PHILADELPHIA – Joel Embiid pumped and then took off. Marc Gasol bit on the ball fake and could only watch as the 7-foot, 300-pound centre then blasted down the lane like a super-sized Michael Jordan and wind-milled the ball home.
He sprinted back down the floor at Wells-Fargo Center with his arms spread wide like Sixers legend Allen Iverson did so many years ago in sending the Toronto Raptors home heartbroken.
The emphatic slam midway through the fourth quarter was the official stamp on Philly’s blowout win and may have put a stamp on the series. If the Raptors don’t turn the suddenly shifting tide it could read: ‘R.I.P.’.
This edition of the Raptors has time to prevent that, but they’re going to have to figure out how to revive themselves after being smothered 116-95 in Game 3 to fall behind 2-1 in their second-round series with Game 4 scheduled in Philadelphia for Sunday.
The Philly kids came home and were more than all right. They were great. They played smart, they played poised and they played fantastic.
The Raptors have more experience, more playoff experience and more championship experience than The Process-driven Sixers may ever get, but with a chance to seize control of the second-round series between two of the Eastern Conference’s highest-powered teams it was the young guns who looked like they’ve done all this before.
The Raptors did too – they just looked liked they have so many times in the franchise’s difficult post-season history: a little over-matched, a little over-whelmed and now entirely under the gun.
"I think we got out-played in just about every area we could get out-played," said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. "In overall physicality, energy, cutting, rebounding, passing, all that kind of stuff … we got thoroughly out-played and it’s been a while, it’s been a while since you’ve seen this team play this way."
Specifically it was some of their best, most experienced players that were out-played. Nurse has had two players he has been able to rely on through three games – Kawhi Leonard who is playing near-perfect basketball and Pascal Siakam who found a way to contribute again in what is a breakout post-season for the third-year star.
Leonard was a wrecking ball again as he finished with 33 points on 12-of-22 shooting, although his five turnovers didn’t help. Siakam figured out the Sixers’ shifting defensive strategies – sometimes he saw Tobias Harris, in the second-half he saw some of Embiid – and finished with 20 points on 15 shots.
But after that? Nurse was juggling knives. Gasol and Kyle Lowry combined to shoot 4-of-16 for 14 points – not much production on the road from veteran all-stars who earned a combined $59-million this season.
And the bench? The Raptors used to have one. So far in this series the second-unit, composed primarily of Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Norm Powell – that’s another $40-million in payroll – has been an anchor rather than the advantage that was supposed to put Toronto over the top. They were 4-of-18 in Game 3. For the series the Raptors have been out-scored by 32 points in the 73 minutes that even one of the starting five has been off the floor, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Black.
Meanwhile the Sixer’s number keeps coming up, but in Game 3 they were led by their biggest guns.
The Sixers got big performances on both ends of the court from Embiid and Ben Simmons, crown jewels from Philadelphia’s decision to troll the depths of the draft lottery for seasons on end — the so-called ‘Process.’ It is just their second post-season together but they looked like they’ve been doing this winning thing forever in Game 3.
Embiid emerged from a Gasol-woven cocoon in the first two games to post a line of 33 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. Simmons’ boxscore numbers weren’t as flashy – 10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists – but he led the Sixers in minutes again after playing 44 in Game 2 and was an active presence on defence while being a low-key ball mover at the other end. That left room for three other starters to crack double figures, highlighted by an efficient night for Jimmy Butler – 22 points on 15 shots along with nine assists and nine rebounds.
But Embiid was a force and he had fun, playing to the crowd like your average pro wrestler, with the audience – and his teammates – loving every minute.
"I think for everybody that knows me, [knows] I need it," he said. "When I have fun, my game just changes. I’m always told that if I don’t smile during the game that I’m either having a bad game or I’m not into it. I know that to get my game going, I have to have fun on the court. At the same time I got to make plays, but that part of the theatrics, it has to happen for me. The game is more fun that way. We have more fun as a team."
The Raptors? They were not having any fun. Lowry’s first playoff game in his hometown was no big deal, he stressed beforehand. Just a business trip.
He played like he’d lost his cell phone and his laptop had crashed.
"Me personally, I’ve got to play better," he said. "I can’t go out there and shoot 2-for-10 and miss open threes. We’re getting good looks. [We need to] look at the film, see where we can get better looks."
And oh yeah, maybe take some weight of Kawhi’s shoulders:
"We’ve got to help him. We’ve got to help him. Myself especially, I’ve got to help him score more," said Lowry. "I’ve got to help him on the floor. We’ve all got to help him. He’s playing unbelievable right now. We’re not giving him any help. Me, I’m not giving him any help. We’ve got to help him."
They have two days to soul search and figure out what went wrong. The list is long.
Nurse’s first job is to figure out exactly how long he can play Leonard, or at least not play Leonard.
The game turned for the worse at the start of the fourth quarter. The Raptors had been teetering on the edge of being blown out for most of the night – they never led and the Sixers’ lead hovered at double-digits from the second quarter on – but it finally got away from them when Philly jumped out to an 11-0 run in the first three minutes of the fourth.
Nurse had Leonard and Danny Green on the bench, but this was after Leonard had scored 14 points on 6-of-6 shooting while playing all 12 minutes of the third. A line-up of Lowry, Gasol, Siakam, VanVleet and Powell let go of the rope and the Raptors couldn’t get it back again.
Adjustments? There will be adjustments. Still, Nurse can fiddle the dials all he wants but if his team is going to shoot 7-of-27 from three, allow the Sixers to shoot 51.2-per-cent from the floor and Raptors’ rotation players not named Leonard or Siakam are going to shoot 30.2 per cent, there are going to be too many holes to fill.
"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," Nurse said. "If we don’t do that, the prettiest things we decide to do offensively won’t matter."
Leonard can’t do it alone and as he heads into free agency in the summer, chances are he won’t want to.
We’ll have a better idea how soon he has to make the decision on Sunday in another Raptors must-win playoff game. Ho-hum.