While certain aspects of the Sixers' offense are starting to come around, Monday's game showed a fatal flaw.
With Joel Embiid almost inexplicably going scoreless, the Sixers held a 96-91 lead with under four minutes to go after Josh Richardson hit a jumper from the corner.
Then everything fell apart.
The Raptors went on a 10-0 run to close out the game as the Sixers lost their sixth road game of the season and had their four-game winning streak snapped in a 101-96 loss at Scotiabank Arena (see observations).
The game was there for the taking, but the Sixers crumbled down the stretch.
"I think just overall the whole game [we had] a lot of mental errors that we didn't correct," Ben Simmons said to reporters postgame. "Jo had a tough night so that also doesn't help. But I mean, we look back at this game, we know we should have won this one. But Toronto made plays."
It was a such an odd game to get a grasp of. The Sixers scored 30-plus points in the first and third quarters but were held below 20 in the second and fourth. During one stretch, two of their best free throw shooters missed four straight.
But in a game where their "crown jewel" was scoreless and their point guard turned the ball over seven times, the Sixers had every opportunity to win it down the stretch.
While Simmons was tremendous at certain points of the game - he had 14 assists and helped turn the tide of the game with an aggressive third quarter - he had a tough time down the stretch. After a Fred VanVleet miss with 18.6 seconds left, Embiid grabbed the rebound and threw an outlet pass to Simmons. Simmons pushed the basketball up the floor in an attempt to catch Toronto off guard. He then tried an ill-advised lob pass to Tobias Harris that was picked off by Pascal Siakam.
The Sixers had one more chance to tie the game. Harris missed a tightly-contested three, but Simmons got the rebound. Not realizing that he still had time left, Simmons took a heave from well beyond the arc with 6.2 seconds on the clock.
"I mean, if we're big boys, you'd say, of course, there has to be," Brown said when asked if his team can learning anything from this game. "You're going to walk out of here and find something that is going to make us better. And we will do that. At this moment, 10 minutes after the game, it stings. You'll wake up in the morning, you'll be wiser for it and learn things that we have to just respond to better.
"We had a stage there where we missed four free throws, they came back and hit a three and it's kind of like a seven-point swing. And you'd like to have a few of those turnovers back at the end of the game, so that's where I'm at."
Harris was understandably frustrated with the way his team closed the game out.
When he was re-signed and Jimmy Butler was sent to Miami, there was some thought to Harris taking over as the team's late-game scorer. He got himself a decent look on a floater that would've put the Sixers up with under a minute to go but couldn't get it to go.
He certainly wasn't in the mood for lessons after this one.
"We learned that we got to be better late in the fourth quarter," Harris said. "We got to be better engaged, offensively and defensively - executing on both ends of the floor. That's what we learned."
So far this season, it had been Embiid who was the late-game option.
But there was no reasonable way Brown could go to his All-Star center who was 0 for 11 from the field and 0 for 3 from the line. Normally you'd credit Marc Gasol for such a poor night from Embiid. While Gasol deserves part of it, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse deployed a different strategy than he had in the playoffs.
During that seven-game series, Toronto rarely doubled Embiid and took their chances with Gasol in the post. On Monday, Nurse sent quick and aggressive double teams every time Embiid touched the ball in the post.
Embiid didn't handle the double teams that poorly early but was trying to force things whenever he had any breathing room.
And yet, his teammates almost pulled it out.
"Getting zero production from me offensively and we still end up being pretty close," Embiid said. "That says a lot about the group of guys we've got. We got a lot of talent. We got a lot of guys that can pick it up when someone is cold so that's great to see, but obviously we didn't get the win and in the fourth quarter we made a lot of mistakes and we're going to learn from it."
Is it new starters trying to figure things out? Guys still trying to find their roles? Coaching?
"Honestly, no," Harris said. "Just poor execution offensively and defensively with everybody, including myself. Something that we as a team, we got to be way better at. This was our game. It should have been our win tonight, but it went the other way."
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