Since Joel Embiid hit that incredible dagger 3 to beat Toronto in Game 3 and give the 76ers a 3-0 advantage in the series, his team has dropped back-to-back games and held a lead for five minutes and 17 seconds out of a possible 96 minutes. Philadelphia has won exactly two of the past eight quarters against the Raptors. Now, they face a Game 6 north of the border to avoid becoming the fourth team in NBA history to go to a Game 7 after leading 3-0.
Those three previous NBA teams were able to dislodge the obstruction from their collective windpipes to stave off elimination. It goes without writing, but I’m going to type it anyway because the thought makes me happy: If Doc Rivers and James Harden combine forces to orchestrate a 3-0 collapse, Philly will be the first franchise in the history of the league to earn that dishonorable distinction.
The biggest reason this series is headed to a Game 6 is the torn ligament in Embiid’s right thumb. He’ll need to have it surgically repaired after the playoffs, so it’s more than a tweaked ankle or a thigh bruise. Whether it’s the hand, a swarming Raptors defense, or some combination of the two, this year’s scoring champion has managed only 21 points and 20 points in the pair of games since the injury.
Harden, the All-NBA guard GM Daryl Morey acquired for situations like this, scored 22 points and 15 points on 17 and 11 attempts in Games 4 and 5 respectively. After Monday’s loss, Embiid didn’t shy away from publicly encouraging his teammate to let the step-backs fly, per ESPN.
“I’ve been saying all season since he got here, he needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself. 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.”
Obviously, that quote is the one that’s going to get aggregated, which it should because he called out Harden and his coach, but here’s the rest of it for full context:
“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 we’re 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.”
Playing patty cake around the perimeter is exactly what shaky role players do when a team with Toronto’s length rotates on a string. It’s on Doc to figure out how to stop the hemorrhaging. It’s just… that’s not exactly a forte for the coach who’s blown the most 3-1 series leads (three) in NBA history. When I wrote that Harden and Rivers’ “unmoving object versus unstoppable farce” dynamic should terrify Philly fans, I could see a formula for a playoff flameout, but I didn’t know they could conspire to go down in NBA infamy.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that the cosmos also are aligning against the organization by happenstance (or by karma depending on where you stand on the Process). Rap rookie Scottie Barnes returned to the starting lineup after missing Games 2 and 3 with a turned ankle and coming off the bench in Game 4. He did a masterful job handling the ball in Fred VanFleet’s absence Monday night, and when VanFleet is off the floor, Toronto doesn’t have a weakness in its defense for anyone not named Joel Embiid to exploit.
Nick Nurse is making up for not guarding the inbounds pass in Game 3 because he’s not even allowing Embiid to get a good sear on Khem Birch before bringing in a plethora of lengthy, athletic wings and forwards to double team the big man from everywhere. Precious Achiuwa, Thad Young, and Chris Boucher are all getting more minutes than the token center, and it’s making life hell for not only Harden and Embiid but also Tyrese Maxey.
The second year guard out of Kentucky put on a show with 38 points in Game 1. Since then, his outputs have been 23, 19, 11, and 12 on 45 percent from the field. (If you take away his 8-11 Game 2, he’s 17-44 in his past three contests.) A VanFleet-less Toronto also means Maxey is shorter than every Raptor by at least 3 inches. Expecting him to become the third player in a big three could happen with time — and if All-Star Harden ever shows up — but that trajectory was premature at least for this season.
That said, all Philly needs is one more sooner-than-expected game from Maxey, a throwback triple double from Harden, or an MVP-caliber takeover from Embiid in the next two contests to wake up from this nightmare and circumvent the mother of all existential crises in the offseason.
The natives were beyond restless Monday night as the home team predictably heard boos from its crowd on multiple occasions. If the Sixers don’t finish off the Raptors on Thursday and then start slow at home in a Game 7, the anger emitting from those fans will manifest a physical form capable of destroying mankind — or at least whatever is left of Process heads.