Joel Embiid was clearly less than 100 percent on Monday, scoring just 12 points in Game 2 as he struggled with what the Philadelphia 76ers called gastroenteritis and what he gleefully called something else. Even in his addled state, though, the 25-year-old big man came through when it counted, producing arguably the two biggest plays of the game to push Philly past the Toronto Raptors, even the best-of-seven set at 1-1, and steal home-court advantage in their second-round series.
Under the bright lights and with the game in the balance, Embiid bossed up and made the plays that needed making. It was superstar shit, pure and simple, and it left you wondering how much damage he might do given two days off to get back to full strength before Thursday’s Game 3.
The answer: a friggin’ bunch of damage. Lots and lots. Like, so much damage.
Embiid sized up Marc Gasol—a 7-foot-1, 255-pound former Defensive Player of the Year who had guarded him as well as any player in the league before this series and in Game 1—and bulldozed him into the paint, finishing at the front of the rim or forcing fouls that sent him to the free throw line 13 times. He stepped confidently into shots from the perimeter, whether trailing the play in transition or popping to the 3-point line off a screen, knocking down three of his four long-range tries. He dominated the paint on defense, repeatedly turning back Toronto’s boldest drivers and making the more timid types think twice, and maybe three times, about whether to press their luck.
He destroyed the Raptors, scoring 33 points on 9-for-18 shooting to go with 10 rebounds, five blocks, and three assists in just 28 minutes to pace the Sixers in a 116-95 rout that gave Philly a 2-1 lead over the favored Raptors. It’s Embiid’s second 30-10-5 game in these playoffs, making him one of only nine players since the NBA began recording blocks in the 1973-74 season with more than one such playoff performance on his résumé.
Embiid is also the first player in 13 years to do it more than once in the same postseason. As it turns out, he knows the last guy to do it pretty well: Sixers GM Elton Brand achieved it in consecutive Western Conference semifinals games for the Los Angeles Clippers back in 2006.
There’s a certain poetry in that. Brand was never better than that 2005-06 season, averaging 24.7 points, 10 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 2.5 blocks per game for a Clippers team that went from Everybody’s Favorite Fun Young Team to a real winner after importing bona fide veterans Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley. They won 10 more games that season, outclassed a 21-year-old Carmelo Anthony’s Nuggets in Round 1, and pushed the Seven Seconds or Less Suns to the limit in the conference semifinals before coming up short in Game 7.
Brand was brilliant in that series; at age 26, it seemed he’d have plenty more opportunities to make deep playoff runs and compete for titles. But then a bunch of his teammates got injured, and then Brand himself suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon, and that was that. Brand’s only other trip past Round 1 as a rotation player would come on the 2011-12 Sixers that beat a top-seeded Bulls team broken by Derrick Rose’s devastating knee injury. It just never happened for him; that first real shot at postseason success wound up being Brand’s best, and his last.
Maybe that’s the kind of thing that sticks with you as you maneuver through post-playing life. Maybe that’s why, after taking over the 76ers last September following the Bryan Colangelo episode, Brand went all in with November’s trade for All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler, and then doubled down with February’s deal for versatile forward Tobias Harris. Because when you have this Joel Embiid—a balletic battleship who can share the court with the best players in the world and still be the best player on it—you have to try to win the whole goddamn thing. You hang everything on the hope that the enormous, skilled, tough, brash, and brutalizing team of your dreams can coalesce in time to make a real run.
On Thursday night, the Sixers were Brand’s vision board come to life. There was Embiid, the sun around which everything orbits. There was Ben Simmons, making Kawhi Leonard work for every inch of space while attacking the offensive glass, pushing the pace in transition, and dishing seven assists with only one turnover. There was Butler, carving up Toronto’s steps-slow bigs in the pick-and-roll and filling in every blank—22 points on 15 shots, nine rebounds, nine assists (ties a playoff career high), three steals, sneer to spare, a joy to watch. There was Harris, crashing the boards, making the extra pass, posting up the smaller Kyle Lowry, keeping Philly moving. There was JJ Redick, making the Raptors’ suddenly shaky defense pay for falling asleep or overpursuing, drilling three 3-pointers to keep Toronto at arm’s distance.
Redick also provided a reminder of just how tenuous dominance can be. With just over nine minutes to go in the third quarter and the Sixers up by 14, Lowry stepped on Redick’s right foot in pursuit of a loose ball. The veteran sharpshooter came up limping, quickly called for a timeout and a substitution, and made his way right back to the locker room.
For a breathless moment, you play out the possibilities. If Redick can’t go, then Brett Brown will have to lean even harder on James Ennis III, who’s been one of the Sixers’ few reliable reserves. Putting Ennis into the starting lineup would mean finding another body to soak up some backcourt minutes. Are Furkan Korkmaz or Jonathon Simmons fit for minutes in the Eastern Conference semifinals? Is rookie Zhaire Smith? None of those guys gives you a tenth of the shooting spark that Redick does. Man, what the hell are the Sixers going to do? And then Redick comes out of the locker room after the next timeout, and checks back in at the next stoppage: crisis averted.
The lead’s down to eight by the end of the third quarter, thanks to Leonard’s ongoing shotmaking absurdity, but when he hits the bench at the beginning of the fourth for a breather, the beatdown is back on. (It feels like a lifetime ago that the Raptors looked like the deepest team in the NBA; now, with Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, and C.J. Miles gone to Memphis in exchange for Gasol, and rotation reserves OG Anunoby and Jeremy Lin on the injured list, Toronto’s even more thin than the famously threadbare Sixers, and can’t seem to sit its star for even a few minutes without disaster striking.) An 11-0 run capped by a Butler dunk in transition puts Philly up 18 with 9:01 to go. From there, Embiid really starts having fun, pulverizing fools and dancing as he does it, throwing down windmill dunks and pretending to be an airplane. That fourth quarter was what destruction looks like, and the Raptors are going to have a very, very long two days to sit with it all before trying to get even on Sunday afternoon.
They very well might. Leonard remained a holy terror in Game 3, pouring in another 33 points on 13-for-22 shooting, and looks like a threat to hang 50 no matter how tightly Philly contests him. (He did commit five turnovers against three assists, though, as the Sixers’ efforts to make him more of a playmaker continue to pay off.) Though he scored just six points after halftime, Pascal Siakam rediscovered some rhythm when Embiid wasn’t defending him; it’s possible that he, too, could break out in the most important game of the Raptors’ season.
At this point, though, the Sixers seem capable of surviving even if both Leonard and Siakam put up crooked numbers. Their size, physicality, and determined defense have boxed in Lowry and Gasol, two players who prefer to make their presence felt in subtler ways, but whose impact on Thursday was so subtle as to be nonexistent. Danny Green finally made shots, but virtually nobody else did. The reserves Nick Nurse is playing in this series—Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell—all seem essentially unplayable, which is bad on its own merits, but even worse when Gasol and Lowry are no great shakes themselves.
When you lose on the margins, like Toronto did in Game 2, you can talk yourself into making more of the open looks you got, regression to the mean, and things evening out. But when you get physically dominated like the Raptors did on Thursday, to the point where “Save us, Kawhi” was the only play that seemed to work, the worry isn’t that there aren’t any easy answers. It’s that, facing an opponent that’s starting to find itself and a force like Embiid, there aren’t any at all.