They might not win a championship this year. They might not even come close. But the 76ers are showing championship DNA. You punch them in the mouth? They smile, they show their bloody teeth, and then they break your jaw.
Toronto coach Nick Nurse and his dwindling cast of WWE goons set a tone of whining physicality as Game 2 of their first-round playoff series continued in Philadelphia. They hacked, they bodied, they sent Sixers flying, but if the Vince McMahon of the North thought that the Sixers would be knocked off their mark by a few hard fouls, he was mistaken. Joel Embiid and his Sixers took it all, gave it back in spades, won by 15, and headed to Canada with a 2-0 series lead.
“He let it be known that we’re not going to take the bullying. We’re not going to take the b.s.,” said Danny Green, who knows all about the challenge of champions, since he’s been one three times,. “Let it be known we’re not going to be punked out here.”
The teams reconvene Wednesday in Toronto. Consider it Round 3.
“The first game was more like featherweights,” said Sixers coach Doc Rivers. “Today was more like heavyweights.”
We know who was Mike Tyson, and we know who was Trevor Berbick.
Don’t start no stuff ...
It began when beefy OG Anunoby baited Joel Embiid into a double-technical altercation less than 90 seconds into the contest. Embiid saw it coming.
“I wanted us to set that tone,” he said. “That’s why I picked up that early technical foul. I knew that was their game plan. I wanted to make sure I was the one to show the physicality.”
This smelled like a reprise of Game 1, a blowout Sixers win that featured a flagrant foul by each team. It did not disappoint, and, as happened Saturday, the home team won the wrestling match. The Sixers got 30 free throws, and made 26. The Raptors had 12, made 10.
A few minutes later, Pascal Siakam flung his 230 pounds of speeding mass into Embiid’s airborne body, with intent and malice. Embiid crashed to the floor. Officials reviewed the incident and determined the malice insufficient for flagrancy.
It was sufficient, however, to enrage and awaken Embiid. He twice converted and-one three-point-plays, and screamed at the crowd like a gladiator. He finished the quarter — the quarter — with 19 points.
Rivers loved it. He’d told him during the Sixers’ timeout midway through the first, “Be dominant.”
Message received. By the whole team.
“Yeah, there were a couple of times where I thought a couple of our guys got fouled,” Rivers said. “But instead of complaining, they got back on defense and kept playing.”
“We didn’t panic,” Embiid said. “We just kept attacking.”
Pain came calling again in the last minute of the half, when a hard foul on teammate James Harden precipitated a four-man pileup and left Embiid massaging his left ankle, which, he said, he twisted. He remained in the game, got the next rebound — he finished with 11 — but limped downcourt and just watched the last offensive possession. He emerged from the locker room refocused. He started the third with an alley-oop dunk and finished it with a last-second three-pointer to beat the shot clock, and finished with 31 in the game. He also got his right elbow wedged between two players. It didn’t faze him.
He wasn’t the only warrior.
Late in the third quarter, the city’s other basketball hero, Tyrese Maxey, banged his left funny bone on a drive. He lay on the floor as a chant rose of “Max-ey! Max-ey!”
He got up, soon hit a runner and a step-back three-pointer, then drained a three to squelch the Raptors’ fourth-quarter run with 6 minutes, 8 seconds to play in the game. Maxey, who had 38 in Game 1, scored 23.
Nurse had spent the previous day-and-a-half pointing to his officials’ shortcomings, particularly as they pertained to the nature of Embiid’s punishing post game. He said that Embiid should be called for offensive fouls against the Raptors’ pristine defensive strategies and execution.
“I hope that they’ve got enough guts to at least stop the game and look at that stuff tonight,” Nurse said before the game.
He got his way, a little. Embiid got called for two offensive fouls -- fouls that, Embiid said, were committed to send a message.
It didn’t really matter. The Raptors were outclassed, out-hustled, and, ultimately, bullied out of the country.
And that’s exactly what champions do.