Avoiding History Is Certainly Good Enough For Now
Shout out to the Sixers, all of 'em, for winning this game Thursday night.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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When I woke up on Wednesday morning, I had the distinct thought: This is the last full day you're ever going to have before knowing how the Sixers do in Game Six against Toronto.
Not the most optimistic of thoughts, certainly. But that's where I was -- where we all were, c'mon -- after dropping two games to go down (not really down still technically up but) 3-2 in this first-round series. Blowing both Games Four and Five by double digits? And then going back to Toronto, where we’d needed OT and a Joel Embiid buzzer-beater just to claim Game Three? I wouldn't have said a Game Six win was impossible, but I wouldn't have said it was particularly likely either. In my head, I was already prepping for Game Seven, and the history that would've come with it: See, Ernie, I gotta take the Toronto Raptors in this Game Seven because if the Philadelphia 76ers was a serious ballclub, they woulda never let it get to this in the first place. True story, Chuck.
But wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, the Sixers didn't let it get to that. Instead, they played one of their best four-quarter games of the season, pulling away in the second half and ultimately beating the Raptors by 35. And now I'm not exactly sure what to make of this team that I clearly can't trust, but I can't entirely count out either.
First off, though: Shout out to the Sixers, all of 'em, for winning this game Thursday night. We wondered if Embiid could still dominate with a clearly debilitating thumb injury; he went out and scored an easy 33 to let us know his other nine digits could get the job done just fine. We doubted if James Harden could rise up to meet the demands of a pivotal Game 6; he scored 10 points in the first quarter and ended with 22 and 15 to let Toronto know he wasn't gonna let Zach Lowe add this one to his oft-listed resumé of major playoff no-shows. We feared Tyrese Maxey's best games in this series were behind him; he responded with 25 and 8, including five threes, each of which felt like more of a dagger than the one that preceded it. We really hoped the basketball gods weren’t listening when Doc Rivers risked a lifetime of bad NBA karma just to talk shit on his 2003 Orlando Magic squad; they might not have been, since Doc basically coached a smart, calm, adaptable game for four quarters without ill effect. Tobias Harris had 19 and 11, Danny Green had four threes, Paul Reed was +5 -- a truer team effort the Sixers could not have asked for this evening, and the whole thing ended with them winning by a none-too-worrisome margin of 35.
Does it mean we were foolish to worry about the game in the first place? I dunno man. The Sixers were awesome throughout -- even in the first half, when the Raptors made a bunch of tough shots and essentially drew them even -- but I don't think we could've exactly counted on that coming into this one. For the last two games, Embiid was hurt, Harden was compromised, and Maxey was neutralized. This time... they weren't. What made the difference? You'd have to ask them, I guess. But all three stepped up, as did our role players, and ended the series in decisive fashion. I don't know what to attribute a win this decisive to, except that the Sixers had more high-end players, and them deciding to play like it ultimately made the difference in the series. It's validating in different ways for all three of them.
And that's sort of the thing, really: The Sixers had the better squad, and them owning up to demonstrating as much ultimately wasn't something the Raptors could do all that much about. Toronto has a lot of talent too, but not the kind that could execute above its head for 48 straight minutes; by the half, a lot of the players who had executed at an insanely high level for the first 24 minutes were more than ready to start falling back to earth. Still, it was going to take a superlative Philly performance to actually close this thing out going into the fourth, and that's exactly what we got — with Embiid draining jumpers and everyone else doing just enough to keep the Raptors well at arm's length as we pulled away to a 35-point victory.
Needless to say, I’m pretty stunned. It wasn't until we got well over 20+ points into the lead that I thought it was anywhere near safe, as I assumed anything lesser would be vulnerable to a number of tough pull-up twos and uncharacteristic open threes for Toronto until they evened it up. (And if they had lost this game, no one should have had any measure of faith that they would do better at home on Saturday night in Game Seven, a game I legitimately might’ve just skipped watching altogether.) But the Sixers were simply great enough to make all of these lingering concerns a non-issue, as Joel Embiid ended up flying over the rest of the ACC faithful just as he did in Game Three of the 2019 series, this time without leaving the home team (or home crowd) the time to drum up a proper recourse. I'm still a little concerned that the Raptors are gonna win the next three games and end up upsetting the Sixers in the best-of-nine.
And man, it could’ve gone down like that. Not the 5-4 part, maybe, but the combination of Doc Rivers, Joel Embiid and James Harden was enough to strike fear into any Process Truster’s heart when it came down to an actual best-of-seven catastrophe. A 3-0 choke in this series and the final postseason testament would certainly have been written for Rivers and Harden, who both have had long histories of postseason disappointment, and likely would’ve also stuck to Embiid for the duration of his career, failing anything short of a title in the next couple years. Hell, it probably would’ve stuck to me just as much: I can see the headstone now, Here lies AU, 1986-2106, who rooted for the Sixers that once blew a 3-0 lead against the fucking Raptors.
But in actuality, such postseason infamy was sufficiently ducked for all of us, and now we're going on to face Miami in the Eastern Conference semifinals. I don't want to make any kind of prediction for this second-round series, because I’m still way too overwhelmed with gratitude to have escaped the first-round challenge to care about anything else we do after this yet. I guess we were confident in this matchup a week ago? Maybe we can still threaten to come out of the Eastern Conference, maybe not, but I'll leave that for the rest of y'all as I go on vacation the next week -- really, me and the gf are flying to Disney World tonight -- and try in vain not to get too wrapped up in the series to come. To me, right now, it seems about 50/50. Given how 20/80 this first-round series seemed after Toronto took Games Four and Five, 50/50 feels like pure relief.
Anyway, we'll worry about that on Monday. For now, the Sixers should content themselves with having avoided the worst kind of history possible, right when it seemed like such an accounting was starting to become inevitable. Some day an NBA team will lose a series after being up 3-0 -- but it won't be the 2021-'22 Sixers, at least not in the first round, at least not last night. Even securing that much feels like an accomplishment for this bunch. Hopefully more such accomplishments are in the cards -- but if not, everyone merely living up to their job for a night when they absolutely had to is good enough. For one game, when it mattered the most, we outplayed the Toronto Raptors thoroughly and unmistakably. If nothing else, it should give me the greatest Thursday night's sleep I've ever had as a Sixers fan.