TORONTO — Three years ago, Kawhi Leonard ended the Philadelphia 76ers’ season with a last-second shot at Scotiabank Arena. On Wednesday night, Joel Embiid returned the favor.
A finalist for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award for a second straight season, Embiid had an MVP moment to close out Game 3 of this first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors by hitting a turnaround 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds to go in overtime to hand Philadelphia a 104-101 victory and a 3-0 lead in the series.
“Great playcall,” Embiid said. “Tobias [Harris] set an amazing screen. Danny [Green] had a great pass.
“So, all I had to do, really, was to finish it, and I’m glad I did.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the first time in Embiid’s career that he made a last-second shot to tie or win the game in the fourth quarter or overtime, having missed his first 14 attempts.
And he did it, apparently, while dealing with pain in his shooting hand. Embiid came to his news conference nearly two hours after the game ended following a lengthy treatment session, wearing a brace on his right hand and with what appeared to be tape on his right thumb underneath it.
“I don’t know exactly know what happened,” Embiid said. “But I just started feeling pain and think I might have twisted it. So we’re gonna see what’s going on [Thursday].”
Whatever it was, it didn’t stop Embiid from once again pummeling the Raptors into submission. After a terrible first half that saw him score five points and commit four turnovers, Embiid returned to the dominant force that terrorized the Raptors throughout the first two games of this series in Philadelphia.
“I didn’t get on him, but I got on him at halftime,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “Like, ‘You’re getting the ball in your spots.’
“You know, I think he keeps looking for double-teams instead of being aggressive. And I think that might have been a breakthrough for him in the third quarter. He didn’t care if they’re coming or not. He was going to be aggressive, and I thought that was good.”
The only thing anyone could focus on afterward, though, was Embiid’s ridiculous shot — one that he took from nearly the same spot he attempted what would have been a game-winning shot at the end of regulation, only for it to come up just short.
So when he got a second chance from that location, he was sure not to make the same mistake.
“I was so hype,” said Harris, who set the screen that opened up Embiid for the winner. “I mean, just heat of the moment in the game. The type of shot it was too. Real quick, turnaround, cash.
“I mean, we always say, like, he shoots some of those 3s in the game. They’re not like what many basketball people consider the greatest shots, but they always go in. So we go, for him that’s a high-percentage shot, really. Especially on that wing? I mean, we got the ball to our best player and somebody who makes plays, make shots. I think just the type of game he was having. From the start, first half to the second half … it’s just a perfect, perfect ending to that type of game, for real.”
The wildest part of all might have been that Embiid nearly didn’t get a chance to get the shot off at all. After OG Anunoby split a pair of free throws with 26.2 seconds remaining to tie the game, Philadelphia gave the ball to Embiid to try to win the game — just as the 76ers had done at the end of regulation. But when Precious Achiuwa — who missed two free throws that could have given Toronto the lead late in the fourth quarter — knocked the ball away from Embiid, it was only Rivers sprinting all the way down near Toronto’s bench to call a timeout that prevented a shot clock violation.
Instead, Embiid got an opportunity to deliver what, for all intents and purposes, is a knockout blow to the Raptors, who now find themselves in a hole no NBA team has ever come back from: down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series.
“It’s tough,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Got to think about this, but that’s about a tough a loss as I can remember here for my time. Obviously, if we pull that thing out, we got ourselves a series; and instead, you got yourself a really, really deep hole to dig out of.”
It was one that Toronto will certainly look back on with regret. The Raptors forced Philadelphia into 24 turnovers (which became 27 Raptors points). They got another big performance from Anunoby (26 points) as well as 24 from Gary Trent Jr., who finally looked like himself after dealing with a non-COVID-19 illness for the first two games of the series.
The Raptors took 12 more shots than the 76ers and mostly kept Philadelphia off the foul line. But after dominating the first half, Toronto led by only 10 points, thanks to some strong play from 76ers guard James Harden, who finished with 19 points, six rebounds and 10 assists in 38 minutes before fouling out late in regulation.
That allowed Philadelphia to hang around until Embiid took over in the third quarter, when he nearly outscored Toronto by himself, with the Raptors scoring 19 and Embiid putting up 18 of Philly’s 28.
That, however, was just a prelude to his end-of-game heroics.
“I mean, I knew the ball was going to him,” Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey said. “And when he caught it … I don’t know, man. I have nothing to say. That was crazy, man. Joel … Joel is Joel.”
Wednesday’s contest was the first playoff game at Scotiabank Arena since Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, the penultimate game of that series that saw Toronto win its lone championship. A few weeks earlier, Leonard’s shot had sent Philadelphia home in heartbreaking fashion in the second round of that postseason.
Harris said he and Embiid, as the two main holdovers from that 2019 team, have talked about the significance of beating Toronto and winning in this building.
But Embiid, while admitting it felt good to beat the Raptors and to hit his first game-winning shot, said his focus isn’t on achieving a measure of revenge. Instead, it’s on what he didn’t do in that series or in any of his other three trips to the playoffs in his career: making it out of the second round.
“No. It’s only the first round,” he said, when asked whether this series has any extra meaning. “You know, once I get past the second round? Yeah, I can start feeling that way. And then, you start thinking about, you know, what was to come next after the second round and, you know, conference finals and, obviously, NBA Finals and winning the whole thing.
“I haven’t really thought about what happened three years ago. Obviously, the shot makes me feel good about what kind of happened. But during this whole series, I haven’t really thought about, you know, coming in here and trying to get my revenge. I think I’m more focused about trying to win the whole thing, one game at a time and trying to do whatever is necessary to get us there.”
The next step, Embiid said, is winning Game 4 on Saturday. And as he walked off the court, he was chatting with Canadian rapper Drake, who was in his courtside seat chirping at Embiid and the 76ers throughout the game.
It was a good-natured conversation, but Embiid made no secret about his desire to end this series Saturday afternoon.
“Obviously, he’s always talking,” Embiid said. “But of course, I had to let him know, you know, obviously, we’re trying to get Game 4 and go for the sweep.”