Four – Concern: The bigger threat is that Joel Embiid has finally found his footing. Embiid had 33 points – more than double his previous career-high against Gasol – and capped off the night with a windmill dunk that brought the house down. Embiid was bothered by a bad knee and gastroenteritis in Games 1 and 2, but if this is the norm going forward, the Raptors stand no chance. Gasol needs to be tougher in the post, and the Raptors need to send more help.
How things changed so quickly and so dramatically is a fairly accurate snapshot of what’s gone wrong for the Raptors so far in this series. That they were even in such a hole is, of course, a major problem as well, as it’s the second consecutive game they’ve been fighting from behind, which doesn’t really suit their preferred style of play. Mostly, though, what you need to know unfolded over those six-and-a-half minutes, a 21-2 run.
The fourth quarter started with Leonard on the bench, a brief necessity at some point in the second half. All night, the Raptors looked incapable of scoring without relying heavily on Leonard. He’d finish the night with an efficient 33 points once again, and his teammates combined to shoot 36.1 percent overall (and 21.7 percent on 3s) in support. Leaning on Leonard is expected as the difficulty increases and the value of a hyper-efficient, high-volume shot-maker grows. He can’t be expected to carry the load alone, though, especially as the 76ers show him more and more attention, necessitating either progressively more difficult baskets or his teammates to make shots.
When he’s not on the floor at all, forget about it – the Raptors own an offensive rating of 54.1 with Leonard on the bench in this series, a mark so disastrous I triple-checked it (it’s 110.7 with him on the floor). And to be clear, while the defence was suspect in Game 3, the offensive side of the ball has been a much bigger struggle for the Raptors relative to their norm. And that’s even as they’ve forced a decent number of turnovers and scored well off them, although Philadelphia has done well to limit live-ball miscues and scramble back on defence when they do commit them. It’s made non-Leonard offence tougher to come by, as the Raptors have really struggled with Philadelphia’s combination of size and speed.
Those numbers without and in support of Leonard are bad. Somehow, it’s the shots the Raptors aren’t taking that have been even more frustrating. Lowry and Marc Gasol still aren’t presenting as very open shooting threats, and it’s allowing Philadelphia’s aggression doubling the post or trapping Leonard to go mostly unpunished. They’re dropping well back against Gasol in most scenarios and even scrambling late to Lowry, trusting their close-out speed and their length to contest if the shots do go up. Mostly, they’re betting they won’t, and the Raptors will over-pass themselves into worse looks later in the shot clock. It seems backward from prior Raptors playoffs to criticize over-passing, but passing numbers in and of themselves are not necessarily good or bad, and Toronto’s spike in passing numbers in the postseason has at times hinted to hesitancy as much as creativity.
“I just think we’re making the game harder than it has to be on ourselves,” Danny Green said. “Sometimes just make the easy play and go from there. We’re over-swinging and over-thinking it.”
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.
“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.”
On both ends of the floor, one point was hammered home again and again and again: The 76ers are much bigger than the Raptors, especially when the team’s benches become involved. Somehow, the 76ers won the offensive rebound battle only 9-8, but size plays a part in ways other than the glass. Fred VanVleet, who has been so laudable over the last two seasons, is shrinking by the moment. He went 0-for-5 from 3-point range — he, Kyle Lowry and Siakam combined 0-for-12 from deep — and two of those 3-pointers were blocked. It is pretty damn hard to have a 3-pointer blocked in the NBA. But when a guy who is 6-foot-8 (Jimmy Butler), 6-foot-9 (Tobias Harris) or 6-foot-10 (Ben Simmons) is closing out on guards such as Lowry and VanVleet that flirt with the 6-foot mark, it becomes a lot easier.
“They’re flying at us. They’re running us off and making us get inside the lane,” Lowry said. We’ve got to make some extra passes.”
The problem is that didn’t seem to help, either. The Raptors, especially Lowry, seemed to be passing up 3-pointers regularly. Once he eschewed a catch-and-shoot look, accidentally creating a difficult pull-up shot for himself instead. A lot of his shots wound up being awkward push shots, with the guard hoping for a foul call to bail him out. Marc Gasol again took just six shots.
“Me personally, I’ve got to play better,” Lowry said. “I can’t go out there and shoot 2-for-10 and miss open 3s.”
