This was what the Sixers needed to see. These were the guys. This was the team.
There was Tobias Harris, squaring up in the corner before going baseline for a layup, power dribbling into the lane and jump-stopping for a floater, coasting down the right side of the lane and using his length to drop a layup off the glass. There was Josh Richardson, speeding around the court like a video-game animation with the turbo button jammed, attacking off the dribble, looking to shoot, flicking his arm into a passing lane on a Raptors fastbreak.
This was the first quarter of the penultimate game before the start of what most people assume will be their only playoff series. Ben Simmons was injured, Joel Embiid was a nonfactor, and the Sixers were leading the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed by 16 points. By the end of the night, the starters would be on the bench, and the Raptors would leave the court with a 125-121 win. But the Sixers would walk out with a much-needed jolt of momentum.
“We really tried to ... play downhill as best as we could,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “I thought [Harris and Richardson] did a great job of doing that. When you get into the playoffs, it’s inevitable that it’s a similar type of pressure, that type of harassing team defense that Toronto is ... exceptional at.”
Sure, this was a meaningless game as far as the standings were concerned. For the Raptors, a first-round date against the Nets has been a formality for a while now, while the Sixers learned shortly before tip-off that they would be squaring off against the Celtics as the East’s No. 6 seed (the clincher was a Pacers win on Wednesday). Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby did not suit up, and neither did their coach, as Nick Nurse decided to let assistant Adrian Griffin take the wheel for a night. Game 7, this was not.
It was, however, an opportunity, both for the Sixers and for those of us following their Disney adventure on TV. Things did not go according to plan during their first six games inside the bubble, from a bad loss against an undermanned Pacers team to the season-ending knee injury suffered by Simmons. With the exception of a few dominant flashes from Embiid, the Sixers looked a lot like the team we saw before the COVID-19 shutdown: uninspired and adrift, with an inexplicably porous defense. Once Simmons went down, it seemed difficult to concoct a scenario in which they’d reach the bar they’d set for themselves at the start of the season.
In that context, a game against the Raptors at least offered them a chance to inspire some belief, both for their fans and for themselves. If that sounds silly, let’s not forget what this team was supposed to be. Simmons was a big part of it, sure. But if Embiid really is the best big man in the game, as both he and his coach have suggested, and if Harris really was worth the price that the Sixers paid for him, in both assets and dollars, then there should be no reason to write them out of this postseason. After all, Toronto lost Kawhi Leonard and did not replace him, and they’ve spent most of the season looking like a championship contender. It was only two years ago that the Celtics beat the Sixers and came within a game of the NBA Finals despite playing without their All-Star point guard.
So, yeah, maybe it meant nothing. But the Sixers jumped out to a lead against one of their primary foes in the Eastern Conference and then they put together another three quarters of the exact kind of basketball that they are going to need if they are going to have any chance at pushing the Celtics to the brink.
They’re going to need Harris to play like a true primary scorer instead of a guy who doesn’t seem to know what his role is supposed to be. Against that Raptors, he did exactly that, scoring 22 points in 25 minutes on 8-of-13 shooting. He pushed the pace and he played downhill and he attacked the basket wherever an open angle happened to be.
They’re going to need Richardson to be active and assertive on both ends of the court instead of a guy who is just trying to fit in. Against the Raptors, that’s what he did. He only scored 10 points, but he looked to attack with the ball in his hands and he covered the court on defense like a man with limitless energy. By the time the Sixers’ starters checked out of the game for good, Harris and Richardson led the team in plus-minus at plus-10 and plus-8.
“With Ben being out, that’s a guy who contributes a whole lot offensively in the way he’s able to collapse defenses,” Harris said, “so I think everyone kind of has to shift themselves in a different way to contribute.”
Even more encouraging was the fact that Embiid was his usual quiet self against Raptors nemesis Marc Gasol. But given his performances against the Celtics during the regular season, Embiid should be a compelling reason not to count the Sixers out.
Of course, leopards don’t often lose their spots in the NBA postseason, especially when facing opponents that are coached by Brad Stevens. The Sixers have spent far too much time looking like a team going nowhere to suddenly think that this is the start of an awakening. For at least one night, though, they played a brand of basketball we’ve been waiting to see since they arrived at Disney. We spent five months suspending disbelief. Really, what’s another week?