Article by: Harrison Weaver
“I don’t give the Sixers much of a chance, I’m scared the Sixers might get swept,” says infamous ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith. The date is Sunday, April 28th, just a day after the Sixers were given a beating in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals by the hands of Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors. Final score: 108-95, but it was not as close as the scoreboard suggested. What made the loss really exasperating was the appearance that Philly lost not because they played that poorly, but more so because they were outmatched. Kawhi dropped 45 points on us on 16/23 shooting, Pascal Siakam dropped 29 going 12/15. Embiid shot 5/18 and looked as if he could not handle Toronto’s physicality, perhaps due to health concerns. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris both had a Plus/Minus of -23 by the end of the game. Simmons was okay, but okay is certainly not enough to beat the Toronto Raptors. NBA analysts everywhere are saying the Sixers were out of their league, that they could not stop Kawhi and Siakam, and this is going to be a short four or five-game series. However, Philly fans know better. We saw what everyone said about the Eagles in 2018, and they responded by winning the Super Bowl with backup QB Nick Foles. Philadelphia knows what it's like to have their backs against the wall, and still find a way to prove everyone wrong.
Fast-forward to Thursday night, May 3rd. Just four days after the Game 1 loss. “Here Come the Sixers” is blaring through the speakers at the Wells Fargo Center after the Sixers just blew out the Raptors 116-95 to take the lead in the series 2-1. Joel Embiid was rocking the baby and running down the court like a jet taking off the runway after a handful of blocks, threes, and dunks. Let us look at some of the numbers from this game. Embiid had 33 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks and boasted a team-high +31 Plus/Minus. Every starter scored in double-figures; Jimmy had 22 points and 9 assists, JJ Redick scored 15 on a handful of very impactful three’s, Tobias had a well-rounded 13-8-5 game, and the bench showed up in a big way with James Ennis and Greg Monroe giving some great minutes while the starters needed a rest. The team shot 51.2% from the field and 43.5% from beyond the arc. Down by 7 to open the fourth, the Raptors had hung around to keep the game close. Kawhi started the fourth quarter on the bench, and in the short time he was out, the Sixers went on a quick 9-0 run. By then, it was too late, and the Sixers blew the hinges off the door as they led by as much as 24 and sent a statement to the entire league.
I was at the final game between Philadelphia and Boston this season, and it was a perfect representation of the best and worst of this team. For the first three quarters, there was a visible lack of effort. Butler was caught coasting back on defense, allowing for quick Boston runouts and he was not producing on offense. That bench was atrocious, something that separates them from many other teams. The Sixers were not getting the loose balls. Ben Simmons was being passive Ben Simmons rather than the aggressive version that this team needs. On Boston’s side of things, Terry Rozier would not miss a shot, and Kyrie was red hot as ever. The Wells Fargo Center was quiet and very uneasy. It looked like Boston was going to run away with the game, and we would lose yet again to the Celtics, our kryptonite, something that the league has known for awhile. Then in the third quarter, there was the infamous Marcus Smart shove in the back on Joel Embiid, which warranted a flagrant 2 foul and got Smart thrown out of the game. Boston was ahead 69-58, but the whole feeling of the game changed. Philly brought the game within 5 to end the 3rd quarter, and now the team was playing hard. It took most of the game, but Embiid was bullying Horford in the paint, along with Tobias and Simmons hitting some key shots close to the basket. Jimmy Butler started ramping up the intensity, and he hit some huge shots in the final minutes to ice the game. The Sixers got that confidence-building win, they finally beat the Celtics and could breathe a sigh of relief. To me, it looked like they finally bound together as a team, as a unit.
This is the Sixers team we have been waiting to see all year. They brought the heart, the hustle, they played as a single unit, and the bench played well. The Sixers have played Games 2 and 3 of this Raptors series the way they ended the game against Boston. This is the Philly team that can make a run to the NBA Finals, and could very well win it all. When Philly brings the heart and plays together, they can beat anyone. With probably the second-best starting rotation in the league (behind only Golden State’s Hampton Five), the Sixers can mix and match defensive matchups, offensive looks, and mold to whatever is thrown at them. Coach Brett Brown’s response to Game 1? Stick Embiid on Pascal Siakam, and put Ben Simmons along with a lesser degree, Jimmy Butler, on Kawhi Leonard and they held Toronto to 89 points in a 94-89 Game 2 victory. Brett Brown, who has been questioned the past few years about his ability to adjust and create effective game plans, seems to have finally figured out how to coach this team. The Sixers are winning the battle of adjustments, and for once in “The Process” era, Philly looks poised to defeat elite talent in the playoffs.
I have a couple of keys for the Sixers to close out the series against Toronto. Number one is obvious: win Game 4 in Philadelphia. If not, they absolutely must win Game 5 in Toronto. Basically, we want to have an opportunity to close out the series in the Wells Fargo Center. The worst nightmare scenario would be to get stuck in a Game 7 in Toronto. That crowd would be raucous, the Raptors would have the extra energy boost and confidence. Philly would also not be favored in a Game 7. The second key to winning the series: The Sixers need to make sure they do not come into Game 4 too high on their own emotions. Game 3 was a dream. All the shots were falling, Philly played lock down defense, they looked superior talent-wise, and the game turned into a dunk show. Game 4 will not be the same way. Anyone who thinks that is foolish. The Raptors are going to come out angry after getting smacked around like they did. Nick Nurse is going to have that team focused, he is going to plan, and they will have a counter-punch. If the Sixers come out, command control in the paint, keep their head in the game on defense by making precise rotations as they did in Game 3, and continue to hammer the ball into the paint to open the perimeter game.
To me, the Sixers have Toronto reeling as well as the fact that there may be a talent disparity which tips the scale slightly in the Sixers’ favor. Outside of Kawhi Leonard, who seems to be getting buckets on command, and Pascal Siakam who has been a good Robin to Kawhi’s Batman, the rest of the team has failed to show up. Kyle Lowry has shot incredibly poorly, he made a bonehead play at the end of Game 2 as he tried to nutmeg Tobias Harris, which almost resulted in a turnover. Marc Gasol has been bullied by Embiid; Fred VanVleet has been off on his shot. Danny Green is no longer the player he was 5 years ago. The Raptors simply do not look as deep as they did during the regular season. To me, if the Sixers stick to those two keys and continue to play aggressive and take control of the next few games, there is every reason to believe that Philly will punch their ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals.
It would not feel right to end this article without the proper sign-off. So here it is. Let us snatch Game 4, let us win this series, and as always Philly fans, Trust The Process.
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