The Sixers' Game 2 win Monday night in Toronto, when they held on for dear life to steal home court from the Raptors, was no fluke.
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They proved that Thursday night, pulling away in the fourth quarter for a 116-95 Game 3 win at Wells Fargo Center highlighted by a 33-point, 10-rebound performance from Joel Embiid. With a win in Game 4 Sunday afternoon, the Sixers would move to within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Here are observations from Game 3:
• Embiid drew an early foul with his favored rip-through move, something it feels like he's done 40 or so times this season. It was a positive omen for him on a night when he finally broke through for 20-plus points against Marc Gasol, his first such game in eight matchups.
Embiid is physically at a different level than the player who was often grimacing and sluggish early in the first round against the Nets. There was one early third-quarter play that highlighted his explosiveness, as well as his sheer audacity: Embiid pump faked from the right corner, drove to the rim and rose from the edge of the painted area for a thunderous dunk attempt, drawing a foul. He wouldn't have thought about that move in Game 1 vs. Brooklyn, when jogging up and down the floor was a painful task.
He also has much better lift on his jumper than in that opener vs. the Nets, when all of his three-point attempts were short. Embiid smiled and rose his arms in celebration after each of the three three-pointers he drained in Gasol's face.
• It appears nearly impossible to force Kawhi Leonard to do anything other than exactly what he desires. Leonard, who scored 80 points in the series' first two games, had Toronto's first seven and finished with 33 on 13 for 22 shooting.
Most of his shots were contested, but it didn't feel that way. Even Ben Simmons, who has done a commendable job on Leonard, was rarely able to deter him from getting to his preferred spots and taking the shots he wanted to take.
When Leonard was on the bench or denied the ball, though, the Raptors' offense looked aimless. While Pascal Siakam, Gasol and Kyle Lowry are capable offensive players, they're best suited for complementary roles.
• Jimmy Butler had another excellent night, with 22 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and three steals. The Sixers' offense has run very smoothly when Butler has been at the controls the last two games.
• After putting Embiid as the primary defender on Siakam and Tobias Harris on Gasol in Game 2, Brett Brown switched things up. He started with his original matchups from Game 1, then returned to the Harris-Gasol, Embiid-Siakam matchups at the start of the third quarter.
Gasol's ineffectiveness offensively - he had seven points on 2 for 6 shooting Thursday night - has given Brown the freedom to toggle his matchups and to send help defenders off Gasol. Harris also deserves credit for standing his ground well when Gasol has tried to post him up.
• As expected, the series took a step up in physicality in Game 3, and as expected, Lowry was in the middle of it. He took an elbow from Simmons in a sensitive region after getting tangled up under the basket early in the second quarter (see video).
The animosity between Simmons and Lowry dates back to Jan. 15 of last year, when both players were ejected, Lowry wanted to meet Simmons in the tunnel postgame, and Simmons told reporters, "I'm not going to take s--- from anybody."
Leonard, usually near-emotionless on the court, became frustrated near the end of the first half during a Sixers' run, arguing consecutive foul calls against him and a call he thought he'd earned against Embiid. His (relative) agitation was shared by his teammates, who took exception to many whistles.
Siakam received a Flagrant 1 foul with 10:05 left in the fourth quarter for a blatant trip on Embiid (see video). Twenty-eight seconds later, Siakam challenged Embiid on a drive and saw his shot rejected, one of the rabid Wells Fargo Center crowd's favorite sequences of the night.
• The Sixers' bench has outplayed the Raptors' in every game this series. Fan favorite Mike Scott returned after missing the series' first two games (right heel contusion/plantar fasciitis) and nailed his only three-point attempt, while James Ennis was excellent in his 24 minutes (10 points on 4 for 6 shooting, five rebounds). Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka again didn't play with much confidence or aggression offensively.
Through three games, the Sixers' bench has outscored Toronto's, 73-30, and much of the Raptors' bench output Thursday came in garbage time.
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