Lowry and Gasol are players who can be physical, although it is going to be tough to match what their positional counterparts, Simmons and Embiid, the latter of whom owned the game, going deep into the celebration playbook, can bring to the table. Leonard, whose third-quarter barrage was the only thing that made Game 3 a contest at any point, is the only player who seems bulky enough at his spot to really hang. In the approximate four-and-a-half minutes Leonard sat at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters, the 76ers outscored the Raptors 15-1. The one point was a free throw from VanVleet, courtesy of a technical foul.
The Raptors spent all season trying to run from their uninspiring playoff past, telling us this is a new year and a different team. But in Game 3 they looked all too familiar. Josh Lewenberg gives his 30 seconds on Game 3.
This game raised a spectre that hadn’t arrived in the series yet: the idea that Philadelphia might be able to impose its will on Toronto. Game 1 was the Raptors flying, Game 2 was the Raptors losing a game they should have won. This was the first time it felt like the Sixers were in charge.
This was Embiid the giant, flanked by size that worked. 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.
And they were the better team, straight up, for the first time in the series. The Philly crowd was rabid, Embiid was Godzilla rising from the seabed, and Ben Simmons snuck an elbow to Kyle Lowry’s man parts. By halftime, Toronto’s defence had been strafed, and Toronto’s small guards were being erased. Lowry was reluctant to shoot and missing when he did; Fred VanVleet is a tough-minded player who has risen past a lot to get here, and the Sixers’ size has beset him to the point where it looked like he didn’t want to shoot. The result was the shots were doomed.
Toronto got a little bench scoring in the first round, but this isn’t Orlando. And in the first two games against a big, aggressive Philly team, the gap in the Raptors offensive depth chart had only become more pronounced. Leonard, Siakam and Lowry combined to average 79.5 points in the first two games. Everyone else combined — Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Ibaka, VanVleet and Norm Powell, which is the entirety of the reasonable rotation at this point — couldn’t crack 20.
That was only a part of the problem of this game, but it was there: Leonard and Siakam combined for 53 on 20-of-37 shooting, and everyone else went 15-for-46.
It was a different kind of game than the series has seen before, because Philadelphia’s size finally squeezed to full effect. Lowry was passing up threes partly because when the ball comes there is a wing between six-foot-seven and six-foot-10 flying at him, and when he got shots they weren’t going. VanVleet, as mentioned, looks spooked and missed all seven of his shots. And when they drove, Embiid was often there.
Going into this series, the Raptors were supposed to have a slight edge when it came to bench performers and other supporting cast mates in the starting five. (Note, I said SLIGHT edge.) Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors backups weren’t much of a factor. Pascal Siakam – who had a lights out game one but an off game two – didn’t have the kind of game he had in the series opener for the second straight game even though he did finish with 20 points off 15 shots.
Danny Green started the game hot going 3/3 from deep, but only finished with 13. Kyle Lowry was neutralized and was not a factor at all scoring just seven points in 37 minutes and the Raptors were -28 with him on the floor. (I won’t jinx things by saying that Lowry has become his playoff pumpkin self because I know the second I do that, he’ll drop 40. I’m not falling for the old baby on the corner trick, Kyle.)
Compare that to the help Embiid got.
Jimmy Butler scored 22 points. Tobias Harris added 13 and eight rebounds while doing some prime yeoman work in the paint against Marc Gasol – who finished with just seven points. JJ Redick added 15 points going 5/9 from the field (3/6 from three). Ben Simmons had just 10 points and seven rebounds, but for the second straight game, his primary defensive assignment was Leonard. Guarding someone like Leonard when he is on one kind of takes away your energy on the offensive end.
At the start of the fourth, the Raptors were only down eight, but in the two minutes Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse sat Leonard down, the Sixers went on a 10-0 run, and that was all she wrote. The Raptors never regained momentum, and by the middle of the fourth quarter, Embiid was windmilling basketballs and playing to the crowd.
The 76ers coach and Toronto Raptors boss Nick Nurse are partaking in guessing games and game-plan switches in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The Raptors got the best of the Sixers in Game 1. Brown made adjustments that led to a Game 2 victory. Then he did it again Thursday.
Seventy-four percent of Game 3 winners in series split after the first two games have gone on to win best-of-seven series.
Jimmy Butler added 22 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals, and a block. The Sixers’ other starters, JJ Redick (15 points), Tobias Harris (13 points, eight rebounds), and Ben Simmons (10, seven rebounds, sevens assists) also scored in double digits, as did and reserve James Ennis (10 point).
In the first two games of the series, he averaged 14 points while shooting just 28 percent (7-for-25). He attempted only seven shots — making two — in the 94-89 Game 2 victory Monday in Toronto. The center was battling gastroenteritis during that game.
