Tobias Harris shines in Sixers’ win over Raptors: Likes and dislikes
The Sixers (2-1) hosted the Toronto Raptors (2-3) on Thursday. Philadelphia wanted to get its first win of the official post-Harden era on the board. Toronto wanted to build on Wednesday's victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. A balanced night from Embiid, Harris, Oubre, and Maxey propelled the Sixers to victory, 114-99.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Raptors were without Precious Achiuwa, who has a strained left groin. Otto Porter Jr. is reconditioning for a return to competition and was unavailable.
Christian Koloko was out with a respiratory illness.
Javon Freeman-Liberty, Ron Harper Jr., and Markquis Nowell are on two-way G-League assignments with the Raptors 905 and were unavailable.
Darko Rajakovic started Dennis Schroder, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl.
The Sixers were without the newly-acquired Nicolas Batum due to personal reasons.
Terquavion Smith, Javonte Smart, and Ricky Council IV are on two-way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Nick Nurse started Maxey, De'Anthony Melton, Oubre Jr., Harris, and Embiid.
One of the storylines I've unintentionally neglected early in this season is Embiid's presence as a defender, and that presence coming in conjunction with his early improvements as a playmaker. In all four games thus far - yes, even his relative stinker in Milwaukee - he's expensed considerable energy trying to protect the basket. And that doesn't just mean being in the right positions to thwart foes around the rim. He's outright trying to swat the ball six rows off the court every time someone gets the ball in the paint.
There is an injury risk that comes with that level of aggression. You're going up without much control, not focusing on landing, and unable to brace for what you might come down on. No one likes that. But, that's a risk Philadelphia appears willing to take.
With a roster re-shaped by rangier, athletic personnel, Embiid no longer has to live in a deep drop coverage, or play higher up to fit into a switch scheme or protect against bad screen navigation. He can now linger around the basket, stepping into the picture as a helper in the paint. He's taking swings at the ball as often as possible, and he's much more active on the defensive glass than he was in recent seasons because the scheme's architecture puts him by the basket anyway. That also means you can see his defensive effort on a play-to-play basis. He has his moments still. Only the most delusional hardo will grill him for not putting his life on the line every possession of an 82-game season when his offensive load is as significant as it is. But, in order for this thing to work, Embiid needs to patrol the paint like never before.
As many blocks or deflections as he cobbles together when the paint is congested, Embiid is also toeing the line quite well as the ball approaches the rim. If he steps up too early, he scares the offense away before he even has a chance to bait them. If he's too late, he might miss his best chance of contesting the shot.
But, in this game - as was generally the case through the first three games of the season - you could see how Embiid jammed up Toronto's decision-making without even having to lift an arm to contest a shot. All he had to do was take a step towards the ball to affect the Raptors' possession. Whether it was Poeltl tossing up some weak floater that he rushed or a more featured player like Barnes bungling a layup, Embiid had his stamp all over the defensive side of the court without breaking statistical records set by guys your grandfather saw play before there was a three-point spot.
What if I told you the Sixers' second all-star under Nurse wasn't going to be Maxey? OK, I won't actually make the case that Harris will be an all-star. Mostly because it's too early for that to even be a conversation. But, also because I don't believe it'll happen either. However, it goes to show just how out of his mind Harris has played in the first few games of this new regime.
He's finishing through contact like never before, overpowering the physicality and focusing on the shot instead of losing the ball on the way up like he did over and over again in previous years. That confidence is reaching the perimeter too, where Harris is suddenly comfortable using a shot fake to get the nearest defender to fly by before relocating for a triple. His threes have traditionally come as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll or as a catch-and-shoot spacer. The fake and relocation is something usually practiced by elite snipers, and, furthermore, something I don't think I've ever seen Harris do until this season.
His two best seasons, at least in my estimation, were under the command of Doc Rivers. Long way to go in this campaign, but the soon-to-be free agent is having a helluva start to this season.
Furkan Korkmaz mentions have been rare in this column over the last few seasons. But, he was one of the team's heroes in this one. On a night in which the Sixers were short of rotation players as they try to incorporate their proceeds of the James Harden trade, Korkmaz checked in and promptly stuck his arm out for a deflection on defense. That led to a transition score for the usually bench-bound Korkmaz. Then, moments later, he snapped the cord on a corner three in transition to send a jolt of energy through the building.
Korkmaz wasn't done there. He got his hands on the ball a number of times in the second half, mucking up Toronto's offense and helping propel the Sixers into transition. He capped off a third-quarter stint with a layup, plus the foul, to send the Sixers to a double-digit lead heading into the final quarter.
He was ready for his shot to play, you have to tip your cap.
The only time the Sixers looked at all uncomfortable in this game was when the Raptors started the second half with Barnes guarding Maxey. In the first half, Schroder.- who did a fine job, I might add - had primary duties on Maxey. The domino effect was that Schroder took a far less dangerous ball-handler in Melton, and Toronto applied full-court pressure.
Melton was tasked with bringing the bal up against pressure, and struggled mightily. It dramatically slowed Philadelphia getting into their offense and forced them to rush some things as they grew uncomfortable.
That's a sound adjustment that the Sixers should be forced to match as long as the secondary ball-handling is suspect now that Harden is gone. This won't work every time, but I didn't feel like the Sixers had much inventory in the way of sideline out-of-bounds plays. There wasn't really an effort to screen for Maxey and get him open to receive the inbound pass. The Sixers just let Melton bring it up, and he's one of the most suspect dribblers on the team.
The Sixers (3-1) will host the Phoenix Suns (2-2) on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 1 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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