TORONTO — After viewing film several times of the blowout Game 1 loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals, 76ers coach Brett Brown said he was good to go.
“Like I really feel that we can come in and be better than we were the first game,” he said.
He was right.
Brown made the proper adjustments in a much-needed 94-89 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Monday night at Scotiabank Arena in Game 2 of their best-of-seven series. Game 3 is scheduled for 8 p.m. Thursday back in Philadelphia.
In that first game, Kawhi Leonard (45 points) and Pascal Siakam (29) torched the Sixers for a combined 74 points. So this time, Ben Simmons was the primary defender on Leonard while Joel Embiid drew Siakam. Greg Monroe replaced Boban Marjanovic as the backup center in another adjustment, and the Sixers reduced their rotation.
Those moves combined with Jimmy Butler’s huge performance enabled the Sixers to get a rare victory in Toronto.
“That was James Butler. Like that was the adult in the gym,” Brown said of Butler, who finished with 30 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, and a block.
The swingman made 9 of 22 shots - including going 4-for-10 on three-pointers - to erase memories of his subpar Game 1 performance. Butler scored 12 of his points in the fourth quarter Monday.
“I get excited with the volume of threes that he sought as much as anything,” Brown said. “He was just a tremendous sort of rock. He willed us to a lot of different situations.”
Butler kind of downplayed his performance. The eighth-year veteran said he just happened to make a couple of shots.
“Everybody told me to come out aggressive, shoot the shots that were there,” Butler said. “I think I passed the ball when I wasn’t open, maybe a little bit later, as some people may say.
"But all-in-all man, we guarded. I think that’s the reason that we won.”
This victory marked the Sixers’ first win here since a 93-83 win on Nov. 10, 2012. They had lost 14 straight games in Toronto. The Raptors had also won 22 of 25 overall dating back to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Embiid finished with 12 points on just 2-for-7 shooting to go with six rebounds, five assists, and six turnovers. The All-Star had been a game-time decision because of gastroenteritis. The ailment caused him to miss the morning’s team shootaround at the arena.
But he had a huge play with 24.3 seconds remaining. His hook-bank shot put the Sixers up, 92-89.
Danny Green missed a three-pointer on the ensuing possession. Tobias Harris grabbed the defensive rebound and was fouled. The power forward made a pair of foul shots with 3.8 seconds left, giving the Sixers a five-point victory.
Leonard had another strong performance for the Raptors, finishing with a game-high 35 points. He is averaging 40 points in the series.
But the Sixers will live with production since they won.
Since the 1970-71 season, only four teams out of 106 have won a best-of-seven conference semifinal after losing the first two games. The victorious: San Antonio Spurs (2008), Los Angeles Lakers (2004) and Houston Rockets (1994 and 1995).
The Sixers lost the first two to the Boston Celtics last season. The Celtics ended up winning in five games.
So there was a sense of urgency.
“You want to try to steal one on the road and go back to the crib 1-1," Butler said after the shootaround.
The Sixers watched game film and discussed the scouting report.
“Yes, we want to win,” Butler added. "We don’t want to go down 0-2. We didn’t want to go down 0-1.
“That’s is how the game ends sometimes. We will be OK and just have to lock in and do what we are supposed to do.”
The Sixers were also focused on getting back to playing with more joy. That’s what they did while winning the opening-round series against the Brooklyn Nets in five games. They wanted to have fun, make defensive stops, and play up-tempo.
The Sixers were without reserve Mike Scott for the second consecutive game. The power forward is sidelined with a bruised heel and plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
With Simmons and Embiid exerting a lot of energy drawing the tough defensive assignments, Butler and Harris were able to be more aggressive. As a result, they did what the Sixers needed offensively early on.
Butler (six points) and Harris (five) helped the Sixers take a four-point advantage with 4 minutes, 1 second left in the first quarter. Philly went on to lead, 26-17, after the period, thanks in large part to the Raptors’ shooting just 7-for-24.
Leonard and Siakam had 17 points apiece in the first quarter of Game 1. In Monday’s opening quarter, they combined for nine. Siakam had five on 2-for-6 shooting, while Leonard added four while making 2 of 3 shots.
Leonard added nine points in the second quarter. But Siakam continued to struggle, scoring two points of 1-for-5 shooting. He ended up finishing with 21 points on 9-for-25 shooting.
“You have a hunch," Brown said of Embiid’s guarding him. “You hope it works well. We tasted some success with Joel on Giannis [Antetokounmpo] in our Milwaukee series. We felt there were some similarities there.”
Embiid said that Antetokoumpo and Siakam are both long athletes who can run the floor and push the ball in transition. But he pointed out that Siakam shoots a low percentage at the top of the key.
“So the goal was to make him drive," Embiid said, "make him go left and I think [we] did a good job today.”
Siakam wasn’t the only Raptor who missed shots.
Toronto shot just 36.3 percent overall and made 10 of 37 three-pointers.
The Sixers, who had an early 19-point cushion, led 51-38 at the half. That’s not bad considering Embiid had four points, three rebounds, four assists, and four turnovers in the first two quarters. He didn’t attempt his first shot until 8:39 left in the half.
Reserve James Ennis was the Sixers’ second-leading scorer with 13 points.
Monroe (10 points, 5rebounds, 1 block) left the game in the third quarter with a left-ankle sprain. As a result, Marjanovic and Amir Johnson both saw action.