PHILADELPHIA—It wasn’t just Joel Embiid. It wasn’t just the Cameroonian giant shutting down the lane, and splashing threes, and uncorking a windmill dunk that brought to mind Godzilla, rising from the sea. It wasn’t just the big man finally arriving in this series, after the Toronto Raptors wasted a game in which he barely made a dent. It wasn’t just his celebrations, his antics, his energy. That stuff was fun, but it wasn’t everything.
No, the entire Philadelphia 76ers team was bigger than the Toronto Raptors in Game 3, literally and figuratively, and the result was a 116-95 blowout. Embiid was a superstar, but the Raptors can deal with that, if they are themselves. But for the first time in these playoffs, you wondered who they are. Maybe they did, too.
“They’re playing better, we’re not, they’re making shots, we’re not,” said shooting guard Danny Green. “I just think we’re making the game harder on ourselves than we need to be sometimes. Sometimes you make the easy play and go from there: take the first one, the first easy play, the first easy shot. Sometimes we’re overswinging it and overthinking it, we’re taking too long to swing it … it’s their size, their athleticism, their speed, and us overthinking it sometimes. I think we have more open looks than we think we do.
“We’ll look at the film and see how close they are, the closeouts, see what shot we can take, and live with them.”
This is a team that doesn’t look like it trusts itself outside of the twin cannons of Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, and even Siakam lost his head late, because Embiid was in it. Leonard and Siakam combined for 53 points on 20-of-37 shooting, and everyone else went 15-for-46, and that wasn’t the whole problem. It was just a part.
“I think got outplayed in just about every area we could get outplayed,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “In overall physicality, energy, cutting, rebounding, passing, all that kind of stuff. We got thoroughly outplayed and it’s been a while, it’s been a while since you’ve seen this team play this way.”
This was the first game of the playoffs where another team imposed its will on the Raptors, and you suddenly saw all the flaws. Their small guards were devoured by Philadelphia’s giant perimeter players rotating hard, and when they drove past and tried to find the lane, there was Embiid. Marc Gasol looked all of his 34 years for the first time in this series, at both ends; Embiid. With giants flying at him, Lowry looked tiny and lost. The bench is still a disaster, and Fred VanVleet, a tough-minded player, doesn’t look like he wants to shoot. He missed all seven of his shots, and is 1-of-12 in the series.
“Every time you had the ball, you felt like there was someone in front of you,” said Siakam. “And then you pass off shots, and it kind of messed up the rhythm.”
This wasn’t an adjustment game. The Sixers took Embiid off Siakam because asking a near-300-pounder to chase Siakam slithering around the screens that Toronto could have used more of in Game 2 was a tough ask. No, Philadelphia played Toronto straight up, cards on the table. They were better.
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“Chemistry is overrated,” said Embiid, who finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and endless viral content. “When you have great basketball players, it’s easy. It’s not that complicated. We’re all willing passers. We don’t want to get into situations where one guy has the ball and tries to create.”
That sounded like a description of Leonard, who was a blowtorch again: with the Raptors down 18 in the third quarter he went wild, scoring 14 in the frame and pulling Toronto within eight.
But the bench lineups bled again, and with the game still in question it was Embiid who ruled the world. Early in the fourth Siakam had an open corner three to pull Toronto within five, and clanked it; Lowry had an open pull-up at the top and did the same. Embiid splashed a three in response, and then Siakam drove on him and didn’t get a call. He leg-whipped his fellow Cameroonian and got a flagrant foul, as Philly booed; Embiid was cool about it, because it was his night.
“I mean, that’s my guy, I wouldn’t want to hurt him,” said Siakam, who finished with 20. “Something I thought was a no-call, I didn’t mean to hurt him. The passion of the game. Things happen.”
And then Embiid spent his final minutes in the game clowning the Raptors. They let him do it.
“We’re just going to have to figure out a better way to get him removed from right underneath the basket somehow,” said Nurse. “That was the biggest thing, and then the three-ball. He was good, played with great energy and great decision-making, he was rolling really hard to the basket. When he looked us in the eye for his face-ups he made them as well, and then when they kicked it out to him for a three, he made them, too.”
“To me, it started on the blocks,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “We can talk about a windmill dunk, or finesse post moves and that, but I got to defence. That’s what interests me the most to date with this series … he is our crown jewel defensively — and I suppose offensively, too, but certainly defensively.”
He was asked if he thought he had the best player in the series if Embiid is healthy. He said, “Yes.”
Leonard will have a say in that. But the difference here was that the Sixers were the better team for the first time in the series, and the Raptors are one loss from being pushed up against the wall. The Philly crowd was rabid, and Ben Simmons snuck an elbow to Kyle Lowry’s man parts. But too many Raptors simply failed to live up to the moment, and the defence was permeable for the first time in these playoffs. The season is all but on the line Sunday.
“I think the first adjustment we’re going to have to make is, we’re going to have to play a helluva lot harder and play a helluva lot more physical,” said Nurse. “If we don’t do that, the prettiest things we decide to do offensively won’t matter.”
It’s not just Gasol who has been challenged here. It’s the Raptors as a team. They will need to meet this with force, and with alacrity, and they need to make some damn shots. The Raptors will need to trust themselves, and earn that trust. Toronto should have won Game 2 of this series, and they didn’t. And those things will come back to haunt you, if you let them.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur
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