TORONTO — It was worth the wait.
Tie game, season on the line, crowd on its feet, chanting, sharing each other’s voices, passion and energy.
It was like old times.
Or more accurately, like olden times, back when a young Toronto Raptors team didn’t get the breaks or didn’t make the breaks, didn’t get the bounces and didn’t get the win.
Returning to that glory will be a process, and it will necessarily involve some heartbreak.
Case in point: the fadeaway three with less than a second left on the clock by The Process himself, Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid, that snatched a win and no shortage of souls as the decisive blow in a grimy, gritty, and hard-fought 104-101 win that needed an overtime period to decide it.
The dagger gave the Sixers a 3-0 lead in their first-round series with the Raptors. It was a small measure of revenge for Embiid, who left the floor at Scotiabank Arena in tears after Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beater ended the Sixers' season in Game 7 of the second round in 2019.
"It felt great, obviously, with what happened here a couple of years ago," said Embiid, who was booed every time he touched the ball. "It’s obviously a tough place to play, especially in the playoffs, they have great fans, they’re loud, I knew coming in I was going to be the bad guy … so I just came out and let the game come to me."
The two teams meet again Saturday afternoon, but the Raptors will be trying to make history in coming back from down three in a best-of-seven series.
Had things gone just a little bit differently in Game 3 you might have liked their chances to come back from down 0-2 as Toronto rode the home crowd to their best performance of the series, pushing the Sixers all the way to the limit and beyond.
They’ll be lamenting some unforced errors for some time to come presuming their season does come to an end Saturday — Embiid was promising Drake he was coming for the sweep after the game — or perhaps Monday in Game 5.
Precious Achiuwa missed a pair of free throws with 27.5 seconds left in regulation that could have put Toronto up by two, and OG Anunoby missed another free throw with 26 seconds left in overtime that could have given Toronto the lead. The Raptors could have defended the inbound play differently prior to Embiid’s big shot — Toronto didn’t put a defender on Danny Green as he inbounded the ball with 0.9 seconds left on the shot clock, giving him a clean look to hit Embiid with a pass.
Could that have made a difference? We’ll never know, but it’s the little things that do add up in critical games. For the second straight game, the Raptors' primary scorers Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet struggled, combining to go 6-of-29 from the floor, with Siakam going scoreless after halftime.
The Raptors answered the bell in many admirable ways while 0-2 in the series, but they remain on the verge of being knocked out.
“I thought we fought. We fought really hard, showed the compete level that it takes — it only took a few games to get there — but I'm proud of the guys and the way we fought and raised our intensity level,” VanVleet said. “Our attention to detail was a little bit better. We made some plays offensively … and I thought our defence was a lot better tonight.
"But yeah, in terms of closing out a game and executing down the stretch, that’s probably as bad as it gets.”
The Raptors got some gutsy performances. Anunoby continued his fine playoff form with 26 points to lead Toronto while Gary Trent Jr. — badly ill during the first two games — shook that off to deliver a brilliant two-way performance with 24 points and multiple big defensive plays. VanVleet struggled shooting (3-of-13) but had nine assists and three steals, while Achiuwa came off the bench for 20 points and one big defensive stand after another, including impeccable defence on Embiid’s first attempt to decide the game at the end of overtime.
Siakam’s second-half shutout was a problem — your best player can’t take five shots, miss them all and fail to get to the free throw line in the final 29 minutes of what was effectively an elimination game — but even with that the Raptors almost won and probably should have.
But the Sixers had Embiid. After the Raptors had forced Embiid to half court by deflecting the ball from his hands, it appeared he had heaved a desperation shot, but Sixers head coach Doc Rivers had run down the floor to get the referees' attention to call a timeout and was finally granted one with 2.6 seconds left and just under a second on the shot clock. They ran Embiid around the three-point line, hit the seven-foot, 300-pounder with a pass on the move and he nailed the turnaround with 0.8 seconds to play.
Anunoby missed a desperation attempt at the buzzer.
Embiid scored 28 of his game-high 33 points in the second half and overtime. He defended Siakam most of the second half. He has been the best player in the series by a massive margin, and the Sixers are poised to advance as a result.
Still, the Raptors' season may be teetering, but at the very least the game was recognizable as a Raptors game. They left their imprint on it as they forced the Sixers into 24 turnovers, six by Embiid. Toronto turned those turnovers into 27 points and led in fast-break points 13-4 and second-chance points 16-9. There were steals, multiple efforts and opponents annoyed to the max. Bodies were on the floor. The Raptors controlled the game’s tempo and maybe more importantly its feel. They just didn’t get the result.
“It’s tough. Got to think about this but that’s about a tough a loss as I can remember here for my time,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Obviously if we pull that thing out, we got ourselves a series and instead, you got yourself a really, really deep hole to dig out of. But, at least I thought we brought it and they played with great intensity and played really tough and put ourselves in a position to win and it just didn’t go our way tonight.”
The stakes were high. No team in NBA history has ever come back from being down 3-0 and even if this edition of the Raptors — an incomplete puzzle with youthful corners pieces — isn’t a championship team, the experience they could gain from a competitive post-season would be a just reward for a surprisingly good regular season and more data to draw on for the future when ambitions are that much higher.
The excitement and energy that came with playing their first playoff game at Scotiabank Arena in 1,045 days was very much part of the Raptors' game plan as they plotted how to get back into the series. The Raptors needed help anywhere they could find it.
The hope was that by facing some season-in-their-hands adversity, the group’s nature would show itself again.
For the most part, that’s what happened. Nurse changed his approach with Embiid, bringing doubles later and trying to lure him into playing more of a face-up game, and it worked in the first half — Embiid shot just five times in the first half. That allowed them to pay close attention to the likes of Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris, the Sixers’ third and fourth starters who had combined for 107 points on 57 shots in the first two games. They combined for just 30 in Game 3, while James Harden, who the Raptors covered more with a single defender, finished with just 19 points and 10 assists. He also fouled out, picking up his last four fouls in seven minutes in the fourth quarter.
Both adjustments paid off brilliantly as the Raptors led 29-19 after the first and 56-54 at half.
But the Raptors were almost certainly going to get tested, and it came in the third quarter when the Sixers made a point of getting Embiid the ball in dangerous places, deep in the paint. There was a ferocious dunk over Siakam and then another play to get Embiid the ball on the move, going to the rim, and Embiid was feeling it enough to step out and hit a three also. His 12-point burst to start the half pulled the Sixers to within one with five minutes left in the period.
The Raptors were playing nearly exclusively zone at that point. Embiid kept finding his way to the rim and the foul line, regardless of what the Raptors were doing. The Sixers' big man ended up with 18 points and seven trips to the free throw line in the quarter as Toronto headed into the fourth trying to protect a one-point lead, 75-74.
They couldn’t do it, but not for lack of effort. It was a game to remember, if maybe not for all the feels.