Just about everyone had a grand time at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night, the 76ers most of all. Their head coach, Brett Brown, spoke before Game 5 of being nervous, claiming that, even though his team held a 3-1 lead in this first-round series, he would have no sense of calm until the Sixers finished off the Brooklyn Nets.
Then the game began, and the Sixers scored the first 14 points and 23 of the first 25, and Joel Embiid was getting anywhere he wanted on the floor and had 10 points and five rebounds over the first 5 ½ minutes. Over that same period, the Nets missed all eight of their shots and committed four turnovers and generally looked as if they couldn’t wait to get the bus home in time for the next Half Price Endive Night at the Park Slope Food Coop. Kenny Atkinson, their coach, had said that his team would “play like lions” in Game 5, but no one knew he meant Detroit. Sometimes a contest’s final score can be deceiving; this one — 122-100 — wasn’t.
The sense of calm Brown had sought spread over everybody pretty quickly, and so the Sixers and their fans could rejoice and did. Boos drenched Jared Dudley, the series’ antagonist, every time he touched the ball. Embiid and Ben Simmons hammered down thunderclap dunks. Jimmy Butler guarded with fervor, diving for loose balls with the Sixers’ up by 25, as if he were back to being that late-first-round draft pick fighting to show not only that he belonged in the NBA, but that he could be a star. Boban Marjanovic dunked without jumping, as if he were a dad standing in front of a Nerf hoop and the Nets were just kids from the neighborhood.
Late in the first half, the arena’s video board played a famous clip from Jurassic Park: the terrifying sequence in which a cow is lowered into a raptor cage, and the predators tear poor Bessie to pieces. It was a not-so-subtle reference to the Sixers’ next opponent in this postseason tournament, the Toronto Raptors, and it was a worthwhile reminder of what the Sixers and everyone else ought to take away from the fun and frolicking they enjoyed during Game 5: absolutely nothing.
While the party thumped here, the Raptors were having an easy time of their own Game 5 up in Scotiabank Arena, against the Orlando Magic: 115-96. They will be the Sixers’ opponent in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and, make no mistake: The Raptors aren’t better than just the Nets. They’re better than the Sixers, too. They won more games (58 to 51) and will have homecourt advantage in this series. They’re more experienced. And they’re deeper, especially if the bruised right foot that forced Mike Scott to leave Tuesday’s game keeps him out of the lineup.
In so many ways, the Nets had to try to gimmick their way to beating the Sixers. They had to hope D’Angelo Russell’s habit of scurrying to the three-point arc and chucking up 24-footers would overcome the Sixers’ substantial advantage in talent, and they had to hope Dudley could goad Embiid and Simmons into mistakes and frustration and dumb play. After the Sixers’ sleepy performance in their Game 1 loss, the strategy didn’t work. But it did succeed in giving the Sixers — particularly their young cornerstones, Embiid and Simmons — a refresher course in the edgy, bumper-car basketball that characterizes the postseason.
“Click on any game; that’s what you’re getting,” Brown said. “It’s the NBA playoffs. I want these guys to go play. Nobody’s coming out here walking on eggshells or playing afraid or coaching scared. We’re not doing that at all. But there’s a surrounding net that you can get caught in if you’re not aware of things that could take place. But in relation to chippiness and all that, it’s kind of the way we’d want it, no? It’s the NBA playoffs. It’s just a matter now of handling that with a level of maturity.”
Embiid and Simmons didn’t carry out that task perfectly. Their chuckles after Game 2 over Embiid’s wicked elbow to Jarrett Allen set the stage for the brawl in Game 4 and the four ejections late in Game 5. But the Raptors can do more than merely annoy the Sixers. They already have that measure of maturity, and their best players are polished and skilled and experienced: Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Danny Green.