The two-time All-Star went to the team’s practice facility Thursday morning to work on his game. By nighttime, it didn’t take long for him to work on the Raptors.
The 76ers rolled to a 116-95 victory over the Raptors as both teams cleared their benches with about four minutes to go. The Sixers now hold a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal.
A Joel Embiid who did not have to spend the day running to the bathroom and needing an IV (like in Game 2) is a player the Raptors had no answer for. Embiid scored 33 points in 28 minutes as he torched designated Embiid-stopper Marc Gasol and was a monster on defense.
The big difference in the game was that the Sixers finally got their usually lethal offense firing on all cylinders on Thursday night. After scoring 94 and 95 points in the first two games, the Sixers exploded for 20 more points than their previous high.
The key point in the game came early in the fourth quarter.
The Sixers held as much as an 18-point lead in the third quarter but the Raptors had cut the margin to eight by the end of the period. Having regained the momentum, Toronto coach Nick Nurse tried to steal a few minutes of rest for Leonard.
Big mistake! The Sixers began the fourth quarter on an 8-0 run and held a 16-point lead by the time Nurse could get Leonard back in but, by then, the contest was basically over as the Sixers went on to hold as much as a 26-point lead in the fourth quarter.
It’s scary to think that the Sixers, just 17 games into their version 3.0, could just be scratching the surface, but it’s possible.
Embiid struggled through Games 1 and 2, but Game 3 unlocked the potential of what the team can be when he and Butler are both clicking. Embiid looked more like himself, pouring in 33 points while adding 10 rebounds and five blocks in just 28 minutes.
He also looked like he was having an absolute blast out there, celebrating a made three with a shimmy and throwing down a windmill dunk when the lane opened up in the fourth quarter.
Just Jo being Jo.
“I think for everybody that knows me, you know, I need it,” Embiid said. “When I have fun, my game just changes. I’m always told that if I don’t smile during the game, I’m either having a bad game or I’m not into it. When I know that to get my game going, I got 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 and the game is more fun that way. We all have fun as a team. You can see it lifts my teammates and we all do a good job.”
Of course everything is more fun when you win — especially in convincing fashion to take a 2-1 series lead.
“I do believe we played incredibly hard tonight,” Butler said, “which is how we have to play at home or on the road, but I think more than anything we enjoyed ourselves. Like [Embiid] said, we were out there having fun. Obviously, it’s fun to win. It’s fun to make shots. But if we keep that energy up I think we’ll be fine.”
Any offense which didn’t come from Leonard felt laborious, as the Raptors repeatedly passed out of good looks for contested ones, forcing up late shots, as unnecessary ball movement came back to bite them. Through Leonard’s efforts the Raptors won the quarter, pulling to within eight as the fourth began. But their struggles to get anyone else going loomed large.
Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse attempted to buy Leonard a few minutes to rest at the start of the fourth, and the floodgates that had been threatening to break all throughout the third burst open. VanVleet and Lowry both remained unable to make a shot. Pascal Siakam faltered, unwilling to take advantage of the space given to him on offense by Joel Embiid, he forced things at the rim and struggled to finish. Eventually, Siakam’s frustration with this pattern got the better of him, and, after being blocked at the basket, he intentionally stuck out his foot to trip Embiid on a play that would be ruled a flagrant foul.
Things were no better on the defensive end for the Raptors, as Jimmy Butler was getting right to the rim and Embiid was getting whatever he wanted. The Sixers’ lead quickly swelled to 16 before Leonard re-entered, and his re-entrance would do nothing to stem the tide. Things only grew further out of control, as the Raptors’ defense simply stopped playing, at one point allowing Embiid enough time to drive down the lane for a windmill dunk contest finish in a half-court possession. Embiid would end with 33 points and 10 rebounds, looking dominant for the first time all series. The lead grew to 26 by the halfway mark of the quarter, at which point the Raptors threw in the towel and allowed garbage time to proceed.
It’s easiest to point to Lowry and Gasol as the main culprits in this loss. Both finished with just seven points, and were -30 and -28 on the night respectively. As horrific as they both undoubtedly were, the continued abysmal play from Raptors’ bench, most notably the play of VanVleet, who was 0-for-7 on the night, might be even more concerning. The Raptors’ can expect Lowry and Gasol to bounce back to a degree, but at this point it’s hard to say whether they can expect anything whatsoever from their bench in this series.
