TORONTO — Fifty minutes before tipoff, Joel Embiid ambled out of the locker room to warm up for the Philadelphia 76ers’ 94-89 Game 2 East semifinal win over the Toronto Raptors. Prior to that, he was hooked up to an IV, staring at a tablet that was playing video of Raptors forwards Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam. Rumblings around the arena suggested Embiid, a game-time decision, would indeed suit up. But as late as an hour-and-a-half before tip, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown wasn’t sure if his star big man, the 7-foot defensive anchor from Cameroon, would be able to play, or what condition he would be in if he did.
It’s all in a day’s work for Brown. Against the Nets, an injured knee kept Embiid from playing in Game 3. Monday, it was a stomach virus.
“I think about all of those things, and it especially makes me think about Joel,” Brown said before the game, when asked if the two-day break that separates Games 2 and 3 would affect how many minutes his stars play. “I’ve declared to the public through the media my vision of how I see this: Just land the plane and get to the playoffs, then lock this thing down with Jo buying time.”
The head coach of any contender is posed with a set of challenges that would give mere mortals stress attacks: managing diverging egos under the scrutiny of the spotlight and the demands of greatness. But even when you grade on that peculiar scale, Brown has dealt with unusual levels of uncertainty and fluctuation: two in-season trades for stars, the first in November for Jimmy Butler, who scratched and clawed his way out of Minnesota the way only Jimmy Butler could, and the second in February for Tobias Harris, to fit into a core of Embiid — the needling prankster — and the more laid-back Ben Simmons.
Simmons can’t shoot, so he thrives in transition while Embiid likes to plod down in the post. Butler is still finding his spot-up shooting game and neither he nor Harris can bully smaller wings in the post with Embiid taking up space and Simmons unable to create any.
Oh, and set the timer to the end of this playoff run. Butler and Harris are both free agents. Philly’s front office has staked six players and five draft picks — including an unprotected pick whose destiny will be determined by the Miami Heat’s success — on Brown’s ability to solve this star-studded, jammed-up Rubik’s Cube.
The postseason, lucky for Brown, clarifies uncertainties. The possibility of seven games allows the loser to change tack before the concrete thickens.
Prior to the series, the Sixers were hesitant to double the Raptors’ post threats, lest they unleash the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA since the All Star break. Kawhi Leonard’s career high 45 points in Game 1 clarified that bargain, and after poring over the tape, it became clear that Simmons was the best choice to guard Leonard. Simmons himself thought so. “Personally, I think I did a pretty good job overall,” he said after Game 1.
The league — and this Raptors team — wants to define Simmons by what he can’t do, letting Leonard sag off him and play free safety. Simmons scored just six points, but on defense he jostled for control.
Up 21-14 with under two minutes left in the first quarter, Leonard rolled off a dribble handoff and coiled down low, dribbling horizontally through Siakam’s pick, first to his right and then to his left, while Simmons squeezed and broke through. Leonard pump-faked like he was pleading, but Simmons kept his hands up straight, long and strong like he was posing for draft measurements, forcing Leonard to relinquish the ball.
In the end, it took Leonard 24 shots to score 34 points. The Sixers doubled and trapped in opportune locations, cutting off Toronto’s passing angles and closing out hard on shooters. The Raptors clanked 27 of their 37 3-point attempts. “It’s a fistfight,” said Brown. “It’s a grind the whole game.”
Butler, who hadn’t score more than 16 points in five games, finished with 30 points. He ran off short curls and screens, munching on Siakam’s developing frame and nailing all eight of his free throws. Five of his nine buckets came in the paint. The other four were threes, including a four-point play in the second quarter that cracked open the Raptors pivot to zone defense.
There are reads you can suss out, and then there are gut calls. Big man Greg Monroe, who had only sniffed garbage minutes prior to Monday night, immediately drove to the rim in the first quarter, kicked the ball out and got a hockey assist on a three. Later, he evaded Leonard’s charge attempt and scored at the rim. “Greg coming in was sort of a gut feel,” Brown said, “for mobility reasons.” A supposed non-factor like Monroe scoring 10 quick points can mimic the cosmicblow of a star dropping 40. Some things you simply can’t account for. The Sixers’ depth problems evaded them for a night. Monroe and guard James Ennis III (13 points) came through.
In the end, so did Embiid, despite a 2-for-7 night that wasn’t nearly as explosive as his bout with diarrhea. “If you had the sh--s before,” Embiid laughed after the game, “you would know how it feels.”
With 2:30 left in the game and the Raptors trailing by just four, Embiid was struggling to back down Marc Gasol when Siakam left Simmons to double-team him. Embiid, typically frazzled by angles that don’t allow him to pivot to the rim, picked up his dribble, his non-pivot foot hanging by a thread between Siakam’s legs. In lieu of traveling, turning the ball over or throwing up a wild shot, Embiid — an average passer — mustered a new move under the throes of pressure. Butler, the only open man, was on the opposite wing at an angle that by design would require Embiid to squeeze a rainbow pass over both Gasol and Siakam’s outstretched arms. He pulled it off, and Butler nailed the triple.
Though it wasn’t enough, the Raptors slowly plucked themselves out of the muck, outscoring the 76ers by eight in the second half, breaking free for cuts in the middle after the Sixers spent the first half walling off all the right spots. In the final 10 seconds of the game, Raptors sharpshooter Danny Green missed a wide open three that could have sent the game to overtime.
New games beget new information. Now it’s Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s turn to pore over the tape. They say it’s not a series until you win your first game on the road. The Sixers made it one. Until it’s over, everything is malleable.
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