The first-round series between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors has quickly gotten very interesting. The Sixers won the first three games, and now they’re heading back to Toronto, hoping to avoid a Game 7.
The Raptors are looking to make history. We know that no team has come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a best-of-seven series in NBA history. And only three of the previous 145 (including this year’s Brooklyn Nets and Denver Nuggets) who have faced that 0-3 deficit have even forced a Game 7. (The last was the 2003 Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.)
Here are some things to note from the first five games before Game 6 on Thursday (7 ET, NBA TV).
1. The vanishing Sixers offense
In Game 1 of this series, the Sixers had the third most efficient offensive playoff performance (131 points on just 89 possessions) in the 26 years for which we have play-by-play data. With each ensuing game, the Sixers have scored less efficiently. And Game 5 on Monday was their fifth least efficient game of the season (88 points on 94 possessions).
When you have that big of a drop-off, lots of numbers suffer. And in regard to their wins vs. their losses, there are huge differentials in the Sixers’ effective field goal percentage, free throw rate and offensive rebounding percentage. The biggest drop-offs in effective field goal percentage have belonged to Tyrese Maxey (69.0% vs. 36.5%) and Tobias Harris (69.1% vs. 51.8%), while Joel Embiid hasn’t been getting to the line as much as the series has gone on.
The Toronto defense certainly deserves some credit. And there were several possessions in Game 5 on Monday when the Raptors were able to double Embiid, rotate from there, and stifle the Sixers’ attempt to play four on three…
According to Second Spectrum tracking though, the Sixers’ shot quality was better on Monday than it was in the previous three games. There were times when the ball moved faster than the defense, but the Sixers just missed good looks…
If this trend of the Sixers’ offense getting worse with every game would somehow continue, Game 6 would be pretty ugly. And even if it weren’t that ugly, a low-efficiency contest would probably favor Toronto.
2. Embiid defending in space
It could be that the Raptors are defending better because they’re playing bigger. With Fred VanVleet having missed the last game and a half with a hip injury, the Raps have had just one guy shorter than 6-foot-7 (6-foot-5 Gary Trent Jr.) in their rotation. But though they’ve been big on the wings, the Raptors have also been able to play five out on offense.
With that, Embiid has had to defend outside the paint. And he’s struggled a bit in that regard. The Raptors scored just nine points on their first 11 possessions of the third quarter on Monday, but then got four straight scores by making Embiid defend on the perimeter.
First, Precious Achiuwa got him off balance with a pump fake and drew a foul on a drive. Then Embiid couldn’t get around a screen fast enough to prevent an OG Anunoby dunk…
… And Siakam…
… Took turns blowing past him.
Playing five out isn’t just good because Embiid can be beat off the dribble. It’s also good because he’s not at the rim to protect it.
In the regular season, Embiid defended a league-high 8.8 shots at the rim per game, and opponents shot just 58.7% at the rim when he was there to protect it. In the playoffs, he defended just 6.8 shots at the rim (in more minutes) per game, and the Raptors have shot 73.5% at the rim when he’s been there to protect it.
Part of that is the Raptors being a team that doesn’t get to rim a ton. But Embiid has also defended a much lower percentage of opponents’ shots at the rim for which he’s been on the floor (37%) than he did in the regular season (49%). The Raps were outscored by 1.5 points per game in the restricted area in the regular season, but are a plus-5.6 per game in the restricted area in this series.
3. A dangerous differential
In that super-efficient Game 1, the Sixers committed just four turnovers, with three of the four coming after they were up 20 with less than four minutes to go. Over the four games since then, Philly has committed 30 more turnovers than Toronto, giving them a differential of 5.2 more turnovers per game for the series. That’s the second biggest differential for any series in the last five years (68 total series).
Credit the Raptors, who forced 3.4 more turnovers than they committed in the regular season. That was tied (with the 2014-15 Dallas Mavericks) for the best mark for any team in the last 14 years.
But as they fell into an early deficit in Game 5, a few of the Sixers’ mistakes were self-inflicted…
Turning the offense around begins with taking care of the ball.
4. Counter to the counter
Another one of the Sixers ’16 turnovers on Monday came on a fun sequence in the third quarter, when they ran the same play three times on a stretch of five possessions.
On Philly’s second trip of the period, Danny Green set a “gun” screen for James Harden that Scottie Barnes switched. Green then flared around Embiid and set a cross-screen for Tyrese Maxey, who continued into a dribble-handoff from Embiid…
The Raptors didn’t switch the Green cross-screen. With Trent trailing Maxey around it and with Khem Birch initially staying attached to Embiid, Maxey was able to turn the corner and get to the cup.
Two possessions later, the Sixers ran the same play. This time, OG Anunoby switched the cross-screen and denied the handoff. Green was open for a second, but he wasn’t ready…
The Sixers proceeded into a Harden / Embiid pick-and-roll and gained another advantage, but the timing between the two stars was off and Embiid lost the ball out of bounds.
Two possessions later, the Sixers went back to the same play. This time, Green was ready for the Anunoby switch (while Trent wasn’t), and he quickly popped to a wide-open 3 (
See the note above about the Sixers missing some good looks in Game 5. It can be a make-or-miss league and the Sixers were 10-for-37 (27%) from 3-point range on Monday after shooting 45% through the first four games. In the regular season, Philly had the league’s second-biggest differential between their record when they shot the league average (35.4%) or better from the 3-point range (38-10, .792) and their record when they didn’t. 13-21, .382).
The Raptors have shot much worse (32.1%) from beyond the arc in this series, but they were a worse 3-point shooting team (34.9%, 20th) in the regular season, relying on transition and second chances to prop up a bottom -five half-court offense.
Still, even with VanVleet doubtful to play on Thursday, the Raps could be due for a hot shooting night. And that could set up a very interesting Game 7 back in Philly.
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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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