The Sixers (2-0) traveled north as their first-round series with the Raptors (0-2) shifted to Toronto. Philadelphia intended to take a 3-0 lead and put the Raptors on the brink of elimination. Toronto hoped to get back into the series with a victory. Joel Embiid capped a 28-point second half with a triple right before the buzzer to send the Sixers to a commanding 3-0 series lead, 104-101.
Before we get to the game, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of Matisse Thybulle, who is ineligible to enter Canada due to his not being fully vaccinated.
Charles Bassey has a sprained right shoulder and was unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Raptors were without Scottie Barnes, who is nursing a sprained left ankle.
Nick Nurse started Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Khem Birch.
Toronto predictably came out with the same urgency they had in Game 2, and the Sixers, once again held strong. You could tell the Sixers were confident weathering the early storm, as they played with a purpose on offense even though they were a touch rattled in a hostile environment. Philadelphia got the mismatches they wanted on the perimeter by bringing the screener with the desired defender into the action or attacking gaps in the lane.
As such, the likes of James Harden got his feet in the paint to collapse the interior before dishing swing passes to facilitate ball movement around the arc. The Sixers didn’t come out guns blazing as they had in the first 2 games, but they got extremely comfortable looks in the corners — just as they have all series thus far.
Speaking of Harden, he found some burst after being passive when given opportunities to beat switches off the dribble in the first 2 games. In his first stint of Game 3, Harden won foot races with regularity. That dribble penetration precipitated great three-point looks and an early shooting foul that got Harden to the free throw line.
To Doc Rivers’ credit, he sensed his team taking on water in the second quarter, when they were down 17 points, and adjusted appropriately. The Raptors got whatever they wanted against Philadelphia’s man-to-man scheme. So, Rivers switched it up and went to a 2-3 zone. He bet against Toronto burning the Sixers from beyond the arc. Instead of the Raptors burying the Sixers with triples in that stretch, Toronto’s offense slowed down and Philadelphia was able to punch its way back into the game.
That wasn’t the only great coaching moment from Rivers in this game or in this series, for that matter. In fact, for all the hate Rivers gets, he’s been outstanding in all 3 games. While Nick Nurse has pleaded to officials all series long, Rivers has held his players accountable during games, placed timeouts well, exploited Toronto’s defensive schemes, and added a touch of creativity to his playbook. As the Sixers scrambled to get a final shot off in overtime, Rivers sensed Embiid in no man’s land and called a timeout with less than 1 second left on the shot clock to set up a play that we’ll talk more about later.
James Harden didn’t exactly go on the heater he looked poised for in the first quarter. But when the Sixers needed someone to keep them alive in the second and third frames, Harden answered the call. He didn’t settle for risky step-back threes. Rather, he attacked the driving lanes Toronto conceded to him and got to the basket for a handful of layups. Perhaps that’s as much to do with the time off he had to get his legs healthy as anything. But, it’s quite encouraging that he was able to create separation and get to the rim after struggling with that throughout his tenure with the Sixers thus far.
Tobias Harris didn’t have the box score impact that he had in the first 2 games. But, he was just as consistent on the defensive end of the floor. Quite frankly, that was mainly the role they needed him to play anyway. With Thybulle unavailable and Danny Green limited in versatility, Harris took an elevated role on the defensive end of the floor. And he was sensational, perhaps even the second biggest reason the Sixers won the game. He stayed low in a stance, took choppy steps with his feet, and didn’t initiate contact with his arms. He kept Gary Trent Jr. and Pascal Siakam at bay in isolations throughout the second half.
Even without filling up the scoring column, Harris scored crucial baskets down the stretch of this game. In some ways, he had his coming-of-age moment in this game. Harris pressed on the gas pedal and refused to be denied on drives to the rim. He took on multiple longer and more athletic Raptors at the rim and won. It wasn’t a superstar night for him. But, it was an extremely-high-level role player night for him. Harris was tremendous in it. More importantly for what the Sixers are trying to do at a macro level, he looks comfortable in it, too.
After an extremely uninspiring first half, Embiid came out and went on a rampage. Embiid had 5 points and 4 turnovers at halftime, and had 28 points and 2 turnovers in the second half. He attacked the rim with control and hit a handful of absurd jumpers. He also set the tone playing through pain. Embiid showed clear signs of discomfort in his shooting wrist in the second half. The younger version of him would’ve put up a pedestrian 16-20 points in a blowout loss. But, he played through it and absolutely dominated.
Most critical of anything Embiid did all night, he put forth a masterpiece on the defensive end of the floor. Embiid was locked all the way in at the rim. He refused to bite shot fakes and maintained total verticality in contesting under the basket. He only recorded 1 block, but Embiid’s presence changed the game for both teams. Toronto got almost nothing at the basket with Embiid in the middle. Most impressive of all, Embiid was masterful on the perimeter. He completely shut down Pascal Siakam in the second half. Embiid kept the fellow Cameroonian in front of him and denying him any paths to the rim. It was so dominant that you wonder if it’s even possible to sustain such a level of defense over the course of an entire season. If Embiid did sustain that level of defensive intensity for 65% of a season, he’d be the unquestioned Defensive Player of the Year.
But the story of his MVP season was perhaps summarized in one highlight moment on the final play of overtime. Nearly 3 years ago to the day, Kawhi Leonard sent Embiid to tears and the Sixers home with an iconic shot that hung on the rim for years before hitting the mark. Embiid claims that shot, and the second round exit that resulted from it, changed his career. Just a few weeks short of the 3-year mark, Embiid had a chance to get his revenge. He was not going to let it pass him:
JOEL EMBIID FOR THE FREAKIN WINNNNNNN pic.twitter.com/V35NnRWD0V— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) April 21, 2022
Everyone knows the history of a 3-0 deficit. The series isn’t over, but that shot was ostensibly the dagger.
The first two paragraphs in the Likes column were basically all the good the Sixers did in the first half of the game. Beyond that, it was an absolute mess. Every single good thing the Sixers did in Games 1 and 2, they crumpled the game plan sheet into a ball and tossed it into the trash. Honestly, it was impressive how backwards they went. The Sixers committed 14 turnovers and gave Toronto 3 extra possessions via the offensive glass. Toronto scored 21 points with the 14 extra possessions Philly afforded them by way of turnovers.
Front and center was Joel Embiid, who had just 1 more point than he did turnovers in the first half. To be fair to him, the Raptors were licensed to make his life a bit more difficult with a much more favorable officiating crew. But, Embiid has received a kind whistle throughout the first 2 games of the series. You have to fight through some adversity and tough it out. Embiid simply wasn’t to the task in the first half. The most disappointing part of his first half, and perhaps the biggest regression in his maturity, was his body language. Embiid was slow on offense, disengaged, and moving with his shoulders slumped. Those messages trickle down to your teammates, who view the best player as their leader. Embiid did not play with the toughness he needed to for the Sixers to punch all the way back before halftime.
Harden fouled out before overtime. He was impactful through 3 quarters, but didn’t do much in the final frame to propel his team. The Sixers won without him in overtime, but they could’ve used their point guard on the floor in the guts of the game. Speaking of brutal, Tobias Harris had a chance at a game-winning buzzer-beater at the end of regulation and left the ball short on the rim. It was incredibly Sixersy for Harris to get a look right below the rim to be the hero and leave it short. But hey, Toronto isn’t big enough for 2 heroes. Wednesday was Joel Embiid’s turn.
The Sixers (3-0) will look to close the series out in Toronto in Game 4 against the Raptors (0-3) on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 2 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the drama on TNT.