The Raptors have, as previously mentioned, laid eggs like this before. In each instance they’ve bounced back, but now the clock is ticking. Down 2-1 in the series with the Sixers, with the next game on Sunday in Philadelphia, coming up empty at the wrong time has left them with their backs against the wall.
“We had something like 21 uncontested threes [in Game 2]. I hope to God we get that many tonight,” said Nick Nurse. Our unofficial count had them at eight open threes while the game was still in the balance. Toronto made three of those eight. The Sixers perimeter defense was excellent.
Rhys Hoskins, James van Riemsdyk and Carson Wentz each rang the ceremonial bell prior to the game, which elicited an E-A-G-L-E-S chant from the rowdies at the Wells Fargo Center.
James Ennis tipped in basket in the first half, but PA announcer Matt Cord mistakenly credited Embiid with the basket. Embiid was in the area, but Ennis made the play. At the next stoppage, Embiid went over to the scorer’s table and implored them to give the basket to Ennis, which they did. “My bad,” Cord said. Good stuff by the big guy.
Kawhi Leonard did his best to keep the Raptors in it with 31 points in the first three quarters. He had just two in the fourth quarter, as the Sixers outscored Toronto, 27-14. All-Star Kyle Lowry had just seven points, shot 2 for 10 and was -28. Yuck.
We got outplayed in just about every area we could get outplayed: physicality, energy, running, rebounding, passing. We got thoroughly outplayed. And it’s been a while since we’ve seen this team play that way.” — Raptors coach Nick Nurse.
More prominently, the Sixers have started to run the most common of all NBA playcalls: The good ol’ middle pick-and-roll. This is how Butler likes to work, and Embiid is a reasonably effective dance partner (both Butler and Embiid — and teammates on the court — are more efficient players when Embiid actually rolls hard). Harris is an underrated ball handler in the pick-and-roll, and flashed glimpses of that in Game 3.
Embiid is unlikely to convert 75 percent of his 3-pointers as he did Thursday night en route to 33 points in 28 minutes. But little else about Philadelphia’s offensive package looks like an outlier. By protecting the ball (13 turnovers is a number with which the error-prone Sixers can live), controlling the glass, and getting Embiid to the line, there should be plenty of possessions for the Sixers to spread the love.
Prior to the arrivals of Butler and Harris, the Sixers were an exceptional defensive team even before they were a good offensive one. Losing Covington, one of the NBA’s most effective defenders, came at a cost. But Philadelphia’s current personnel still gives the versatility to confound opponents — Toronto’s confusion has been on full display the past two games. Fittingly, Philadelphia’s starting five overtook Toronto’s starters as the most productive unit in the NBA this postseason. The Sixers have now outscored the competition by a gaudy 34.5 points per 100 possessions.
After the game, both Butler and Embiid insisted that chemistry is an overrated virtue. They took objection to the notion a team just getting to know one another can’t fully master the tasks of common-sense basketball and win big.
“The way we’ve been adjusting and the way we’ve been playing together, I still feel like we have so much potential, especially with Tobias [Harris], Ben [Simmons], JJ [Redick],” Embiid said. “Chemistry is overrated. When you have great basketball players on the floor, it’s easy. It’s not that complicated. We all — we’re passers, we play slow, we’re so unselfish. We understand that it’s all about moving the ball.”
Leonard was lamenting the lack of defence after this one.
“I think it starts with defence,” Leonard said. “They had two 30-point quarters in the first half. We’re not going to win like that. They had 115 points tonight. They shot 50% from the field, 40% from three. We just got to play better defence.”
Besides Leonard and Siakam, only Danny Green even reached double figures for Toronto.
Kyle Lowry, who has shown time and again he can still impact a game in which he isn’t scoring, was just 2-for-9 on the night and did not have his normal impact defensively on the game finishing with a game-worst minus-28.
By the early portion of the fourth quarter, Embiid was doing his best LeBron James imitation, punking the Raptors with every score.
He hit a three over Marc Gasol and then did a shimmy before running back down the court.
Later in the fourth, after a running dunk, he stuck both arms out and flew back to the defensive end before cupping a hand over an ear imploring Sixers fans to cheer louder.
The way Philly put the Raptors away in the fourth felt a lot like those games in Cleveland, when it started out on a 30-5 run and James was basically mocking Raptors defenders as they attempted to slow the run down.
The Raptors tried everything they had to slow down Embiid, but nothing seemed to work. He finished the night with 33 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and five blocks.
Following Philadelphia’s Game 3 win over Toronto, Nik Stauskas joins Cabbie to discuss how different of a team the Raptors are when Kawhi Leonard is on the bench, and explain how dangerous Joel Embiid is when he’s fully healthy.
