TORONTO – The last time the Raptors and Sixers battled in the post-season at Scotiabank Arena, the game was decided by a buzzer-beater and Joel Embiid trudged off the floor in tears.
Embiid turned the tables on Wednesday, scoring a dagger three-pointer with 0.8 seconds left in overtime to lift his 76ers 104-101 over Toronto in a loss Raptors coach Nick Nurse called perhaps the toughest of his career.
And now the Raptors trail Philadelphia 3-0 in the best-of-seven first-round playoff series — a deficit no NBA team in history has ever overcome.
“It’s tough,” Nurse said. “Obviously if we pull that thing out, we’ve got ourselves a series and instead, you’ve got yourself a really, really deep hole to dig out of.”
Three years after Kawhi Leonard’s memorable buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals eliminated the Sixers, the Philadelphia big man finished with 33 points and 13 rebounds to spoil the first Raptors playoff action in Toronto since that 2019 championship run.
On his way off the court, Embiid told Drake, “I’m coming for the sweep too.” Game 4 is Saturday.
“It felt great,” Embiid said of the win. “Obviously we know what happened a couple of years ago, I just knew coming in it’s always a tough place to play at, especially in the playoffs, they’ve got great fans, really loud.
“I knew coming into Toronto I was definitely going to be the bad guy. It felt great, but the job … job’s not done.”
OG Anunoby had 26 points to lead the Raptors, who led by as many as 17 points and never trailed until overtime. Gary Trent Jr., scored a career playoff high 24 points despite fighting an illness the past week.
Precious Achiuwa chipped in with 20 points for the Raptors, who were missing NBA rookie of the year finalist Scottie Barnes for the second straight game. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet both had off nights, with just 12 points apiece. VanVleet shot 3-for-13, going 2-for-10 from three-point range.
“It’s tough for sure,” VanVleet said of the loss. “Got to stand up, look ourselves in the mirror, get some rest, recover and go lace ’em up again. You can’t really cry about it. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.”
The Raptors raced out to an early 17-point lead, shooting 52.4 per cent and pestering the Sixers into 15 turnovers in the first half.
But the Raptors went flat in the third quarter, shooting just 1-for-7 from behind the arc, and when Embiid connected on a free throw with 5.5 seconds left in the frame, the Sixers had pulled to within 75-74 with one quarter to play.
Neither team led by more than three points in a hard-fought fourth quarter before VanVleet found Anunoby in the corner for a long bomb, and Achiuwa scored on a putback for a five-point cushion with two minutes to play.
Harden’s free throw with 49.7 seconds left tied the game. The former NBA MVP fouled out of the game 20 seconds later, cheered off the floor by the raucous crowd.
Achiuwa missed a pair of free throws with 27.2 seconds left, and the game headed to OT tied at 95-95.
“It’s a learning experience, and I’m just looking forward to moving on from here and getting better from the experience, really,” Achiuwa said on the missed free throws that spoiled an excellent 9-for-11 shooting performance.
In the extra period, Anunoby hit a clutch basket as the shot clock sounded for a one-point lead with 2:58 to play, but Embiid replied to put Philadelphia back up. Embiid fouled Anunoby with 26.2 seconds left, and scored on one of his two free throws while a livid Sixers coach Doc Rivers raged at the official.
Green inbounded the ball with 2.6 seconds left and Embiid hit the winner, bringing his teammates racing off the bench in celebration and sending Raptors fans home heartbroken.
The Raptors should get reinforcements for Game 4. Coach Nick Nurse expects Barnes, who sprained his left ankle in Game 1, to play Saturday.
The finalist for rookie of the year wasn’t wearing a walking boot on the bench Wednesday, and was on his feet cheering for much of the game.
Trent, meanwhile, said he lost eight pounds and had a fever of 102 F while fighting a non-COVID-19 virus.
“Slowly but surely I was getting my body back, getting my wind back … today was the second day I didn’t have a fever,” he said.
The Raptors hadn’t made a playoff appearance in Toronto since Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals.
COVID-19 forced the 2020 season to finish in the NBA bubble at Disneyworld, and the Raptors were exiled in Tampa, Fla., last season due to border restrictions. A COVID outbreak in March of last season saw them tumble down the standings to finish 12th, the only year they’ve missed the playoffs in the past nine seasons.
The 76ers cruised to easy wins in Games 1 and 2, by scores of 131-11 and 112-97.
The Raptors jumped out to an early 10-point lead on Wednesday, forcing the Sixers to commit nine turnovers in the first quarter alone. Philadelphia turned the ball over just four times in all of Game 1.
Anunoby had 10 points in the frame and his three-pointer with 31 seconds left sent the Raptors into the second quarter up 29-19.
Toronto opened the second with a 9-2 run to go up by 17 points, but the Sixers battled back and Harden’s driving layup with 1:40 left cut the difference to just six points.
The quarter had some heated moments. VanVleet was whistled for a foul, and then a technical for angrily arguing the call after Embiid fell out of bounds as if blown over by a gust of wind.
Green picked up a technical for arguing a call, and it took a couple of two-handed chest shoves from Harden to get Green to head toward Philadelphia’s bench.
Game 5, if necessary, would be played Monday in Philadelphia.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2022.