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When you’re watching a basketball game you don’t understand, sometimes you turn to the box score for answers, or at least some kind of general guidance. But as confusing a product as last night’s Sixers-Raptors game was to watch, the accompanying stat sheet offered no elucidation, only further obfuscation. Joel Embiid had seven shot attempts and six turnovers? Ben Simmons had (in Charles Barkley’s words) a triple-single? Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry all had 20-plus, led by Leonard’s indefatigable 35 on 13-24-but-who-remembers-the-11-misses shooting? Amir Johnson got three minutes in a game that featured zero minutes of garbage time? And the Sixers ACTUALLY WON?!? Confused math lady meme for days.
Game two of the Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers was, to put it mildly and reductively, some real ‘90s Eastern Conference shit. Some predicted this series would be a slugfest, and while I think this game stopped short of anything that might’ve led to Brett Brown clutching onto Marc Gasol’s ankles for dear life, it was indeed that kind of grind-it-out, often graceless basketball that our 8:00-start-time forebears once held so precious. Shots were missed. Passes failed to reach their intended targets. Mismatches went hilariously unexploited. Everyone tried to do too much and mostly everyone ended up accomplishing too little.
It was murky business, but through the muck and the mire a consistent theme emerged: The Sixers had to win this fucking game. It was too hideous and chaotic to leave without a W, particularly once the Sixers expanded their lead to an unlikely 19 in the second quarter. There was no question that the lead would not hold as then-constituted, particularly with the Raps shooting some unsustainably ghastly percentage and Embiid playing like the Scotiabank Arena was sailing on turbulent waters. But it needed to hold, someday, someway: Win one weird one in Toronto with Joel a green-gilled mess and suddenly the entire series was wide open. Kill the zombie ghosts of Game Two against Boston last year -- how did you not at least contest that Horford drive, JoJo?? -- like [NBA Twitter contractual Game of Thrones parallel].
And they did. The Sixers won, 94-89. Game two ours, split in Toronto, coming home with home-court reclaimed and the wind at our backs. Just don’t ask me to explain how they did it.
Jimmy Butler helped, for sure. 30 points and a couple clutch fourth-quarter shots is very nice, as are 11 boards and five dimes. But even with those numbers, it never felt like Jimothy really went Full Wahlberg on this one: He played quite well, but it wasn’t a steal-a-road-game-against-a-better-team-type explosion, just a high-end game from a guy who’s generally capable of putting up a good scoring night on occasion. That’s Why We Got Him, sure, but there’s still a difference between dropping 30 and dropping a -30-, and I’d say Sir James, Professional Adult was closer to the former last night.
And Brett Brown pulled his weight, too. Putting Simmons on Kawhi, Embiid on Siakam and Tobias on Gasol for most of this one certainly shifted the balances for Toronto, and though by game’s end they seemed to have largely figured out the appropriate counterweights, it was a bit too little too late for the team that’s never really had to fight from behind against the Sixers this season. Meanwhile, extra minutes for our good players -- over 40 each for Butler and Simmons -- prevented us from having to reach into the Korkmaz/Simmons/Zhaire grabbag, which was also a luxury. Greg Monroe had his best run as a Sixer. Jonah Bolden made a three. James Ennis made two. It wasn’t like we went 48 minutes without any good things happening for the Ballers.
But man. I mentioned after Game One how the Sixers were going to have no shot in this series if Kawhi Leonard continued to outplay Joel Embiid to such an extent, and while I left Game Two more sure of that hypothesis than ever, I’m not sure how to account for the combination of Kawhi’s second-straight MVP-caliber performance, Embiid’s second-straight EASY THERE BIG FELLA wobblefest, and the series somehow currently being tied 1-1. Particularly not when Ben Simmons, a pleasant surprise in Game One, puts up a combined 18 points, rebounds and assists in 44 minutes of gameplay. They shouldn’t win that game. They never win that game.
And of course, speaking of They Never Win That Game: Gotta go back to Danny Green, elite long-range bomber, squaring up behind the arc with 10 seconds left, wide open off a busted play and loose-ball scramble, with an eminently credible chance to tie the game at 92-92. The Sixers have been in this precise situation approximately 167 times over the course of the Process Era, and went on to lose the game about 160 of those times -- and even in five of those seven they might’ve won, the guy still hit the shot to at least send the game to overtime. But Green missed, Tobias secured the rebound, hit two free throws at the other end and the game was over. Regression to the mean? Karmic retribution? The metric system? Who knows. Sixers win.
The really crazy thing? I think the Sixers win even if Green makes the shot. Perhaps it’s the confidence instilled by Embiid saving his best move for last in this one -- a spinaroonie in the lane, the kind grandma used to make, to get around Gasol for a flipped-in two and put the Sixers up three -- but I think even if Green hits the triple, we go back and score at the other end, or we squeak past in OT, or the Raps are later forced to forfeit on account of Kawhi being outed as an unnaturalized cyborg. I don’t know how they win that game, but I know that they win that game.
If I was a Raptors fan today, I would be aggravated, but not particularly frightened. Philly outplayed Toronto with their best guy in the tank, sure, but not by much and not in a way that can’t be course-corrected to an extent. Just as Toronto wouldn’t shoot 90% all series after Game One, they won’t shoot 15% all series after Game Two. But cracks have been shown. Blood has been drawn. Kawhi Leonard has been forced to acknowledge losing to the Sixers as a possible thing that can possibly happen. Regardless of the convoluted and incomprehensible story its other numbers tell, the box score very clearly says Game Two: Sixers 94, Raptors 89. And now the series can begin.