Sunday, while a Mike Scott Hive’s worth of fans piled out of the Wells Fargo Center, I found myself surveying their facial expressions, their shoulders, and listening to what they were saying. As they passed me by — their faces emanating a resilient energy, their shoulders held high (or at least not drooping), and their words resounding from wall-to-wall — I became increasingly encouraged.
“Close ‘em out in six,” I heard one fan sporting a red Jimmy Butler jersey bark.
“Kawhi can pack his bags for Cali, he’s not staying in Toronto after we knock him out,” another fan rocking a high fade that would make J.J. Redick jealous asserted.
“I’m not worried,” I said to nobody in particular. “I’m just pissed.”
That was the general demeanor of most fans as we made our way towards the exits. It was an exhilarating, unfamiliar feeling. For most of my life, I’ve felt only one thing after Sixers playoff losses: gloom. I’d grown so accustomed to thinking “they lost because that’s just how it is and always will be,” that I was startled by my newfound sense of confidence as I walked across the lots to NRG Station.
A year earlier, I walked out of the same arena, across the same lots, and towards the same subway station following the Sixers’ heartbreaking Game 3 overtime loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The collective energy was grim. Save for the occasional curse word emerging from a sea of despondent Process Trusters, it was uncomfortably silent. The 2017-18 Sixers, a team many felt had a puncher’s chance to win the East, suddenly found themselves on the brink of summer vacation.
“They lost because that’s just how it is and always will be.”
Of course, the circumstances are much different this time around than they were following last postseason’s demoralizing Confetti Game. The Sixers and Raptors are now deadlocked at two games apiece, with a pivotal Game 5 on the Canadian horizon. Even if they fail to take care of business north of the border, they’ll return home with a chance to pull even in Game 6 on Thursday. Last season, as we headed towards the Wells Fargo Center exits, there was no sense of false hope. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in NBA history. If a team was ever going to accomplish the unthinkable, it wouldn’t be the Sixers.
As I made my way across Lot H — the same lot I had joyfully tailgated in several hours earlier — I turned to my girlfriend, who was anxiously staring at me as though she expected me to crack at any moment.
“They played bad,” she remarked.
“They’ll be fine,” I responded. “Game 5 will be much better.”
It’s not as though the Sixers’ Game 4 performance had inspired much confidence. Aside from Jimmy Butler’s new, supermax-worthy normal, the other Sixers stars underwhelmed. Joel Embiid, although stifling around the rim for stretches, was a shell of his offensive self as he battled through another bout of sickness. Ben Simmons, the man tasked with trying to slow down the Toronto Terminator, looked uncomfortable with the ball in the half court and occasionally invisible off-ball. Tobias Harris, who the Sixers acquired at the deadline to be their star-level stretch four, went 2-of-13 from beyond the arc and missed a wide-open corner 3 with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter.
That said, the Sixers only lost by five points. Kawhi Leonard was quite literally unstoppable, the offense struggled to find a consistent rhythm, the defense was foul-happy down the stretch, and yet they still had a chance to win the game in crunch time. The Raptors needed Leonard to do his best MJ impression in order to even the series. The Sixers needed Harris to go 4-of-13 rather than 2-of-13 in order to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Going into the series, there was very little reason for optimism. The Sixers hadn’t won in Toronto since Andrew Bynum’s bowling days. In their first three trips to Scotiabank Arena this season, they suffered double-digit losses. The fourth time was a charm. Despite the Raptors’ best efforts to erase a double-digit deficit in the third quarter, the Sixers were able to take Game 2 and tie the series. Embiid scored what was at the time a playoff-low 12 points on 2-of-7 shooting. Tobias Harris tallied nine points and shot 1-of-5 from 3-point range. Simmons, while very good defensively, only managed to score six points. Kawhi Leonard scored 35 points and shot 54 percent from the field. It was far from the Sixers’ best, but it was enough to steal a game in an arena they hadn’t won in since the Doug Collins era. Suddenly, the Raptors seemed beatable.
I walked down the stairs of NRG Station, my girlfriend following close behind. At this point, I was speaking at her rather than with her.
“Toronto has no shot Tuesday if the Sixers play like they did in Game 3,” I asserted.
Following the Sixers’ 116-95 Game 3 victory, I wrote that “I’d never felt happier watching the Sixers” than I was during the fourth quarter. The Sixers showed the Raptors, their fan base, and the rest of the NBA community just how devastating they can be when they’re clicking on all cylinders. Kawhi Leonard sat the first 143 seconds of the quarter. In that span, the Sixers ripped off a 9-2 run and never looked back. Jimmy Butler played Toronto’s passing lanes brilliantly — leading to a live ball turnover and exclamation dunk on the other end early in the fourth to put the Sixers up 18 points — and attacked the rim frequently in the half court. Embiid did a lot of everything, turning in perhaps the most impressive quarter of his postseason career. He was an imposing presence around the rim, emphatically blocking Pascal Siakam twice in a 25-second span. His windmill dunk and ensuing Iverson tribute sent Twitter into a frenzy, caused me to excitedly run around in circles for twenty seconds, and served as the climactic moment of a career performance. When the Sixers are at their best, there is very little an opposing team can do to stop them. Top-end talent wins in this league, and they have a lot of it.
If the Sixers play even two-thirds as well as they did in Game 3’s fourth quarter tonight, they’ll be in good position to take a 3-2 series lead heading back to Philly for a potential closeout Game 6. They’ve proven capable of beating Toronto when Embiid struggles, which bodes well for them considering the volatility of his performances game-to-game. Butler has been a godsend this series, showcasing his shotmaking, facilitating, and two-way intensity when the team has desperately needed him. Expect him to show up yet again in Game 5. Simmons will need to increase his offensive involvement, whether that be as a screener, cutter, or ball-handling playmaker, while also continuing to defend Leonard on the other end. Harris will need to find his shooting rhythm, create in isolation sets, and attack the defensive glass. Redick will need to hit his open looks and continue to defend at an adequate level. If the Sixers steal Game 5, it’ll be difficult for Toronto to rebound in front of a lively Philly crowd hungry for its first taste of the Eastern Conference Finals in nearly two decades. If the Sixers lose Game 5, I expect the series to go seven games.
As we sat down in the subway car, a swarm of fans filling in the areas surrounding us, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “Sixers in 6.”
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Toronto Raptors
When: 8:00 pm EST
Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto, ON
Listed: 97.5 The Fanatic