I was ready to anoint Joel Embiid king of this city last week. Philadelphia isn’t much for kings, historically. But I was willing to make an exception the founders of the United States weren’t in the summer of 1776. The NBA Playoffs had started, and Joel Embiid had delivered.
The Sixers had a 3-0 lead against the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The third game was incredible. Embiid hit a three-pointer, off an inbounds pass, with 0.7 seconds to play in overtime to give the Sixers a 104-101 lead. It was a shot in the same arena where Kawhi Leonard beat the Sixers in Game 7 on a buzzer-beater and Embiid cried about it. The crowd had chanted “Fuck Embiid” earlier in the night. He hit the shot and reacted like a little kid celebrating. It ruled.
I watched it about 10 times that night and another 10 the next morning. I listened to the radio calls, heard the sad Toronto announcers, even maybe a Spanish-language one? I read everything I could about the game. I found an incredible stat. In The Athletic, Rich Hofmann noted that “Embiid is shooting 22 of 52 from 25-plus feet with less than four seconds left on the shot clock” this season. That’s 42 percent on … desperation threes! I said, out loud, several times: “This was the moment where he moved from star to superstar.” I compared it to the time LeBron scored 25 straight points. After a pair of blowouts in Philly and a thrilling win in Toronto, I was confident the Sixers were going to make a run this postseason. They’d win in four or five games in the first round and move on.
Good thing I didn’t write any of that down! Since then it has been revealed that Embiid has a torn ligament in his right thumb. The Sixers lost a close one in Toronto in Game 4, then got absolutely pasted out of the building back in Philly in Game 5. Embiid hasn’t been playing his best since the injury. Harden isn’t doing enough. Tonight’s Game 6 in Toronto has me terrified. I am convinced the Sixers are going to be the first NBA team to blow a 3-0 lead in a playoff series. Oddly enough Doc Rivers, who looked so smart after the Sixers whipped the Raptors on the backs of transition buckets in Games 1 and 2, also sounds like he thinks that way.
“I wish y’all would tell the whole story with me, all right?” he said, rattling off reasons why the three teams he’d coached to 3-1 series leads eventually lost those series. I especially like how he notes that his most recent loss in such a situation was indeed a choke, but also quickly absolves himself by adding that “anything can happen in the bubble.” I can only read one emotion into this quote: He sounds terrified.
That makes two of us. Local media seems terrified, too; the Inquirer ran a “Where would this collapse rank?” story yesterday. (I would have at least waited until before Game 7. But, ah, whatever.) Dreams of a Sixers title run, so fresh in my mind just a week ago, now seem silly. The Sixers have to get out of Canada first.