If the Raptors’ goal in Game 2 was to piss Joel Embiid off, mission accomplished.
Unfortunately for them, it didn’t translate to a win.
The MVP finalist was brilliant Monday night, scoring 19 of his game-high 31 points in a chippy first quarter and leading the Sixers to another decisive victory. The series now shifts to Toronto with the Sixers up 2-0.
After Raptors head coach Nick Nurse had a few pointed remarks about the officiating following Game 1, you figured Toronto might choose to get a bit more physical with Embiid.
And that’s exactly what they did early with a couple of hard fouls. At one point, Embiid and OG Anunoby were assessed double technicals for exchanging shoves on a side out-of-bounds play.
The strategy worked well at first, with Toronto getting out to an 11-2 advantage to start the game. Then a hard foul on Embiid from Pascal Siakam seemed to turn the tide. From there Embiid turned into the aggressor, scoring 19 first-quarter points and getting to the line 11 times in that period alone.
“He’s the most dominant player in this league to me, physically,” Doc Rivers said postgame “And that’s what we told him — be who you are, be dominant, be physical. I thought the first three minutes they spent time trying to hit him, deliver blows to him. And I was like, ‘No, Jo, you be the dominant guy.’ And I think he’s been that. I loved how he ran down the middle of the floor into the paint, rim runs. That’s good for us. And we need that more.”
Once the temperature of the game cooled down, the Sixers took it over much like they did Game 1. After scoring 33 points in the first quarter, the Raptors were held to 38 combined in the second and third. The Sixers held a lead as large as 29 and (mostly) cruised to a 112-97 victory.
Nurse, who is one of the more animated and vocal coaches in the league, was incredulous for just about all 48 minutes of this one. As the game was winding down, Embiid and Nurse had a little exchange.
“He’s a great coach, obviously,” Embiid said of the conversation with Nurse. “I [know] what he’s been able to accomplish and [I’ve] always been a big fan. But I told him, respectfully, I told him to stop bitching about calls. Because I saw what he said last game. I mean if you’re gonna triple-team somebody all game they’re bound to get to the free throw line, or if you’ve got to push them off and try to hold them off and all that stuff, they’re bound to get to the free throw line. I feel like every foul was legit, and there probably should have been more, honestly.”
You have to appreciate Embiid harkening Ricky Bobby’s “I said with all due respect” stance.
Embiid did reiterate his respect for Nurse — as well as some of the other head coaches “bitching” about him getting to the free throw line. Embiid gets that there’s a strategy to it.
“I got a lot of respect for all these coaches,” Embiid said. “I feel like they have self-awareness, but when they say this type of stuff it’s just for [either] the referees to not call it anymore or just to also motivate their guys to go out there and play better and really put that in the referees’ heads to not call it.
“But when the fouls are as obvious as they were tonight — they put me on the floor a few times. And this is where it gets interesting for me, because cool, I’m gonna come back with more power. I think that’s part of the reason why I got a few offensive fouls tonight too. Because if you’re gonna be physical, I’m gonna come back with more power and make you foul me and make it more obvious if the refs don’t want to call it.”
After the double technicals with Anunoby and the hard foul from Siakam, it wasn’t just Embiid that was fired up. It set the tone with his teammates for the rest of the game — and perhaps the rest of the series.
“We know that the whistle may not be in our favor for a couple games over there,” Danny Green said. “Either way, we got to play basketball, fight through it, and impose our will, like Jo did early on. He let it be known that we’re not going to take the bullying, we’re not gonna take the BS. ... Him just making a stand and just getting physical out there and let them know we’re not going to be punked out here.”
To the Sixers’ credit, outside of Embiid’s technical, they really didn’t take the bait. They played through it. As Embiid mentioned, he and James Harden aren’t going to get the same whistle they got in the regular season during most postseason games.
Rivers was proud of the way his team handled the chippy start.
And while Nurse continued to go scorched earth on the officiating, Rivers’ tone was perhaps more of the you-catch-more-flies-with-honey variety.
“I think the first game it was more like featherweight, today it was a heavyweight [fight],” Rivers said. “Guys are hitting each other, but it’s the playoffs and you should expect it. So you just got to play through it. Because of the physicality it’s tough officiating every call. And so there are gonna be some where you get hit, you just gotta play through it. And I thought our guys were better at that today. There were times where I thought a couple guys got fouled and instead of complaining they got back on defense and kept playing. That’s going to be all throughout the playoffs and we have to keep doing that.”
Nurse is a hell of a coach, but he might be sending his team the wrong message here. If you’re griping about “bad calls” during every media session — as well-intentioned as it might be — doesn’t that mindset get into your players’ heads?
Two games into the series and the Sixers have won both by an average of 17.5 points.
With all due respect, Coach Nurse, that doesn’t happen because of officiating.