PHILADELPHIA - Joel Embiid had knocked the air out of Toronto by the time he punctuated a Game 3 victory with a windmill dunk. Embiid sprinted down the court with his arms stretched out like airplane wings, and the Philadelphia 76ers flying high in the postseason.
Embiid refused to get tripped up back in Philly, scoring 33 points and playing to the “MVP!” chants to lead the Sixers to a 116-95 victory over Toronto Raptors on Thursday night.
Philadelphia took a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
“When I have fun, my game just changes,” Embiid said. “I’m always told if I don’t smile during the game it means I’m having a bad game or I’m not into it. I know to get my game going, I’ve got to have fun on the court.”
Embiid also had 10 rebounds, shaking off a pair of passive games and became the driving force on offense the Sixers needed as they chase their first NBA championship since 1983.
He made the game his own in the third quarter and helped the hosts put away a Raptors team badly overmatched outside of Kawhi Leonard.
Embiid struck a chord when he buried a 3 in the third that stretched Philadelphia’s lead to 12. That was start of a string of plays that got Toronto’s attention.
Embiid chased a loose ball and was tripped when Pascal Siakam intentionally stuck out his right leg and sent Philly’s All-Star tumbling to the court. The crowd went wild and Siakam was hit with a flagrant foul. Embiid made both free throws as fans — including some of Philadelphia’s biggest sports stars — serenaded him with chants of “MVP! MVP!”
Jimmy Butler, the Game 2 standout, dunked off his own steal and the Sixers had quickly put the game out of reach. Butler had 22 points.
Embiid scored another layup and waved his arms and pointed with a smile as wide as the hoop. Embiid went 9 of 18 from the floor and made 12 of 13 free throws.
It was moments like this why the 76ers endured the painful Process — the years of tanking seasons for high draft picks, like in 2014 when they drafted Embiid with the No. 3 overall pick.
Hall of Famer Allen Iverson and rapper Meek Mill engaged in a lengthy embrace from the courtside seats as Philadelphia moved two wins away from its Eastern Conference final appearance since 2001.
The Sixers just had to survive Leonard.
Leonard toyed with Ben Simmons in the third to lead Toronto’s charge back into the game. The Raptors ran Simmons through screens to give Leonard the space he needed to create and bury open jumpers. And when there was no space, Leonard simply bullied his way to the basket.
He shoved a right elbow into James Ennis III and spun around him for a two-handed jam. Leonard made all six baskets and scored 14 points in the quarter to cut the deficit to eight points. Kyle Lowry and Danny Green offered little help (20 combined points) and Leonard couldn’t carry the Raptors on his own.
“They did a great job scoring. We didn’t,” Leonard said.
Leonard scored 33 points and Siakam added 20.
“I think we got outplayed in just about every area we can get outplayed,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen this team play that way.”
Philadelphia split the two games in Toronto after a losing streak in the Canadian city that dated to 2012. The Sixers returned home to a delirious crowd amped for one of the most crucial games of the Process era.
Embiid wore a black Process hoodie to the postgame news conference.
“We’ve got a lot more to give and do something special,” Embiid said.
Embiid, who missed a game against New Jersey in the last series with a sore left knee, averaged only 14 points and shot 28 percent (7 of 25) from the floor in the first two games and was tied up by Marc Gasol in frustrating fashion. Not in Game 3.
Embiid buried a 3 and followed with a sweet spin move on Gasol the next time down that got the Sixers rolling. The franchise center’s sweetest play came when he blocked Leonard’s layup in the lane, hustled back and got the ball in his hands, and connected with Tobias Harris in the corner for a 3. Embiid scored 18 points in the half and pushed the Sixers to a 64-53 lead at the break.
In other NBA playoff news, James Harden squinted under the bright lights of the Toyota Center court on Thursday and parts of both eyes remained a garish, bloody red.
It was clear Houston’s superstar was still dealing with injuries to his eyes after being hit by Golden State’s Draymond Green in Game 2. Harden insisted the problem wouldn’t keep him out of Game 3 on Saturday as the Rockets try to climb out of an 0-2 hole against the defending champions.
“If I played barely seeing last game, what makes you think I’m going to sit out Game 3,” Harden asked defiantly.
Harden was injured midway through the first quarter Sunday night after a blow from Green as he tried to rebound a shot he missed. He immediately fell to the court where he remained writhing for a bit before he was tended to by Houston’s training staff and taken to the locker room. He returned with about seven minutes left in the second quarter and scored 29 points despite saying that his vision was extremely blurry and that he could see “nothing.”
“When he went out he had zero points and he comes back with not even one eye, one eye was almost shut and the other one was blurry and he gets 29 points,” D’Antoni said. “Not many people would have played. So whatever happens, that’s pretty special.”
Harden practiced with the team Thursday as the Rockets prepare to host Golden State for two games.
Though both eyes are injured, the left one is far worse than the right with the entire left side of his left eye remaining bloody. The right eye was bloody, too, but it was a much smaller section in the left corner of that eye.
“It’s still there,” he said. “It’s still tough, especially in bright lights but I can see y’all a little bit better so that’s all that matters.”