It’s the old adage that has been repeated time and time again throughout the world of sports: sometimes you have to win ugly.
En route to jumping out to a 2-0 series lead in their opening round matchup with the Toronto Raptors, the Sixers won comfortably in two aesthetically-different games. They came out of an offensive shootout in Game 1 with a victory that featured contributions from up and down the lineup. In Game 2, they rode a dominant Joel Embiid performance to another double-digit win in what was an overall more physical contest.
Game 3 presented a new challenge: an ugly, grind-it-out, mistake-filled outing, a.k.a. the exact kind of game the Sixers seemingly almost never win. And yet, they pulled off a 104-101 overtime victory to find themselves up 3-0 on the Raptors.
“We just rallied and we found a way to win,” James Harden said to reporters in Toronto after the game. “That’s what the playoffs are all about. I kept talking about it during the regular season that it might not be the prettiest game but we found ways.”
The game plan of this Raptors team has been discussed ad nauseam: cause chaos on defense to generate points off of turnovers and crash the offensive boards to get out in transition. Through the first two games, the Sixers did a very good job of limiting those strengths. They took care of the ball, with their turnover percentage of 11.2 across those games well-below Toronto’s league-leading 16.2 opponent turnover percentage. They also, for the most part, controlled the boards, albeit with some slippage in that area as Game 2 progressed.
However, the script completely flipped in Game 3. A combination of increased effort from the Raptors along with some downright awful decision-making and execution from the Sixers played right into Toronto’s hands and allowed them to find their identity again. When the dust settled at the end of the first half, the Sixers had committed a season-high 14 first-half turnovers that lead to 27 Raptors points. Yet, in spite of all the miscues, the Sixers found themselves only down ten.
Contrary to what some might think, overcoming their mistakes is something the Sixers have done relatively well this season. Per StatMuse, they committed at least 15 turnovers in 16 games this season, the fourth-fewest in the league, and won nine of those games. They also won both games in which they committed 20 or more turnovers.
Given the track record, that ten-point halftime deficit certainly wasn’t insurmountable. Having arguably the two best players on the court on your side also helps. With Embiid attempting to work through his early struggles, Harden was the one that weathered the storm to keep the Sixers within striking distance towards the tail-end of the first half. Continuing to take full advantage of the mismatches presented to him, he looked especially spry handling the ball en route to 19 points, 10 assists, and six rebounds.
“James kept it together for a long while for us,” Doc Rivers said.
With the game still there for the taking in the third quarter, Joel went full takeover mode. Looking much more decisive in his reads with the ball in his hands, he bounced back from his putrid five-point, five-turnover first half and exploded for 18 points and four rebounds in the third. He also strung together some excellent defensive possessions to stifle the Raptors’ offense and bring the Sixers to within one at the end of the quarter. He, of course, continued his strong play into the fourth quarter and overtime, finishing with 33 points and 13 rebounds while going on to nail what could quite possibly be the signature shot of his career to this point.
JOEL EMBIID FOR THE FREAKIN WINNNNNNN pic.twitter.com/V35NnRWD0V— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) April 21, 2022
“I think everybody was asking him the same thing, like, ‘what are you waiting for?’” Tyrese Maxey said about Joel taking over coming out of halftime. “Like, ‘Joel, we need you.’ And he said, ‘alright, I got you.’”
When the final buzzer sounded, the Sixers had committed 22 turnovers, their most in a playoff game since they had 26 in Game 4 of their first round matchup with the Miami Heat in 2018. Yet just as they did four years ago, the Sixers produced enough down the stretch to walk out with a gritty, character-building win.
This kind of performance and outcome is obviously not something that should consistently be expected from this Sixers team. They’ll have games when they take much better care of the ball and there will be also times, as they get deeper into the playoffs, when teams will take better advantage of their mistakes. But showing that they are at least capable of coming out on top despite countless errors, both forced and unforced, bodes pretty well for them moving forward.