The Sixers and Raptors are set for an Eastern conference semifinals clash after seeing off the Nets and Magic respectively on Tuesday.
So here the 76ers are again, in the second round of the playoffs, after dispatching an overmatched first-round opponent in five games. The expectations are different this time, however. And the Sixers are better prepared to handle them.
They can thank the Brooklyn Nets for that. The Sixers dispatched the Nets with unexpected ease Tuesday night in Game 5, winning 122-100 to close out their first-round series.
The Sixers will face the Toronto Raptors, who closed out their series in Game 5 with a 115-96 win over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday. That series will start in Toronto, most likely this weekend.
The Nets got the Sixers ready for this series. That began in Game 1, when the Nets embarrassed the Sixers both on the court and off.
Yet the Sixers learned, they grew, and then they dominated.
And when the Sixers had the chance to close out the series, they didn’t waste any time. They scored the first 14 points of the game, and led 30-6 with two minutes left in the first quarter.
By the early part of the third quarter, the Sixers led by 39 points. Embiid finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds in just 20 minutes, sitting out the entire fourth quarter and most of the third.
Before the game, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said, “My guess is we come out fighting like lions because that’s what we’ve done all year.”
So much for that.
Give the Sixers credit. In just 10 days, they learned a lot about taking their game to new levels in the playoffs. Give the Nets credit, too, because they forced the Sixers to do this in order to advance.
Yes, you can make the argument that the Sixers should have known this after their playoff experience last year, when they were beaten in the second round in five games by the Boston Celtics.
Yet the Sixers were a much different team from last season. They had two new starters, a new cast of bench players, and the constant wonder about whether Embiid’s knee would enable him to play.
Sixers coach Brett Brown didn’t know until just before game time in each game whether Embiid would play. And in Game 3, Embiid didn’t. The Sixers won anyway.
It takes time for a team to mesh on the fly, and really, the Sixers didn’t have much of it as Embiid sat out 14 of the last 24 regular-season games with his sore knee.
And then the Nets beat the Sixers in Game 1. The Sixers needed to grow up, and fast.
Yet there was Amir Johnson looking at his cellphone on the bench late in the Game 1 loss. There was Embiid laughing about his hard foul on the Nets’ Jarrett Allen after Game 2.
But the Sixers won Game 3 without Embiid after Ben Simmons led the way. They kept their poise through a Game 4 when Jared Dudley tried to get Embiid involved in a fight. Embiid wouldn’t acquiesce. And soon after, the Sixers put the Nets away for good.
“The noise surrounding this series is head-scratching to me,” Brown said. “I’ve been in a lot of series, and there is nothing that beats this in relation to the volume of discussion about many different things … Now you arrive at a close-out game.
“Our ability to look through mist, not get distracted by the noise, not get baited into anything, is crucial.”
That was no longer an issue against the Nets.
The Raptors, who finished with the second best record in the NBA, will be a different challenge.
Toronto finished with the second best record in the NBA. The Raptors have Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and a budding star in Pascal Siakam.
And the Sixers still don’t know from one game to the next if Embiid will play. And if he does, how long he can play, or how effectively.
The Nets certainly couldn’t match up against him. But the Raptors have 7-foot-1 center Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka, and it won’t be as easy as it was against overmatched Nets big men in Allen, Dudley (booed incessantly every time he touched the ball) and anyone else the Nets tried.
“Obviously he’s one of the best players in the league and he just draws so much attention with your defense,” Atkinson said. “Where I don’t think he gets enough credit is on the defensive end. His rim protection is elite. He’s really cagey in there, he understands when to go for the blocked shot and when not.
“One of the regrets so far in this series is not taking advantage of when he was out. That’s a credit to the Sixers and Greg Monroe and them playing a different style when he was out. I think that caught us off guard how up tempo they were.”
That won’t catch the Raptors off guard.
Now the playoffs begin in earnest for the Sixers. The Nets helped get them ready for it.
Raptors are onto the conference semifinals with 115-96 rout of Orlando
The Toronto Raptors dispatched the Orlando Magic in record time, checking the first box of what the team hopes is a long playoff run.
Kawhi Leonard scored 27 points as Toronto throttled Orlando 115-96 on Tuesday, winning an opening-round playoff series in five games for the first time in franchise history.
Toronto will face the winner of the Philadelphia and Brooklyn series. The Sixers took a 3-1 lead into Tuesday’s game.
Pascal Siakam scored 24 points for the Raptors, who led by as many as 37 points in the dying minutes. Kyle Lowry had 12 of his 14 points in the first quarter and doled out nine assists, Norman Powell chipped in with 11 points and Serge Ibaka finished with 10.
D.J. Augustin led Orlando with 15 points.
Lowry and the Raptors clearly had no interest in flying back to Orlando for a Game 6. Coming off a pair of victories on the Magic’s Amway Center court, Lowry scored the team’s first nine points and the Raptors pounced on the overmatched Magic from the opening tip. The Magic were virtual spectators as Toronto sprinted to a 24-point lead late in the first quarter. The team’s 19 assists on 23 made field goals in the first half was a post-season franchise record.
Orlando, which was making its first post-season appearance in seven years, missed its first 11 three-point attempts before Evan Fournier finally connected more than four minutes into the second quarter.
The Raptors led by 31 points in the third and cruised into the fourth up 99-70 in front a soldout Scotiabank Arena crowd of 19,800 fans that included Toronto rapper Drake — putting a dent in the “Drake curse” theory.
The crowd serenaded Leonard with chants of “M-V-P!” when the Raptors star was subbed out of the game with just under eight minutes to play.
Coach Nick Nurse went deep into his bench the rest of the way.
Lowry and Fred VanVleet (with 10) combined for 19 assists, as the Raptors had 34 assists to Orlando’s 20. Toronto also held Orlando to 26.5 per cent shooting from three-point range.
Nurse said the key to Tuesday’s game was to lock down on the defensive end from the get-go.
“I think the main emphasis tonight is to try to do it over the course of the 48 minutes,” he said.
On a big night for Toronto sports, the Maple Leafs were facing Boston in a do-or-die game. The score was periodically flashed on the Jumbotron, and most of the TV screens on the concourse were dialled into the Leafs game.
With big dreams of reaching the NBA Finals, the Raptors now have a precious few days of breathing room — and one less trip to Orlando — until the Eastern Conference semifinals begin this weekend. And with a roster rife with injuries, plus Leonard’s load management, in the regular-season, they could use it.
In Toronto’s most successful post-season in 2016, the Raptors needed seven games to knock off both Indiana and Miami before facing a rested LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference final.
Orlando upset Toronto to win the opener before the Raptors roared back to capture the next three, including a pair of victories at Orlando’s Amway Center.
Lowry, who’d taken grief for scoring zero points in Game 1, could barely miss in the first quarter on Tuesday, shooting an efficient 5-for-6 from the field. The Raptors shot 63 per cent from three-point range, while Orlando missed all seven of their long-range attempt. Toronto led 35-19 to start the second.
The Magic made a run against Toronto’s bench to pull to within 11 points early in the second, but it was shortlived, and the Raptors took a 67-47 advantage into the halftime break.
Toronto will host Games 1 and 2 of the next round.
Image: Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts after making a three-point shot against the Brooklyn Nets during the second quarter in game five of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center.