The point spreads said to go with the Philadelphia 76ers; the injury report said to go with the Philadelphia 76ers; conventional wisdom said to go with the Philadelphia 76ers; yet somehow, the Toronto Raptors pulled it off.
Toronto defeated the Sixers 103-88 Monday night, bringing the series to 3-2 after Phili had assumed a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round matchup. Pascal Siakam led the way with 23 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists, while Joel Embiid and James Harden massively underperformed for the favored home-bound Sixers.
With Thursday’s matchup taking place North of the border and a stigma surrounding Phili and coach Doc Rivers, there is serious concern that the Sixers might just produce the greatest choke in basketball history.
Philadelphia Loses Again
The 76ers came into the 3-6 series with the Raptors as massive favorites, and with good reason— their leading man in Embiid won the regular-season scoring title and was an MVP candidate, while a midseason trade for Harden gave them a one-two punch as fierce as any in the league.
Tyrese Maxey also showed extreme growth late in the season and the early playoff games, even looking like he was the second scoring option for a potential title-contending team. The role players were doing their job, and the Raptors simply seemed outmatched by a team everyone expected to roll over them.
Recent games have proven that is not the case, however, starting with an all-important game-winning three in Game Three by Embiid. Without that clutch shot, the series could easily be 3-2 in favor of the Raptors, who won the most recent game without their only All-Star and best player, Fred Van Vleet.
Nick Nurse deserves credit for slowly figuring out ways to slow down Embiid despite having no obvious defensive matchup on his roster. Nurse also joked before game five’s win about his simple but effective plan for his team.
“We’ve generated really good shots most of the series,” said Nurse. “We haven’t shot very well yet. I told the guys today, today would be a good day to go ahead and start making some of those open shots.”
Clarity is key in life, and Nurse’s message got through to his players, who went on to win by 15 points in a do-or-die game.
Phili coach Doc Rivers, despite previously winning a championship and being anointed one of the best coaches in NBA history, has a reputation for choking. He was present for the Los Angeles Clippers’ 3-1 collapse to the Denver Nuggets in the bubble and has an extensive prior history of falling short in the biggest moments.
Rivers may not be entirely responsible for the last two losses, but it was apparent that he and his players were not ready to match the intensity Toronto brought into game five. Now, they will have to go to Toronto for game six, where they will be without the unvaccinated Matisse Thybulle, who legally cannot travel to play.
Van Vleet’s status has not yet been announced, but the extra day of rest should help him recover from a hip strain that made him “questionable” ahead of game five, compared to a blatant “out.”
There are a slew of players that could help decide what happens in the next closeout game; however, Phili’s stars will be under the microscope the most.
Embiid dominated the regular season and finally seemed in shape mentally and physically to be the best player on a championship team, so a loss would severely damage his standing in the league. Harden, meanwhile, was vindicated for leaving the Brooklyn Nets following their four-game series loss to the Boston Celtics, but he now has to prove that the Sixers made the right move trading for him.
Game six will tip off Thursday at 7:00 p.m. ET; both teams will be in do-or-die mode, because if the Raptors can win three straight, it is hard to see them falling short in the all-important game seven.