Sixers see their flaws vs. Raptors, but Game 6 fixes don’t sound like sure things

Every pre-playoffs concern about the Sixers looked exceedingly valid Monday night.

And while the overriding sentiment to come from gloomy postgame press conferences following the team’s 15-point Game 5 loss to the Raptors was essentially, “We need to play like we did to go up 3-0 in this series,” the Sixers have invited skepticism that they can flip a switch and suddenly be superior again.

In his first season as Sixers head coach, Doc Rivers’ team suffered a second-round playoff defeat last year to the underdog Hawks despite holding a 2-1 series edge. The Sixers blew an 18-point Game 4 lead. Atlanta won Game 5 on the road after trailing by 24 points with 14 minutes and 10 seconds left.

If the Sixers lose Game 6 in Toronto on Thursday night, they’d be the first NBA team to build a 3-0 series lead and then drop three consecutive games since the 2003 Mavericks. No team in that spot has ever failed four times in a row.

Clearly, there are factors Rivers must consider here besides strategic tweaks. Almost nothing from Monday’s game indicated his players are sure of themselves.

“I don’t know if I worry about it,” Rivers said. “I know there’s a gear we have that we haven’t used over the last couple of games. And going there, it’s going to be a lively atmosphere. I think that’ll be great for us, in a crazy way. I think we’ll be ready for that.”

The Sixers’ pervasive hesitancy was perhaps most evident in 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.

Entering the series, Thybulle being unavailable for games in Toronto because he’s not fully vaccinated was moderately ominous. But through four games, the Sixers were in a fine spot on paper. They’d handled business at home, split Games 3 and 4 with a shortened rotation, and were glad to add an extraordinarily talented perimeter defender back in the mix for a clinching opportunity.

However, Thybulle’s shooting results and approach were both damaging. Rather than try another jumper early in the second quarter, as Pascal Siakam was daring him to do, he threw a pass out to Tyrese Maxey. Scottie Barnes intercepted it, Thybulle immediately stared straight at the ground, and the Raptors got a fast-break layup. They ended up scoring the first 12 points of the period.

“That’s a tough one for Matisse,” Rivers said. “You sit the two and come in. Listen, I don’t know. It’s a tough situation.”

Thybulle is the Sixer best suited to stopping star guards. The Raptors used no players fitting that description in Game 5 with All-Star Fred VanVleet sidelined by a left hip flexor strain. Still, Toronto didn’t play like a team with a reputation for relying on transition offense.

“They knew exactly what they wanted,” Rivers said. “They knew who they wanted to have the ball. And then it got to a point where they didn’t care who had the ball. They started going to the five on the elbows. Every single guy, I felt like tonight, had an advantage taking us off the dribble. And I know our weaknesses. I do know that. And so we have to figure out a way of trying to give those weaknesses more help.”

Joel Embiid scored 20 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, but he also lacked decisiveness in his second straight game playing through a torn ligament in his right thumb.

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

“I think where I’m really affected is I’m in a situation where I try to protect it,” he said. “So before I even attack or if I get the ball, it’s almost like I’m not playing freely where I’m like, ‘Well, if I do this I might get hit or I might get hurt.’ So mentally, I’ve just got to get out of that and I guess hope for the best. And just be myself and not think about which move could put me in a bad position to get hit or get hurt even more. So I’ll work on it.”

In Games 4 and 5, the Sixers scored just 87.9 points per 100 half-court plays, according to Cleaning the Glass. The team posted 105.7 points per 100 half-court plays over the series’ first three contests.

Down VanVleet, the Raptors’ rotation is loaded with defenders capable of switching, scrambling and forcing the Sixers to do a lot more than target favorable matchups.

“They’re helping extremely hard, so when I do get in the lane, I’ve got to kick it out and trust,” Maxey said. “Tobias (Harris) told me one time when I got into the paint, ‘They’re collapsing so hard that everybody’s open on the outside.’

“So, just got to be able to get into the paint and create for others. And then put the ball back on the floor (off of) closeouts. … It’s going to come down to being tougher than them, at the end of the day — offensively and defensively.”

Rivers said Maxey is “just not getting the ball in transition enough.” After notching 61 points over Games 1 and 2, Maxey had 12 on 5-for-14 shooting in Game 5.

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

“I’ve been saying all season since he got here, he just needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself,” Embiid said of Harden. “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 going to guard me the way they’ve been guarding. But that’s really not my job. But we all need to be better.

“Offensively… we missed a bunch of wide-open shots and at times, I felt like we just invited — when I was getting doubled, we were not aggressive, attacking. We just kept moving the ball around 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 going to keep doing, we’ve got to take advantage of it.”

The Sixers’ problems Monday were plentiful, and yet Rivers didn’t have any issues distilling the series.

“The three keys for us coming into this series were rebounding, 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 the paint, and we didn’t take care of the ball. If they win two of three of those, it’s going to be hard for us to win.”

For these Sixers, simplicity sometimes appears deceptive.

However, they’ll have a third try to knock out the Raptors. If they take it, the team will be able to view its flaws in a much more pleasant context than a looming Game 7.

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