PHILADELPHIA – By the time Joel Embiid had finished lollygagging up and down the Wells Fargo Center court, the Philadelphia 76ers had made their statement to the NBA world. These Sixers have arrived and the Toronto Raptors’ postseason is officially in peril.
Embiid’s fourth quarter swagger is the endearing memory of an evening where the Sixers took a 2-1 series lead in south Philadelphia. As they did in the first round against Brooklyn, the Sixers have bounced back from a lacklustre Game 1 defeat and turned a playoff series on its head, winning 116-95. While the flamboyance of a finger waving and trash talking Embiid is the loud punctuation to tonight’s events, there is no shielding the substantiative ascendancy the Sixers have gained over a Raptors side that appeared insurmountable just days earlier.
Tonight was one of Philadelphia’s most complete showings of the season. It was unquestionably their most significant, as the team now sits just two games away from the Eastern Conference Finals. But there is something bigger brewing. Game 3 was the type of showing that existed in Elton Brand’s dreams, when the rookie general manager shook up the roster during the regular season. A long and athletic team overpowered one the NBA’s best outfits, with a unique cocktail of players that combined into an overwhelming force. That was the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night.
Given the stakes, there is no greater win on the head coaching resume of Brett Brown.
“It’s evolving, that is for sure,” Brown said of his team’s cohesion postgame. “It is a lot easier to say and sell when you win. And that we have taken great pride in our defence is the thing that interests me the most, and I think connects the dots.”
Embiid’s performance in Game 3 was a historical abnormality. The Cameroonian dominated the Raptors to the extent of 33 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in just 28 minutes. He was a game-high +31 whilst on the court and there was an unmistakable aura emanating from Embiid right after the opening tip.
“He made his presence felt,” said Kawhi Leonard. “He got to the free throw line, hit some big threes, had five blocks. He did his job.”
After being restricted by Marc Gasol in Toronto, Embiid immediately turned things around, scoring nine points and taking six shots in the opening quarter. The shot tally matched Embiid’s total from all of Game 2, although that is where the comparisons to past games end. Embiid is the first player in NBA history to record at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks while playing less than 30 minutes in an NBA playoff game. Playing against a Raptors team that owned NBA’s third best defence during the regular season, adds a further layer of brilliance to Embiid’s performance.
“They’re a great defensive team and they double and triple-team a lot, so it’s a team defence,” Embiid said. “If I’m open, my teammates are going to find me and if they’re open, I’m going to find them.
“I’m not really worried about them, I’m more worried about my team. You know, how we coexist on the court, how we play together. We know that we got to move the ball, we got to take up the ball and defensively just, we got a couple of guys on the team that have the potential to be Defensive Player Of the Year. So, that’s what we got to do. My job is just to get it moving."
Embiid’s teammates were left looking at higher figures, in their attempts to explain his efforts.
“I be like ‘God damn, this dude is nice,’ Mike Scott said of Embiid. “He’s special. He’s one of one.”
With Embiid taking his turn as the Sixers' leading man, his running mates were given clear runways to star in supporting roles. Jimmy Butler once again transformed into the leader that Brown and the coaching staff has fawned over all postseason. Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick combined to add 28 points on 10-20 shooting from the field. While their scoring output doesn’t overwhelm, the efficient offence and floor spacing the duo offers has been instrumental during Philadelphia’s two recent victories. The pair are taking their chances and that is something that cannot be said for their opponent.
Ben Simmons continued his personal battle with Kawhi Leonard. The Australian was unable to stop Leonard from hitting a flurry of contested shots, although this is once again more a comment to Leonard’s greatness than anything Simmons lacks. And with Philadelphia shockingly looking like the deeper team, Brown is willing to live with Simmons battling on Leonard.
Simmons has made Leonard work harder than any other Sixer. His relentless effort, while occasionally misguided and inadequate to stop an elite offensive player in his prime, allows Brown to focus on shutting down Toronto’s secondary offensive options, without constantly throwing an extra man towards Leonard.
Therein lies the problem for Toronto. Leonard has scored 113 points through the opening three games of the series. Pascal Siakam has been the perfect Robin to his Batman, chipping in with 23.3 points per game, but that is where the help stops. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol have become passive offensive players. Danny Green hit a flurry of shots early in Game 3 but could only add four points over the final three quarters.
Toronto’s starting group is getting thoroughly outplayed and fixing that is the first adjustment they must make to save their season.
"We're going to have to play a hell of a lot harder and a hell of a lot more physical,” said Nick Nurse postgame. “If we don't do that, the prettiest things we try to do offensively aren't going to matter much.”
Leonard and Siakam have scored 183 of Toronto’s 292 points in this series. That is 63% of their offence coming from two players. That isn’t going to work against a Sixers team discovering their very best basketball, and that thought should frighten Raptors fans. Toronto was the better team throughout the regular season, but that offers no solace as they desperately chase the road victory needed to regain control of this series.
Some members of the local Philadelphia press core called Game 3 the biggest Sixers home game since 2001, the year Allen Iverson led the franchise to the NBA Finals. That sets the tone for Sunday’s Game 4. The Sixers can seize control of the series with another home victory and the local fans are daring to dream. Not just a return to the NBA’s championship round, but also a sustained run in the years ahead. They are hoping that such uncompromising dominance, like that witnessed in Game 3, is more than just a singular postseason event. They hope that these Sixers are coming together before our eyes.
“I think everyone is just locked in right now,” Simmons said. “Obviously we are playing a very talented team who is well coached. A lot of respect for them and it’s going to be a fight.”