Considering it was a sold-out playoff game with a beloved hometown rapper who was recently freed from prison having kicked off the opening ceremonies, the atmosphere at the Wells Fargo Center had begun to seem lethargic Tuesday night. Through some combination of nerves in a potential series closeout game, the two teams each shooting less than 40% from the field in the first half, and Miami having tied the game entering the locker room, the raucous environment we had come to expect had gone a little flat.
All that changed about two minutes into the third quarter, when Goran Dragic had the ball stolen by Ben Simmons and, in a fit of frustration, slapped the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year in the back of the head, a move only considered acceptable when a mother reprimands her son in a 70’s sitcom.
Dragic slaps Simmons in the head pic.twitter.com/0CyR4JhFTd— Drew Corrigan (@Dcorrigan50) April 25, 2018
The incident instantly breathed life into both the arena and the Sixers themselves. With a noticeable added bounce in their steps, Philadelphia would score the game’s next 7 points, part of a larger 11-0 run at the beginning of the second half that proved to be the pivotal stretch of the game.
Beyond the momentum swing for the on-court action, the reaction to the slap by the Sixers personified the togetherness that has been the hallmark of this franchise even in less successful times. Dario Saric and Joel Embiid immediately rushed over in defense of their teammate. To their credit, they kept their poise throughout their heated discussion with the refs and Heat players, something the entire Sixers roster did well this series when a less-talented Miami roster often appeared overly eager to turn things into a brawl. Crucially though, you knew without a doubt that these Sixers had their guy’s back.
The Philadelphia Eagles rode the “All we got is all we need” mantra all the way to a Super Bowl title, and the Sixers are taking a similar tact. You see it when Embiid elbowed Dragic out of the way last night, or lifted Justise Winslow off Robert Covington down in Miami. You sense it when T.J. McConnell is copying Embiid’s finger guns celebration and looking to catch the big man’s eye. The group photobombs behind Molly Sullivan from the bench during in-game sideline reports, the way the entire roster exploded with unbridled joy when McConnell and Markelle Fultz had their first career triple-doubles, these are all signs that this team is doing it for each other. Heck, Nik Stauskas isn’t even on the team anymore and he’s still showing up for these home playoff games.
For anyone who spat out the nonsensical “losing culture” talk the last few years, I hope they got a good, long look at Philadelphia’s post-game celebration in the locker room. Brett Brown handed J.J. Redick the bell for the team’s customary victory ringing, only for Redick to hand it back to his coach and the entire team to douse Brett in chocolate milk while cheering him on.
Throughout the roster turnover, the front office turmoil, and the over 200 losses, Brown was the guiding figure to ensure the team stayed the course. Even when the Sixers weren’t getting the results on the scoreboard or the standings, they were still playing a winning style of basketball and giving the sort of effort you wanted out of your team. Now, Philadelphia has won its first playoff series since 2012 and is considered the favorite to advance to the Finals out of the East. But the underlying core tenet for the Sixers has never changed.
The team said it best themselves following that locker room celebration: “Together on three...1, 2, 3, together.”