During the Sixers’ 119-107 loss to the Raptors at the Wells Fargo Center on Feb. 5, there was a stretch of about three minutes in the first quarter that, in hindsight, may have sealed their fate.
First came a possession where Ben Simmons had Danny Green sealed off deep in the post for what should have been an easy bucket. Instead, the Sixers took too long to recognize the mismatch, and when Simmons got the ball, he traveled while hurrying to get his shot off.
The next time down the court, Mike Muscala shuffled his feet before putting the ball on the court, resulting in a travel. A couple of possessions later, Simmons missed a short baby hook with a clean look at the rim from about three feet. And a couple of possessions after that, Embiid made an ill-advised pass attempt that ended up stolen by Kawhi Leonard.
All of it made for a strange little slice of time to review on film. Not only was it a reminder of how dramatically the complexion of this Sixers team has changed in a short period of time — their starting lineup that night featured Muscala and rookie Landry Shamet, neither of whom is currently on the roster — it also served to underscore the self-inflicted nature of some of their ongoing struggles against the Raptors. In the Sixers’ three losses to Toronto during the regular season, they averaged 20 turnovers, including 18 in that Feb. 5 loss. Conversely, in their one win, they turned the ball over just 11 times.
“You can certainly look at the roster turnover and not make much of the regular season, but I think there’s certain philosophies that we’ve got to be better at,” JJ Redick said. “The main one I think is just take care of the basketball. They’re long, athletic, and they play at times a swarming style of defense. You saw that at times during the Orlando series. We’ve got to be good with that. We’ve got to take care of the basketball.”
It’s an aspect of the game that the Sixers have improved upon in recent months. In their first 54 games of the season, ending with that loss to the Raptors, their 15.7 turnovers per game were fourth-most in the NBA. In their last 28 games, they averaged 13, which was 14th-most in the league.
To a certain degree, their struggles resurfaced in their first round series against the Nets, when they turned the ball over 16+ times in three of the series’ five games. At 16.4 turnovers per game, none of the NBA’s 16 playoff teams gave the ball away more often than the Sixers did in the first round. That’s an especially relevant factoid when considered in conjunction with the 12.2 turnovers that the Raptors averaged. Against an opponent as powerful as Toronto, the Sixers simply cannot afford to give them four free extra possessions per game.
Obviously, a large part of that burden falls on Simmons. While the second-year point guard has struggled when matched up against Raptors star Kawhi Leonord, he was one of the most efficient players on the court, finishing the series with just 15 turnovers while shooting .643 from the field. (Consider that latter number from this perspective: Simmons missed 20 shots while grabbing 12 offensive rebounds.)
Along with the improvement of Embiid, who has trimmed his turnover output from 3.8 to 3.7 to 3.5 per game over his first three seasons, the Sixers are a more mature team than they were at this point last year. Against the Raptors, they need that to translate into a more controlled offensive team, particularly in the face of a withering defense led by Leonard.
“It’s a small sample size, it’s the first round of the playoffs, but I feel like we came in games where we needed to execute and lock in our game plan like we needed to," Tobias Harris said. “I feel like we did a really good job of that.”
But, as Harris said, the Raptors are a different sort of opponent than the Nets were. During the regular season, Toronto’s opponents averaged 14.9 turnovers per game, 10th-most in the NBA. The Raptors’ defensive rating of 108.4 ranked ninth. In their wins this season, the Sixers averaged 13.6 turnovers. In their losses, they averaged 15.9.
“From last year at the beginning of the season to this sort of iteration of our team, I think we’re better at that,” Redick said. “The playoffs, it’s more physical, and we got a taste of that against certain teams at the end of the season: Boston, Indiana, Miami right after the All-Star break, teams that basically play 82 games of playoff-style basketball."