Disaster was knocking on the door of the Philadelphia 76ers at halftime of Game 6 in their first round series with the Toronto Raptors.
A week ago, the Sixers were well on their way to a sweep after winning the first three games versus the Raptors–the first two of which were blowouts. Philadelphia’s star center Joel Embiid suffered a thumb injury early in Game 3 and though they managed to survive with an overtime win, that marked a turning point in the complexion of their match-up.
Pascal Siakam carried Toronto to two consecutive victories that brought the best-of-seven to 3-2 as they threatened to become the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-0 lead. Come Game 6, the 28-year-old forward continued to be a thorn in the Sixers’ side as he put up 18 points in the first half.
The Raptors erased a seven-point Philadelphia lead from earlier in the second quarter and trailed by just a point, 62-61, by halftime. They had momentum on their side and had their raucous home crowd at the Scotiabank Arena behind them. The ingredients were all there for Toronto to force a seventh game and prolong the Sixers’ nightmare, but that was as close as they would go for the rest of the evening.
Philadelphia snapped out of its trance and came out of the dugout with a backbreaking third quarter run. The entire Sixers team was suddenly firing on all cylinders and they finally looked like the same group that was galvanized during the first few games following James Harden’s midseason arrival.
Tyrese Maxey was particularly brilliant as he scored 15 of his 25 points during that stretch to turn their one-point lead into a 99-78 advantage coming into the final period. Philadelphia then cruised to a 132-97 win and averted what could have been a disastrous end to their already tumultuous season.
Harden wound up with 22 points, six rebounds, and 15 assists, all of which were series-high numbers for him. The 32-year-old guard seemed to have at last rediscovered his Most Valuable Player form and he played with a fire that has seldom been seen since he suffered a hamstring injury late last season.
Embiid, although clearly still bothered by the thumb injury, poured in 33 points, 10 rebounds, two steals, and two blocks. His midrange arsenal was on full display throughout the game and even two defenders were not enough to slow him down.
He celebrated the win with his signature theatrics late in the fourth quarter, yet it seemed to be more a sigh of relief rather than his usual taunts given the mounting pressure in the build up to this victory.
Unfortunately, Embiid also suffered an orbital fracture and mild concussion late in the game and it was recently revealed that he will be out indefinitely. In his absence, Maxey and Tobias Harris will have to continue their strong play in the first round and step into bigger roles in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Harris chipped in with 19 points and 11 rebounds to cap off a series where his consistent play was routinely overlooked by his more flamboyant teammates. While Harris may not always get the credit that he deserves, his ability to sustain these high level contributions will be key for the Sixers’ title hopes.
Together with Maxey, Harris must capitalize on the opportunities given to him by opposing defenses when they collapse on Harden. He will play an even more crucial role in their upcoming second round match-up with the Miami Heat sans Embiid and whether or not he is ready for the moment may decide the outcome of the series.
Without Embiid, Harden will need to turn back the clock by a couple of years to give Philadelphia a chance in the series. Maxey and Harris will have the perfect opportunity to step up in front of a national audience and have to try to match the production of Miami’s stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
The outsized personalities involved in this upcoming series, both on the court and sidelines, promise to make this a memorable one. This is an acid test for the Sixers and their title hopes, the outcome of which could potentially dictate their franchise’s direction moving forward.
Even if they do wind up falling to the Heat, a valiant performance, especially if Embiid does not suit up, may convince their front office to keep this “win-now” group together. Otherwise, another roller coaster offseason might be on the horizon for this colorful Sixers team.