With apologies to Danny Green — whose 13-point, minus-8 night wasn’t as bad as some of his teammates — the only Raptors starter who can emerge from Game 3 unembarrassed is Leonard, who damn near dragged his team back into the game with an unbelievable run that spanned the entire final eight minutes of the third quarter. Either fed up, motivated, or both, Leonard decided to just run the Raptors’ offence through himself, again and again taking the ball at the top of the arc, directing his teammates to screen here or clear out to there, and bullying his way to a bucket.
Leonard scored 14 points inside those eight-minutes, equaling the amount the Sixers scored in that stretch as a team. The Raptors won those minutes, 24-14, and went into the fourth quarter with only an eight-point deficit and a completely uncalled-for opportunity to make a late run and steal a win. It’s a little baffling to think what the numbers of Toronto’s starters would look like without Leonard’s mini-takeover. Lowry and Gasol were on the floor for most of it, and still finished with those minus’s in the high 20’s.
“We’ve got to help him, we’ve got to help him. Myself especially,” Lowry said of Leonard. “I’ve got to help him score more. 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.”
If Game 2’s loss was a tactical one, with those nuanced adjustments to defensive matchups and schemes allowing the Sixers to steal a win in Toronto, Game 3 was simply a mauling. It was a lopsided mismatch of two starting lineups playing at two very different levels of competitiveness. It started with Embiid on Gasol specifically. It continued with the rest of the starters in general. And it ended with Toronto overwhelmed. While Game 2 sent the Raptors searching for adjustments, Game 3 sends them searching for their identity.
“I think the first adjustment we’re going to have to make is we’re going to have to play a hell of a lot harder and play a hell of a lot more physical,” Nurse said. “If we don’t do that, the prettiest things we decide to do offensively won’t matter.
Toronto’s unwilling shooters
Say what you will about the number of open 3-pointers the Raptors missed during the last two games (and it is a problem), but the bigger issue may be how hesitant Gasol and Kyle Lowry are to let it fly when they’re open.
These are two capable shooters and brilliant veterans approaching open looks with the confidence of postseason rookies who own Ben Simmons’ jump shot. Gasol didn’t look for his own offense enough when Harris guarded him in the post during Game 2, and he and Lowry passed up clean 3-point looks to milk the shot clock and play hot potato in Game 3.
The duo combined to go 0-for-5 from deep on Thursday and own usage rates of just 17.4 percent (Lowry) and 12 percent (Gasol) through three games against the Sixers.
If Philly’s defenders, who are already ignoring Siakam on the perimeter, aren’t the least bit concerned about Lowry and Gasol shooting the ball, it’s only going to make Kawhi Leonard’s (and Siakam’s) offensive task that much taller in a crowded paint.
It wasn’t all Lowry, not by a longshot.
Marc Gasol, of whom so much was needed, couldn’t come through as a defender or a facilitator. The bench threesome of Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell was again a non-factor, and the Raptors were just passive all night.
“It felt like there was a lot of guys passing up shots,” coach Nick Nurse said. “There were a couple of possessions where I was like, ‘There it goes up’ and four more passes would go by. It seemed like every guy that had it was open and he’d move it to the next guy.”
“I don’t know. That’s unselfish at one point, but it ends up getting to be: It looked like the first shot was there, just go ahead and step into it and lace it up.”
Gasol — 2-for-6 shooting in about 29 minutes — doesn’t have to fire up shots at the rate of Kawhi Leonard or Pascal Siakam or Lowry, but he does have to be a greater threat and greater producer. He added only two assists in the game and had no real impact.
“I always think that really good teams, offensively anyway, usually need a lead guy, and then obviously a second guy,” Nurse had said earlier Thursday. “But the third guy is also important, too — that there’s a third guy you can go to and score.
“Now, we’ve got Kawhi, Pascal and Kyle can be that guy. But I think Marc needs to inch his way into that discussion. He’s just too talented of a scorer to not put up a few more points.”
Nurse did try to massage Gasol’s minutes a bit, or at least his matchups in the kind of subtle changes that were expected. The coach got Gasol out of the game a couple of minutes earlier than usual in the first quarter while Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid rested, and also chopped up Gasol’s second-quarter minutes into different segments than usual.
