It was nearly three years ago that Kawhi Leonard sank a shot that silenced an entire City. A lot has changed since then, and the Sixers have had many of their own Demons to overcome before coming face to face with the one that haunts them the most. Joel Embiid stood toe-to-toe with that entity last night and poetically fired back with a remarkable shot of his own, further cementing his case as the most dominant player in the NBA.
To say that the Raptors going on to win it all after Kawhi’s corner-3 lives trent free would probably be an understatement. Not many will want to admit it, but how many fleeting thoughts of what would’ve happened had the Sixers won that game, have passed through your mind amidst the whirlwind that has been the past 24 months of Sixers basketball. Would the Ben Simmons saga have ended differently? Would Jimmy Butler still be on the team? Would Embiid have won an MVP? Would the Sixers have won a championship?
None of that matters now. But nearly three years later, after all the grapes in the vineyard had soured, the two teams clashed again. Many had questions about Doc Rivers going into the series. His decision-making and love of all-bench units made fans everywhere grit their teeth during the regular season and it looked as though those trends would carry over into the playoffs.
They didn’t. The Sixers jumped out to a two-game lead in dominant fashion. James Harden’s evolved selflessness helped elevate Tyrese Maxey to an entirely new level, and Joel Embiid’s reign of terror was simply too much for Toronto to contain. Nick Nurse would rather hack and slash the big man, sending him to the line, than endure the damage he can cause in the paint.
The first game in Toronto, game 3 of 7 was always going to be a big one. Toronto had their backs to the wall and the Sixers were to be without Matisse Thybulle due to his vaccination status. The Sixers, despite winning the opening two games by a combined 33 points, were almost expected to at least endure a closer contest…and endure they did.
In what was one of the most intense games in recent memory, the two sides traded blows all night long. Explosive dunks off pick-and-rolls by the Sixers were refuted with a career-night from Gary Trent. A Joel Embiid masterclass was being desperately contained by Anunoby and Achuiwa, but the attempts failed. Whatever Toronto did, be it switching things up schematically, fouling constantly, or trying to lean on Spicy P to bring the heat, ultimately failed.
Nearly 3 years ago, Kawhi Leonard had 38 points before pulling off one of the most iconic shots of the past decade. The first buzzer-beater in a game 7 in league history needs no further explanation, as memories of the ball bouncing…and bouncing…and bouncing before finally deciding to drop are all too vivid.
But last night, Joel Embiid had his moment. With 30 points to his name and all of them seeming to come in more eyebrow-raising fashion than the last, Embiid stood patiently. There were 0.8 seconds left on the game clock when the euphoric center was able to receive the in-bounding pass, turn away from three-point range, and beat the buzzer to lift the Sixers to a 3-0 lead.
It wasn’t as symbolic as Kawhi’s shot. It wasn’t a game-7 buzzer beater. But after a year of being overlooked and frankly disrespected when it pertains to the MVP race, after the Atlanta playoff series, the Ben Simmons saga, the bumpy road to the playoffs, that shot may have been just as vindicating.
Three years after suffering heartbreak, the Sixers could deliver a dagger of their own. It might not have been the soul-crushing extent of what they suffered in that game-7, but to finally be able to get one back against the Raptors, to knock the wind out of their sails and take a three-game lead in this series? I’d argue that a sweep would be the cherry on the cake of what has been a delicious dish of revenge.
Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire