A couple of dreadful minutes showed just how lost the Toronto Raptors are without Kawhi Leonard.
The Raptors star had 14 of his 33 points in a perfect third quarter to pull Toronto to within seven points, breathing some promise into an otherwise horrible night.
But in the two-and-a-half minutes Leonard took a breather on the bench to start the fourth quarter, the Raptors melted. A seven-point deficit exploded to 16 points. It was all but game over.
Once again, Leonard couldn’t do it alone and the Raptors dropped an ugly 116-95 decision to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers take a 2-1 lead into Sunday’s Game 4 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.
“We’ve got to help him. We’ve got to help him,” Kyle Lowry said in the Raptors’ sombre post-game locker-room. “Myself especially, I’ve got to help him score more. I’ve got to help him on the floor. We’ve all got to help him. He’s playing unbelievable right now.
“We’re not giving him any help. Me, I’m not giving him any help. We’ve got to help him.”
Joel Embiid had 33 points and 10 rebounds to top the Sixers, while Jimmy Butler added 22.
Leonard, who was acquired in an off-season trade specifically for a long post-season run, has been as advertised, scoring 113 through this series’ three games.
Pascal Siakam added 20 points for the Raptors, who looked nothing like the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Danny Green added 13 points. But for the second consecutive game, the rest of the Raptors failed to show up. Marc Gasol and Lowry had seven points apiece.
The rest of the roster totalled 15 points. Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet were a combined 4-for-23 shooting.
But the Raptors weren’t only undone by poor shooting.
“I think we got out-played in just about every area we could get out-played. In overall physicality, energy, cutting, rebounding, passing, all that kind of stuff,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We got thoroughly out-played and it’s been a while, it’s been a while since you’ve seen this team play this way.”
The Raptors never led, and were thoroughly dominated by a home team buoyed by a noisy Wells Fargo Center crowd.
Toronto trailed by 14 points in the first half and had dug itself an 18-point hole midway through the third quarter. Leonard was a perfect 6-for-6 in the quarter, and a running dunk by Siakam capped a 15-8 Raptors run that pulled Toronto to within eight points. Toronto trailed 89-81 with one quarter to play.
But the Raptors blew up with Leonard on the bench, and when Butler scored on a dunk — to a massive roar from a Wells Fargo Center crowd that never sat down through the final 12 minutes — it put the Sixers back up by 18 points with nine minutes to play.
What adjustments can Nurse make for Game 4?
“I think the first adjustment we’re going to have to make is we’re going to have to play a helluva lot harder and play a helluva lot more physical,” he said. “If we don’t do that, the prettiest things we decide to do offensively won’t matter.”
The game got ugly down the stretch and when Embiid scored on a one-handed dunk with just over five minutes to play, he put a hand to his ear to prompt the crowd to cheer louder. They needed little prompting. The play gave the Sixers a 26-point lead, their biggest of the game.
Both teams went deep into their bench soon after.
Whether it was rocking a mock baby, or jiggling his shoulders, Embiid seemed to have a celebratory move for every basket down the stretch. The Philly crowd ate it up.
“I need it. When I have fun, my game just changes,” he said. “I’m always told that if I don’t smile during the game that I’m either having a bad game or I’m not into it. I know that to get my game going, I have to have fun on the court. At the same time I got to make plays, but that part of the theatrics, it has to happen for me.
“The game is more fun that way. You can see it lifts my teammates and we all do a good job.”
While all the talk in Philly has been about how this series is the biggest the city’s team has played in years, Sixers coach Brett Brown predicted his players wouldn’t be affected by the hype.
“I trust our guys. They’re not sort of caught up in the moment. I think that it’s a launching pad,” Brown said pre-game. “We have a loud arena, by all standards. This place goes. And we love it, we love it.
“[The game] will go where it goes, but I don’t think the moment will drown any of us.”
He was right.
The Raptors opened the series with a dominant 108-95 win over Philly, but had a horrible shooting night in a 94-89 Game 2 loss on Monday.
One play early on characterized the scrappy night. Ben Simmons and Lowry got tangled up under the net and as Lowry turned to head upcourt he took an elbow to the groin from the Sixers guard, which went unnoticed by officials but was obvious on TV replays.
Early in the fourth and with the Sixers making a run, Siakam fell under the basket then shot a leg out and tripped Embiid.
The Raptors went 26-15 on the road in the regular season. One of those wins was a 119-107 victory in Philadelphia. Toronto went 3-1 against Philly in the regular season, the Sixers’ only victory coming against a lineup that didn’t include Leonard.
These two teams met once before in the post-season. The Sixers dispatched Toronto in seven games in the Eastern Conference semis after Vince Carter’s jumper at the buzzer bounced off the rim. Retired Philly star Allen Iverson sat courtside at Thursday night’s game. He was introduced after a video montage of his 2001 battles with Carter.
Among the other stars on hand: rapper Meek Mill, Flyers and former Maple Leafs winger James van Reimsdyk, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Zach Ertz, DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery.
Philadelphia led from the outset, going up by seven midway through the first quarter. Green was a perfect 3-for-3 from three-point range in quarter, his third one cutting Philly’s lead to two points. The Sixers led 32-29 to start the second.
The Sixers dominated the second quarter and when former Raptor Greg Monroe stole the ball from Leonard, Simmons passed the ball off to Butler for a demoralizing dunk. Philly took a 64-53 lead into the halftime break.
The series returns to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday.