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PHILADELPHIA – After the Raptors took down the 76ers 103-88 in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference first-round series Monday night – moving Toronto within two wins of becoming the first team to erase a 3-0 deficit in NBA history – Philadelphia superstar Joel Embiid remained confident his team has what it takes to close out this series.
“We’re fine,” Embiid said after finishing with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists in 39 minutes. “I mean, it’s the same recipe. Don’t turn the ball over, offensive rebound. We’ve definitely got to be better defensively, more connected. Defensively, I felt like there [were] a few plays where we were not on point and we didn’t have each others’ backs.
“But we’re fine. There’s a reason we won three games in a row. Offensively, we clearly haven’t been ourselves and that’s really been the reason why we gave up these last two games. So we just got to do better.”
The fact that Embiid, who said the torn ligament in his right thumb didn’t feel any different after Game 5, even had to send out a reassuring message to the team and its fan base shows just how much things have changed since he drained the game-winning 3-pointer in overtime of Game 3 to push Philadelphia to the brink of advancing to the second round for the fourth time in the past five years.
Now, however, the 76ers find themselves in an absolute dogfight with a Raptors team that – despite missing All-Star point guard Fred VanVleet, who sat out with a left hip flexor strain – controlled Monday’s game virtually from start to finish and to become the 14th team to win two games after falling behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. If Toronto can win at home Thursday, the Raptors would become the fourth team to force a Game 7 in that situation – and the first since the Portland Trail Blazers against the Dallas Mavericks in 2003.
Philadelphia led for all of 21 seconds – from when James Harden buried a midrange jumper to open the scoring 18 seconds into the game, to when Raptors forward OG Anunoby made a long 2-point jumper. The Raptors scored the next five points and never looked back, opening a lead they would never relinquish after a tight first quarter by scoring the first 12 points of the second quarter.
“They got everything they wanted,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said, “and not only did they get it, they used 23 seconds dang near every possession. They turned the game into a slow-paced slugfest but whenever they could run they did run. So they got both, like they beat us in transition, when they didn’t have transition they backed it out, used the clock, got the iso they wanted and scored on us.
“We are going to have to do something better to help our guys defend better.”
With VanVleet sidelined, Toronto turned to Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes at point guard, deploying long, athletic defenders at every position, with no player under 6-foot-6 touching the floor until garbage time. The result was a suffocating defensive display, one that held Philadelphia to 38% shooting from the field, 10-for-37 from 3-point range and forced 16 76ers turnovers that became 20 Raptors points.
“They were really working hard and just active,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “My goal isn’t necessarily to turn them over, it’s that we ran hard to shooters and things like that. I think for the most part we did, especially early and I think that matters. … But yeah, we played hard for the whole game defensively.”
Harden, in particular, wasn’t involved. After scoring the first four points of the game for Philadelphia on that jumper and a fast-break dunk, Harden went just 2-for-9 over the final 46 minutes, finishing 4-for-11 from the field and 2-for-6 from 3-point range to accumulate 15 points, 7 assists and 5 turnovers in 39 minutes.
When asked if Toronto was doing anything to force him into missing shots, however, Harden dismissed the question.
“I took 11 shots,” he said.
Embiid, meanwhile, said it was on Harden to be more aggressive offensively – something he’s said repeatedly since Harden was acquired for Ben Simmons at the NBA trade deadline – and that it’s up to Rivers to make that happen.
“I’ve been saying all season since he got here, he needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself,” Embiid said. “That’s not really my job. That’s probably on Coach to talk to him and tell him to take more shots, especially if they’re going to guard me the way they’ve been guarding. But that’s really not my job.
“But we all need to be better offensively. We missed a bunch of wide-open shots. At times, I just felt like we just invited, when I was getting doubled, we were not aggressive attacking the ball. We just kept moving the ball around the perimeter, and that gave them time to recover, and that’s why were not able to get anything out of it.
“So if that’s what they want to keep doing, we’ve got to take advantage of it.”
The mood inside the Wells Fargo Center was tense from the beginning, with the memory of last season’s loss at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals – capped off by Simmons passing up a dunk late in the fourth quarter of Game 7 – clearly hanging over the proceedings.
The crowd booed early and often, and after an Anunoby dunk put Toronto up 14 with 2:18 to go, fans began streaming to the exits.
“Sometimes, the Philly fans, they’re tough,” said Raptors forward Thaddeus Young, who spent seven seasons with the 76ers to begin his career. “I think that’s one of the reasons I loved being here for the seven years I was here, they’re a tough crowd.
“They’re gonna let you know when you’re doing great, they’re gonna let you know when you’re doing wrong and they wanna see their guys play hard. This is a blue-collar city and that’s what they believe in – blue-collar work and making sure you’re bringing your 100% maximum effort each and every night.”
The crowd didn’t like much of anything it saw Monday night. The question now, though, is whether this team will be back here for a Game 7 on Saturday – one with all sorts of history on the line to go with it – or will instead close this series out in Toronto on Thursday.
“Maybe there is [momentum] but it doesn’t really matter,” Nurse said. “Ball goes up on Thursday, everybody’s gotta play like heck.”