With about three minutes left on the clock Monday night – three minutes at the end of a basketball game equalling about an hour in normal time – the crowd in Philadelphia began to leave.
The home team was down a dozen points. Every Sixers five-man combo had been 30-odd cumulative feet of compacted trash for the entire evening. But weirder things have happened.
Because this was Philadelphia, the audience couldn’t just go. First, they had to say goodbye by booing the hell out of their own guys. James Harden, who’s starting to look like James Harden’s dad in a glued-on beard, was singled out for fond farewells.
Philadelphia once led this series 3-0. That lead is now down to 3-2.
It is difficult to adequately describe the listlessness of a 76ers team that was so energized a week ago. It looks like a bunch of preschoolers trying to fend off the inevitability of nap time.
In particular, its Mr. Everything, Joel Embiid, has left the court and gone to his unhappy place. Embiid tore ligaments in his shooting hand in Game 3. That must be unpleasant, but it doesn’t explain why his legs have stopped working in conjunction with a dropped shoulder.
After Embiid checked out, his teammates followed.
“We’re fine,” Embiid said afterward. Then, in his wonderfully laconic way, he listed off all the basic basketball things the Sixers are no longer doing. And then bookended it with, “But we’re fine.”
When a professional athlete who’s just had his head handed to him in an elimination game in the playoffs says, “We’re fine,” it’s like you taking off your shirt, climbing to the top of a coconut tree and waving at passing airplanes. It means he needs an emergency rescue.
After Monday night, the two halves of the equation are no longer equal. Missing Fred VanVleet through injury, the Raptors managed to find a chaotic rhythm. The last two games have looked more like Red Rover than basketball – the Sixers standing around waiting for things to start while the Raptors run in, around and through them.
But as good as they’ve been, this isn’t about Toronto anymore.
This is about the Sixers and whatever’s going on in their collective mind. It starts with Embiid and his passivity. It then moves on to Harden and his inability to understand why the seas do not part whenever he begins chugging slowly into the lane. Then it falls on every other lesser Sixer, none of whom have any idea what to do once the big two have checked out of the game, but remain on the court.
Philadelphia is in bad trouble. Forget about the stats sheet. You can see it in the Sixers’ expressions and their body language. The more they think about it, the worse the trouble becomes. All Toronto has to do is continue applying steady pressure.
We have passed over a magical line where the word “advantage” changes meanings. Philadelphia no longer has home-court advantage. It has a home-court boulder. The closer it gets back to home, the more the boulder will crush it.
The Sixers have only one thing going for them now – history. No basketball team has ever come back from 0-3.
But like home-court advantage, there’s a point at which the motivational power of history flips. You’re no longer thinking about how they can’t do it. They can. They’re showing that to you. Now you’re thinking about how it’s going to feel when you become the biggest choke artists of all time. That even if everything in your career goes perfectly from that point on, some day you’ll be doing a retrospective documentary and the interviewer will say, “2022 against Toronto. Was that the low point?”
In the interests of getting well ahead of ourselves, this is also a gilded opportunity for the city of Toronto.
If blowing this series would define the 76ers in the same way losing against Boston in ‘13 defined the Maple Leafs, being the team that came out on top could redefine the local sporting scene.
This city has come a ways from its Loserville North rep a decade ago. But one thing it doesn’t have during that stretch is a mythic comeback, in any sport.
The Raptors came close against Milwaukee in 2019. But recovering from a 2-0 series deficit and climbing out of your playoff grave after a blowout/blowout/broken-heart 3-0 start are different things. This would be so epic that its effects would be felt outside the boundaries of the NBA.
Because if the Raptors can do that, then can’t the Leafs beat the Lightning and can’t the Jays run the table in the AL East? Regardless of how far the basketball team went after the first round, this would be the setting in the motion of the most virtuous sports circle possible. A city that can win like that can win anything. We’d be Boston in our hearts, if not in our minds (because no one wants that).
The Raptors still have to do it, but they don’t have to worry about anything but playing. If they lose, no problem. It was a great effort. They showed real heart. Unless it’s unforeseeably ugly out there, you know to a certainty that the Raptors are getting Standing O’d out of Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night.
On the other hand, even if the Sixers win, they’re the muppets who can’t close out a sure thing.
What do you think they’re thinking about right now?
That they must win on Thursday. That if they lose, Friday will be the longest day of their professional lives. That Philadelphia once turned on Santa Claus and he gives strangers gifts for free.
The deep thinkers on the team will be casting their mind past Thursday and Friday to Saturday. So it’s not “Can we win Game 6?” or, “What will we say after we lose?” It’s, “Can I – me, personally – get out of the building in one piece after losing Game 7?” and, “Is it possible to land a helicopter on the roof of the Wells Fargo Center?”
Once you start thinking that way, you’ve already spotted the other team a lead long before you get to the arena. And once you accept that you’ve done that, it only gets worse from there.