Winner: Joel Embiid
If you’re against a team that has Joel Embiid and you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with the shimmying and dancing and smiling 7-footer, who is cupping his hand to his ear, egging on the crowd, and spreading his arms wide as if to invite a response to his escapades, you’ve probably already lost. Embiid’s hijinks are as sure a sign as any that not only are you getting beat on the floor, you’re probably going to get trolled in the postgame press conference and on Instagram later too. And there won’t be anything you can do about it.
Game 3 was Embiid’s from the start. He was clearly free from any knee pain or the gastroenteritis that helped hold him to 12 points in Game 2; he looked like the player who had a case to be top-five MVP during the regular season. In his first 18 minutes, he scored 18 points. He finished with 33 points on 18 shots, added 10 rebounds, three assists, as well as five blocks, with this one as the peak highlight:
There were more highlights to come. Embiid hit the aforementioned shimmy following that 3—his third of the four he took—and then a few minutes later drove and finished after getting fouled. The and-1 all but sealed the game, and Embiid reacted by waving his arms up and down to signal the foul call until he felt like stopping. No one was going to tell him to. Then came the coup de grâce: Embiid got the ball at the top of the break, pump faked (yep—Marc Gasol fell for it), and then drove in to finish the night off with a thundering windmill dunk. His reaction, an airplane around the Wells Fargo floor and a smile wider than his wingspan, said it all. He had even surprised himself.
When Embiid plays like he did, the Sixers become a force: not just because of his overwhelming talent but because he showcases how good Philly’s elite starting lineup can be. That group has played only 17 games together, and on Thursday all five of them scored in double digits. It was balance accompanied by Embiid’s supernatural abilities, a near-perfect recipe for success, not just in this game but in the playoffs as a whole.
Kawhi Leonard did a fine impression of a supernatural being himself, scoring 33 points with finesse and power and looking at times like he was willing to take on all five 76ers by himself. He was, in keeping with our theme, Jon Snow facing off against an army of white walkers.
There were some arrows from Pascal Siakam and Danny Green, but too many missed shots from Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol and, again, an entirely ineffective Toronto bench.
If one of the main goals of this season was to convince Leonard that the Raptors had the right mix of talent to complement his all-world skills – a reasonable argument after a five-game series win in the first round – then all of that has been quickly thrown into doubt. If Leonard is going to be the only reliable playoff scorer on his team, he could do that anywhere.
It’s not just the usual realities of a best-of-seven playoff series that are in play here, although those are significant enough. After Thursday’s result that put the Raptors in a 1-2 hole, the historical probabilities are grim. Teams with the advantage in this situation in the NBA end up winning the series at about an 80 per cent clip. Toronto fans can take some mild solace in the fact that those probabilities aren’t quite as high when the team that wins Game 3 is at home, as is the case here: the Game 3 winner takes the series about 62 per cent of the time.
Those numbers are not great for the Raptors on their own. But what adds and extra layer of significance to it all is how the future of the franchise hinges on what happens in these playoffs, and in this round in particular. It’s the same thing for the 76ers. One team will advance and carry on with a good chance of living up to the promise that management imagined with a couple of franchise-altering trades. One will go home early, and in the knowledge that there is a good chance the same collection of players will never again take to the court together.
So, you know, other than that, no big deal.
Kawhi's body language speaks volumes pic.twitter.com/YITLtlkENn
— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) May 3, 2019
chris.herring: I did think the put-the-big-on-Siakam adjustment was smart, though.
When Siakam is in the middle of the floor, you can give him some space, because he shoots really terribly from the top of the key. By contrast, he’s solid from the corners. (And when he’s in the corner, you have the help of the baseline as a second defender.)
tchow: It definitely made a difference. Siakam shot 80 percent from the floor and 75 percent from three in Game 1. In Game 2, he shot 36 percent from the floor and 29 percent from three.
chris.herring: The Sixers don’t have but maybe one guy who can credibly guard Siakam (and Jimmy Butler is doing his best to guard Kawhi), so that shift was really important for them.
It may not work going forward, but you had to try it.
natesilver: What if Gasol decides to take more shots? He’s been pretty passive, offensively, since joining the Raptors. But he is capable of scoring, either in the post or from downtown.
chris.herring: If Gasol ends up being the guy to torch you, I think you can live with that more easily than Siakam.
Also, I’d expect for the Raptors to do more to get Siakam rolling, and to use him in pick and rolls in hopes of having Philly switch them. That would nullify the Harris/Embiid stuff they’re doing.
Again, the countermoves are going to be fascinating.
To Neil’s initial question, too: The other thing that stands out is just how damn good Kawhi is.
The guy is Terminator in a basketball uniform.