Sixers see their mistakes compared to Raptors, but fixes for Game 6 don’t sound like safe things to do

Any concerns about the Sixers ahead of the playoffs looked extremely justified Monday night.

And while the somber post-game press conferences following the team’s 15-point loss in Game 5 to the Raptors, the prevailing sentiment was, “We’ve got to play like we did to go 3-0 forward in this series to come,” the Sixers have invited skepticism that they can flip a switch and suddenly be superior again.

In his first season as head coach of the Sixers, Doc Rivers’ team suffered a second-round loss to underdog Hawks last year despite holding a 2-1 lead in the series. The Sixers lost an 18-point lead in Game 4. Atlanta won Game 5 away after being 24 points behind with 14 minutes and 10 seconds left.

If the Sixers lose Game 6 Thursday night in Toronto, they would become the first NBA team to build a 3-0 lead in the series and then lose three straight games since the Mavericks of 2003. No team at this point has ever fallen four times in a row.

Of course, in addition to strategic optimizations, there are also factors that Rivers has to consider here. Almost nothing from Monday’s game indicated his players were confident.

“I don’t know if I’m worried about that,” Rivers said. “I know we have equipment that we haven’t used in the last couple of games. And when you go there, there will be a lively atmosphere. I think this is going to be great for us in a crazy way. I think we will be prepared for that.”

The Sixers’ ever-present hesitation was perhaps most evident with Matisse Thybulle, who played 14 minutes and shot 1 for 6 from the floor. The “make” was a missed corner three-pointer that Precious Achiuwa somehow tipped into his own basket.

When he entered the series, Thybulle, who was unavailable for Toronto games because he is not fully vaccinated, was a moderate threat. But in four games, the Sixers were in a good position on paper. They’d done business at home, split Games 3 and 4 on a shortened rotation and were happy to bring an exceptionally talented full-back back into the mix for a crucial chance.

However, Thybulle’s shooting results and approach were both damaging. Instead of attempting another jumper early in the second quarter like Pascal Siakam had challenged, he threw a swoon to Tyrese Maxey. Scottie Barnes caught it, Thybulle immediately stared straight at the floor, and the Raptors got a fast break layup. In the end they scored the first 12 points of the period.

“That’s a tough question for Matisse,” Rivers said. “Sit the two and come in. I don’t know. It’s a difficult situation.”

Thybulle is the Six best suited to stopping Star Guardians. The Raptors did not field any players fitting that description in Game 5 as All-Star Fred VanVleet was sidelined with a left hip flexion strain. Still, Toronto didn’t play like a team that had a reputation for relying on transition offense.

“They knew exactly what they wanted,” Rivers said. “They knew who they wanted on the ball. And then it got to a point where they didn’t care who had the ball. They began to go to the five at the elbows. Every single player, I felt tonight, had an advantage that kept us from dribbling. And I know our weaknesses. I know that. So we have to find a way to give these weaknesses more help.”

Joel Embiid scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, but he also lacked resolve in his second straight game when he played through a torn ligament in his right thumb.

Embiid called his defensive performance “terrible” and admitted his injury had contributed to moments of doubt.

“I think where I’m really struck is that I’m in a situation where I’m trying to protect it,” he said. “Before I even attack or get the ball, it’s almost like I’m not playing freely, where I’m like, ‘Well, if I do that, I could get hit or get hurt.’ So mentally I just have to get out of there and hope for the best. And just be yourself and don’t think about what move might put me in a bad position to get hit or hurt even more. So I will work on that.”

In Games 4 and 5, the Sixers averaged just 87.9 points per 100 halffield plays, according to Cleaning the Glass. The team averaged 105.7 points per 100 halffield games in the first three competitions of the series.

In VanVleet, the Raptors’ rotation is full of defenders capable of switching, climbing, and forcing the Sixers to do much more than just go for cheap matchups.

“They help extremely hard, so I have to throw it out and trust when I get on the track,” Maxey said. “Tobias (Harris) once told me as I was getting into the paint, ‘You’re collapsing so bad it’s all open on the outside.’

“So you just have to be able to dive into the color and create for others. And then put the ball back on the ground (away from) closeouts. … It will come down to being tougher than them at the end of the day – offensively and defensively.”

Rivers said Maxey just can’t get the ball into the transition enough. After scoring 61 points in Games 1 and 2, Maxey had 12 on 5-for-14 shooting in Game 5.

James Harden went 4 for 11, including two three-pointers in the fourth quarter, with the Sixers trailing by double digits.

“I’ve been saying all season since he’s been here, he just has to be aggressive and he has to be himself,” Embiid said of Harden. “It’s not really my job. Coach probably needs to talk to him and tell him to take more shots, especially if they’re guarding me like they’ve been guarding me. But that’s really not my job. But we all have to get better.

“Offensive… we missed a couple of wide open shots and at times I felt like we just invited – when I was doubled up we weren’t aggressive and attacking. We just kept moving the ball around the perimeter and that gave them time to recover. And that’s why we couldn’t do anything about it. If they keep doing that, we have to take advantage of it.”

The Sixers’ troubles on Monday were numerous, and yet Rivers had no trouble distilling the series.

“The three keys for us that came into this series were rebounds, turnovers and guarding the ball — keeping it out of the paint,” Rivers said. “Today we rebounded well, we didn’t keep the ball out of color and we didn’t care for the ball. If they win two out of three, it will be difficult for us to win.”

For these Sixers, simplicity can sometimes seem deceptive.

Despite this, they have a third attempt to take out the Raptors. If they embrace it, the team will be able to view their mistakes in a much more comfortable context than a looming Game 7.

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