It can’t often be said that a Toronto team features as the antagonist in another city’s civic sporting imagination.
It’s supposed to work the other way around. Boston, New York, Montreal, etc. They’ve all done Toronto dirty on the field of play and some day – some day, by God – we will have our revenge.
But when the Philadelphia 76ers sit bolt upright up in bed in the middle of the night, it’s the Toronto Raptors they’ve been having the nightmare about.
Beginning Saturday, Toronto and Philadelphia will face each other in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.
When last they met in these circumstances, the 76ers were run over by history.
Philadelphia probably should’ve won that Game 7 in 2019. Kawhi Leonard probably shouldn’t have been able to get off a buzzer-beating shot with all seven feet of Joel Embiid draped over him like a throw blanket. And the ball definitely should not have gone in after pinging off the rim four times before dropping.
When the Raptors went on to win a championship, it was hard not to imagine what might have happened if The Shot had just been a shot. Was Toronto living Philadelphia’s dream? This is the sort of thing that turns disappointed fanbases feral.
A second before that ball fell, the 76ers were the sexiest young franchise in the NBA. A second after, they were a flawed roster that lacked that special “it” in the playoffs.
Embiid lost more than anyone in that defeat. His reputation as a postseason closer took an absolute hammering.
A couple of years and a couple playoff losses later, that same bad mojo infected Philadelphia’s other cornerstone, Ben Simmons, and did so more morbidly.
Philadelphia found itself trying to reform one guy and get rid of the other without pooching the whole team in the process. It took too long, but it reached a compromise. It would give its problem to the Brooklyn Nets. In return, the Nets would give it another problem (James Harden) back.
It’s working. Sort of. Philadelphia can score at will. But it also defends the transition like nobody told it it would have to run backward once in a while.
Winning a first round match-up against a Toronto team that didn’t make the postseason last year isn’t going to convince anyone in the NBA of anything. But it is an opportunity for a sports club to do what cities really want – to beat history. To convince people who wonder if they are born to lose that they have turned a magical corner and become natural winners. The only way to do that is to put your foot on the chest of the team that stole your lunch money.
Though the 76ers are the bookie favourites, it’s important to the Pennsylvania-based side of the story that they are underdogs in their hearts.
If it’s going to be a Rocky sort of thing, the 76ers haven’t started strong. Those are a lot of steps to get up before you can dance around in your track suit. You need every man jogging in the same direction. One of the 76ers has already gone off-course.
After the regular season concluded on Sunday, Philadelphia wing Matisse Thybulle admitted what was already pretty obvious – that he isn’t fully vaccinated. He is not permitted to enter Canada.
If Thybulle got a quickie shot, he could feature in some Toronto-based games if the series goes on long enough. But his comments suggested he is the kind of person who will nail his feet to floor if it’s a question of standing on principle.
A believer in what he called “alternative medicine,” Thybulle said of his decision not to get a second shot: “I felt like I had a solid foundation of medical resources that could serve me beyond what this vaccine could do for me.”
Thybulle features regularly for Philadelphia and is a masterful defender. But unless it’s a competition to name the most medicinal herbs, he’s not going to tip a competition.
What this does do is provide an excuse for anyone looking for one.
There are four days until the start of the Toronto-Philadelphia series. That is an ocean of time which must be filled with content. People might read a couple of “Key Match-ups” pieces and watch some press-conference highlights, but what they really want is conflict. They want someone to start sassing the other side, which leads to counter-sassing, which leads to fun.
That was Masai Ujiri’s genius all those years ago in picking a fight with New York’s most annoying borough. He gave the fans something to root for and discuss that didn’t depend on his team winning.
Thybulle has provided that same sort of talk-radio opportunity, but poorly. If the 76ers win, nobody will care. But until they have a chance to win next weekend, and assuming no one else says anything inflammatory, Thybulle’s status is the best debating point available.
He’ll be asked about it again before they play. If Philadelphia loses either of the first two games, he’ll be asked about it again. If the 76ers lose close games in Toronto, some wisenheimer is going to say, “X and Y play might’ve been different if the Sixers had Thybulle on the court.” It’s a bet-the-rent-money guarantee. And then it could get ugly in a hurry.
Philadelphia was always going to begin this series without control of the narrative. According to recent history, it is the fumbler. The Raptors are the ones who pick up Philly’s fumbles. Toronto’s already beat it in three of four games during the regular season.
So it was important the 76ers come into this looking perfectly organized, with all ducks in rows. One of the ducks is already out of formation.
When two teams of roughly equal talent face each other in pressure situations, little things like losing control of the story often cost you dearly. Nobody knows this better than a Toronto sports fan.