Five takeaways from the Martin Luther King Day matinee at the Wells-Fargo Center, where the Sixers defeated the Toronto Raptors, 117-111.
Embiid was dominant down low
After failing to grab an offensive rebound and straying far from the basket on most possessions in Thursday’s 114-103 loss to Boston, 76ers center Joel Embiid aggressively attacked the basket. In the first quarter when the Sixers forged a 32-23 lead, Embiid had 12 points and three rebounds. In 7-foot, 265-pound center Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto has one of the few centers in the NBA who can play physically against Embiid. The Sixers center was up to the task. When Valanciunas slammed on Embiid on a reverse layup dunk early in the game, it got the Sixers center’s attention. Embiid immediately scored on two inside moves, a turnaround jumper and another utilizing a great drop-step. In the third quarter, he flew in for an offensive rebound and put in the follow, doing a great job not to foul Valanciunas while crashing the boards. When backup center Jakob Poeltl (7-0, 248) was on Embiid, it was no match, and Lucas Nogueira (7-0, 241) also offered little resistance. Embiid ended with 34 points and 11 rebounds, five on the offensive glass. He was 11 for 14 from the foul line, an indication that Toronto couldn’t handle him down low.
Nobody should be expected to shut down Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, but Robert Covington made him work as hard as possible. DeRozan is a master of shooting over screens, but Covington often had a hand in his face. Coming off a 42-point performance in Saturday’s 127-125 loss to Golden State, DeRozan was frequently double-teamed, forcing the three-time all-star to pass to open teammates who couldn’t hit shots for three quarters. DeRozan finished with 24 points, hitting 8 for 18 from the field, but he’s such a great player that the Sixers probably felt fortunate to keep him at that total.
— Marc Narducci (@sjnard) January 15, 2018
Big spark from McConnell
T.J. McConnell enjoyed another strong game off the bench, continuing to provide a needed spark. Along with Embiid, he helped fuel the Sixers to the 10-point halftime lead. McConnell had seven points, seven assists and one turnover in the half. With the Raptors having scored seven straight points to cut the deficit to 76-64 in the third quarter, McConnell came in and spearheaded a 9-0 run. He stated things with a spinning, driving layup over 6-9 Pascal Siekam. McConnell added seven points in the third quarter as the Sixers opened a 93-75 advantage. He finished with 18 points and eight assists and shot 8 for 13 from the field.
Tough night for the local product
Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, a former standout at Cardinal Dougherty and Villanova, always looks forward to coming to Philadelphia, but this was a rough homecoming, at least for the first three quarters when he shot 1 for 11 and had six points. He had missed the previous three games with a bruised tailbone. The Sixers several defenders on Lowry – JJ Redick, Jerryd Bayless and McConnell – and all had varying degrees of success. Lowry scored 13 points, shooting 3 for 16 from the field. His day ended when Lowry and Ben Simmons were ejected with six seconds left after exchanging words.
Closing out a quality team
The Sixers still must do a better job closing out games, especially against quality competition. (They entered the game 0-8 against the top three Eastern Conference teams, Boston, Toronto and Cleveland.) The Sixers entered the fourth quarter with an 18-point lead and saw it dwindle to 102-101 with 3:03 left on a pull-up jumper by DeRozan. The Sixers still led by 111-108 with 36.7 seconds left, but Embiid operated down low, hitting four foul shots down the stretch to secure the win. This is a game that should give the Sixers some confidence, although the fourth quarter, when they were outscored 36-24, was likely too close for comfort for coach Brett Brown.