TORONTO – Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid strolled by Drake as big No.21 was making his way off the floor after a thorough butt-kicking by the Toronto Raptors and made a pledge to the hip-hop mogul and the Raptors’ global ambassador.
"I’ll be back."
Next year, or …
He clarified: Did he tell Drake the Sixers would be back for Game 7 on Sunday at Scotiabank Arena?
"Yes," he said through a stuffed-up sounding nose. "I did."
The Raptors will certainly have a lot to say about that, and in Game 5 they made their intentions very clear as they pasted the 76ers 125-89 on Tuesday to take a 3-2 lead in their second-round series. It was the largest margin of victory in Raptors playoff history, and leaves them with a chance to close out Philly in Game 6 on Thursday night and book a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals for just the second time.
The Sixers can pledge to be back for Game 7 all they want, but at this point you have to like the Raptors’ chances. Not only because Embiid has been a shadow of himself as he has now threatened to call in sick for three of his past four games, but because for the first time in the series, the Raptors looked like a team to be reckoned with even without Kawhi Leonard turning himself into some kind of comic book hero sent to save the world.
Leonard has been playing so well the Raptors were facing a kind of existential crisis – what would happen if he didn’t?
It was an interesting question, but purely hypothetical.
As if Leonard would ever miss a mid-range jumper, or any other kind? Jokes.
But it was worth contemplating because the list of NBA players who had averaged at least 32 points in a post-season while carrying a true shooting percentage 70.4 or better, as Leonard was through the first nine games of the Raptors’ playoff run, was a short one.
In fact, Leonard was the only one on it. So either he was about to go where no one has gone before – and let’s not rule that out just yet – or Toronto was going to have to be prepared for Leonard looking only awesome, as compared with immortal one of these nights
What would happen to the Raptors then?
Well, Tuesday night the Raptors – and maybe the Sixers – had the answer. Leonard played well but not historically well – it’s pretty telling when 21 points on 16 shots to along with 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals and no turnovers in 36 minutes is only your ninth best game out of 10 during the Raptors playoff run – and the Raptors turned in one of their most convincing wins in their history.
Embiid floated around for 13 points and eight turnovers after he was a game-time decision with an upper-chest infection, meanwhile, the Kawhi show had co-stars.
Kyle Lowry had 19 points and five assists and had the gas down all night, sprinting the ball in transition and picking up the Raptors pace to the tune of 33 fastbreak points. Pascal Siakam shook off any lingering effects of his bruised right calf that made him a shell of himself in Game 4 and might have been the Raptors’ best player as he led them in scoring with 25 and was a team-best plus-38. By the time the benches emptied, all five starters were in double figures and the Raptors’ bench tied the Sixers’ bench in non-garbage time minutes.
Leonard was good but for the first time in the series the rest of his teammates were prepared to carry the load – no small thing given the Raptors were outscored by an absurd 48.7 points per 100 possessions through four games when Leonard wasn’t on the floor.
That wasn’t a problem in Game 5 as the Raptors first began to break the game open when Leonard was off the floor to start the second quarter and spurted again with Leonard resting to start the fourth quarter as quick threes by Lowry and Marc Gasol stretched a 22-point, third-quarter lead to 31 before Leonard returned for a brief fourth-quarter stint.
"I think tonight was one of those games where we let him rest a little bit, which is important," said Lowry. "He had a big double-double, but he didn’t have to do everything offensively. Those are the things that we need to do as a team to continue to get better. We’re still going to rely on him a lot. We’re still going to rely on him to score and get buckets. But tonight, he did everything else. The level that he’s playing at … He didn’t get 38, but 21, 13 [rebounds] and 4 [assists], some steals, that’s an impressive game."
But for once it wasn’t a one-man gang. His only field goal of the second quarter was a spectacular dunk just before the horn, but the Raptors won the quarter 37-17 anyway. Toronto’s top six-minute getters in the game scored in double figures for the game and in the second quarter six different players scored also.
The Sixers? They looked they were taking their lead from a guy who would have rather stayed in bed. Embiid ambled into the arena two hours before the tip wearing sweats and a hoodie pulled over his head, looking convincingly like he’d been under comforter watching Netflix and getting chicken soup from room service at the Ritz-Carleton, the Sixers’ team hotel. The big Philadelphia centre had an upset tummy before Game 2, as he was only too happy to graphically let the world know; apparently felt fine and dominated in Game 3, was up all night coughing and sneezing before Game 4 and was a game-time decision for Game 5 due to an upper-chest infection.
Michael Jordan famously had his flu game on his way to leading the Chicago Bulls to their fifth title in the 1997 NBA Finals, but at this rate, Embiid is on pace to have the NBA’s first “flu series,” although the difference is the Sixers’ centre is playing just as he feels. "It sucks, I know I’ve got to do a better job for us to win," Embiid said. "… I’ve got to smile on the court, I’ve got to lift my teammates up. … That’s how I dominate. If you see the smile, that means I’m doing what I’m supposed to do and I intend to do that in two days."
Embiid’s problem is the Raptors may have found their dominating formula, too.
"We did a lot of good things," said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse after his club shot 49 per cent from the floor and 40 per cent from deep while holding the Sixers to 42 per cent (and 25 per cent from three) while forcing 19 Philly turnovers. "We feel we’ve got a bunch of guys that can shoot pretty much always on the floor with five guys that can potentially knock down a shot. We made some tonight, I think that really fuels you, it really gives you energy and a momentum boost.
"It’s hard to continue to play really tough defence all the time when you’re getting discouraged because your shot’s not going in. A few of them went in tonight and I thought the defensive level of intensity went upward and that’s good, that’s playing both ends pretty well."
Perhaps more important is the Raptors answered a question that had been gathering momentum as Leonard kept posting historic-type numbers game after game: What would happen if he regressed to just excellent from other-worldly?
Toronto did go 17-5 without Leonard on the floor in the regular season but in the playoffs have been a struggle without him as a security blanket.
Now they know.
Leonard may not have looked like Superman for once. He didn’t even look quite like himself for long chunks of the pivotal win. But that was OK because the Raptors looked like a team.
That’s more important than anything Embiid told Drake through the sniffles.