PHILADELPHIA — The Process continues.
Facing elimination and an offseason rife with speculation were the Philadelphia 76ers to lose, Joel Embiid bounced back to lead a 112-101 win over the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night and force a decisive Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
After slogging through Philadelphia’s losses in Games 4 and 5 as the Sixers fell behind in the series 3-2, Embiid looked like he hadn’t quite shaken his upper respiratory infection in the first half of Game 6.
He was 1-for-8 from the field, and while the Sixers held a 15-point lead at the break, he hadn’t put his stamp on the game.
Then the third quarter came. Embiid put up 10 points on 3-for-5 shooting, six rebounds and two blocks — both of them coming on Kawhi Leonard — and played 11 of the 12 minutes. The Sixers led by 20 heading into the fourth, and were well on their way to earning a series split and welcoming their All-Star big man’s return to form.
“Coming in — knowing that this was a do-or-die situation,” Embiid said, “I knew that I had to come in with high spirits. … That’s what I got to keep on doing — do the little things, and everything’s going to follow.”
Embiid finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds in 36 minutes (the most he has played in a game these playoffs), as well as a plus-minus of plus-40, the best mark by a player this postseason.
“It’s the playoffs,” Embiid said. “I got to play. If I got to play 45 minutes and push myself out there, that’s what I got to do. If that’s what it takes to win, if my presence on the court is needed, I got to be there. It doesn’t matter if it takes the whole game and I’m fine with it. Going to keep on pushing myself, and in Game 7, we’re going to need it. I’m going to need to be on the court and I intend to be ready for anything. If I have to play a whole game.”
Acknowledging the pressure his team faced Thursday, Sixers coach Brett Brown — who has heard his owner’s expectation to advance further than the second round loud and clear — said the collective mindset was apparent.
“The mood in the locker room as we went through sort of an early shootaround — our version of shootaround — before, you could sense the serious side,” Brown said. “They got the moment.”
And Ben Simmons seized that moment early, registering eight of his 21 points and five of his six assists in the first quarter, as the Sixers raced out to a 29-21 lead after the first quarter. The Sixers improved to 3-0 in the series when Simmons dished out five or more assists.
“What he did today was lots of the reasons he was an NBA All-Star at age 22, as an NBA point guard with the ball,” Brown said. “I really loved his no turnovers and I really loved his offensive rebounds. I thought those two things, amongst all those comments I just made, are what stood out the most. It’s the evolution of a 22-year-old, 6-10 point guard [who] used to be a college 4 man.”
Simmons and Embiid — Philadelphia’s two tantalizing young talents who often receive as much criticism for their drawbacks (Simmons’ shooting deficiency and Embiid’s broken-down body) as they do praise for their skills — heard compliments Thursday.
“He’s such a force. He draws a lot of attention so for us we can make plays,” Simmons said of Embiid. “He’s been doing well for the circumstances he’s been under.”
Added Butler about Simmons: “That’s how we need him to be. Along with Jo and everybody else, you can’t key in on one or two guys on this team because we have so many guys that can put the ball in the basket.”
They’ll play again Sunday with a chance to bring the Sixers franchise to the conference finals for the first time in 18 years.
“Basketball is fun,” Embiid said. “I understand that it’s Game 7, but got to come in and fight — just like we did tonight. Our backs were on the line tonight; I feel like our backs are still on the line. So we just got to do the same thing.”