TORONTO — The last thing Joel Embiid, who spent the days prior to the Philadelphia 76ers’ brutal 125-89 loss to the Toronto Raptors eschewing practice and game tape for bedrest and IV fluids, needed was a taste of his own medicine. But that’s exactly what he got Tuesday night from the crowd at the Scotiabank Arena.
Led (of course) by Drake, fans in front of both benches mocked Embiid’s airplane-flying celebration when he slogged off the floor at the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter, with just 13 points and six rebounds to his name and Game 5 of the East semifinals already decided.
Instead of pounding his team’s lack of effort after falling behind 3-2 in the series, coach Brett Brown led an impassioned defense of his sniffling big man. “He was trying whatever he could to represent his organization and play basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers. I’m kind of disappointed. ... He’s trying to play for us. He’s trying to get out of bed with a significant temperature and come represent the organization. I think it’s grossly unfair, some of the criticism that he gets. I don’t understand that.”
What criticism is Brown talking about? Drake and the human jets? The snickers that Embiid is a perpetual game-time decision? The implication that when he slumped into the arena like Charlie Brown after getting the football cut from underneath his feet, he was milking his illness? “He’s been in bed for two days,” Brown added. “And I think the easiest way to confirm what I’m saying is just watch his turnovers. By any stretch, they are not Joel Embiid-type of turnovers.” That part is true: Any notion that Embiid was trying to set the stage for his own comeback story was immediately negated by the way he played, confirming the worst. The Sixers — who trailed by 40 points at their worst — face questions that only Embiid, who had eight turnovers, can answer.
While Brown admitted the team lost its spirit early, he kept emphasizing the tactical: namely, turnovers of the non-Embiid variety. The problem, however, is how quickly the tactical spirals into the spiritual.
It’s true of any team: get one thing right and the others follow — and vice-versa. But thanks to their ill-fitting parts, no team falls into a structurally negative feedback loop as quickly as the Sixers.
It starts with Ben Simmons, who needs Embiid to be dominant defensively and get the Sixers off to a running start. Instead, Simmons’ inability to shoot played him off the floor. The dirty little secret of the Nets first-round series: Jared Dudley happened to be right. The Sixers usually open the second quarter with their starters, but on Tuesday, James Ennis III took Simmons’ place. A minute after Simmons eventually checked in, he had post entry pass picked off by Pascal Siakam, who sagged three feet away and cut off the passing angle. “You look at 31 points off turnovers,” Brown said. “That is haunting. You cannot win with those types of numbers.”
Simmons wasn’t just a non-factor. He was predictable, and as a result, corrosive. The turnover-prone Sixers become even more careless when the lane is clogged. To make matters worse, the Raptors finally started hitting their open shots, leaving the team that thrives in transition taking the ball out of the basket.
That’s why the Sixers’ highs are so high and the lows are so low. On some nights, things look perfectly in place and the Sixers look unstoppable. On others, they look listless and confused.
Maybe that’s why Brown, despite the whooping, refused to sound the alarms. The Sixers bounce back remarkably well despite all the excuses they have to fall apart. “For a team that hasn’t been with each other that long, there’s a resiliency, a togetherness that contradicts what the calendar says we have spent together. And so how do we get that back? We just go back and start understanding: What are the ripple effects of why we lost? It’s not that we’re gonna put on some motivational tape or a speech,” Brown said. “It’s gonna be, ‘This is what we need to do to win, this is what we need to fix, this is what we have to repeat to win.’ And to think anything deeper for me, I’m not doing it.”
But the only way is to rough up the Raptors, and the Sixers’ best defender is clearly operating at half-speed.
“It sucks,” Embiid said. “I know I gotta do a better job for us to win. I gotta do the little things when I’m needed to score the ball. I gotta show up setting screens. I gotta do a better job of rebounding the ball. That’s on me. You know, I can’t control my physical condition, but I can also control how much I push myself, and I try to do that but I just gotta do more.”
When Embiid ambled up to the podium, teammate Jimmy Butler joined him despite already speaking to the media. He shook his head and stared daggers at the reporter who asked Embiid about the fans mocking him. Embiid, for his part, snapped back and told Drake he would see him back at Scotiabank for Game 7 on Sunday. His team is behind him. The city of Philadelphia will be too. Is that enough wind to power his sails? Sounds like we’ll find out at game time.
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