble and then turning things over to his teammates to take advantage. Lately, the offense has stalled when he has gotten into the paint. Maybe that is because Harden is looking to pass and the Raptors are taking the pass away. If so, then yes, he needs to recognize that and realize that the highest percentage play is an attempt to finish what he started.
5. Dig deep and play free
Two cliches that are cliches for a reason. The difference in a three-point win and a 15-point loss can be as small as three possessions on offense and three possessions on defense. The way the Raptors play, a more honest set of numbers is probably five and five. Given that each team has five players on the court, Rivers’ job is to use psychology and strategy to get each of his players to turn one negative possession from Game 5 into a positive possession in Game 6, on both ends of the court. Turn one bad shot into a good shot, and vice versa. Granted, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. But the Sixers still have the series lead, and they still have the edge in offensive talent. It’s on the coach to make it work.