Late in the Raptors’ playoff win on Saturday afternoon, the atmo in the Scotiabank Arena finally found its level. The noise, until that point a dull, intermittent roar, reached that pitch where you no longer hear it. You feel it – a dull, uncomfortable pressure just behind your ears.
What had Toronto just done? Nothing. The person who’d finally pulled some championship vibes out of the crowd was 76ers star Joel Embiid. He’d missed a free throw.
The audience stood up and gave him a Jeering O. Little kids were up on their seats, throwing hands. A city stood united in the face of Basketball Public Enemy No. 1.
This isn’t a series yet – the Raptors are still down 3-1. But after a miserable start, the series finally has its rationale. If the Raptors can’t win it, then they can at least stick it to Embiid.
The unmoved mover of the first three games, Embiid was mostly unmoving on Saturday. He has a hand injury – reportedly, torn ligaments – that’s visibly gnawing at him.
Without saying what the problem was, Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers was trying to ac-cen-tu-ate the positive.
“The one thing we know – [the injury] can’t get worse,” Rivers said before the game.
I’ll tell you the one thing I know – whatever it is, it can always get worse.
Based on his on-court manner, Embiid seems to be more of my philosophical school than his boss’s.
He moped through the first half. When his shots rimmed out, he dropped his head. Occasionally, he’d flap his injured hand and then stare at it, as if he expected it to start working again. He didn’t make a field goal until a few minutes before the half.
In the second period, he was better, but not much.
With their talisman operating at half-speed, the rest of the 76ers fell to his level. In his lifelong search for more and worse foul calls, James Harden was reduced to running toward defenders and head butting them. Like a furious goat.
“That little mental part of the game where you have to come and play? I don’t think we had it,” Rivers said.
Yes. That “little” part.
It was an ugly contest. The Raptors shot 42 per cent from the field and 24 per cent from 3. You’re supposed to lose when that happens. But Philadelphia – and Embiid, in particular – was even worse.
Had the game been played in November instead of April, we’d already have forgotten it happened. But as it ended, it began providing real drama.
Embiid had been in foul humour the whole game. At every break in play, he had his hands on his knees, staring at the ground. During timeouts, he moped around by himself. His frustration was palpable from a 100-yards distance. But the thing that set him off was a sneaky hip thrown by Pascal Siakam.
Ironically, Siakam was put in the weird position of defending Embiid before the game. Asked why Torontonians directed so much “negative attention” at the Sixers’ centre, the Raptors star looked baffled.
“I don’t know what kind of attention you’re talking about. Who?”
People. The audience.
“Oh,” Siakam said. “I don’t think it’s, like, personal.”
And he was right. At that point, the booing of Embiid every time he touched the ball was reflexive. When the action got thick, people forgot to do it.
But then Siakam dumped him on the ground. Embiid struggled to his feet and began chasing Siakam around, trying to throw some weight into him. Siakam slipped around him repeatedly.
A few minutes after that, as Siakam carried the ball at half court, Embiid bull-rushed him, half-lunging, half-slipping straight into him. Since Embiid is so big and Siakam so slender, it looked worse than it was. But the crowd had had enough.
Joel Embiid had just turned from a nice enough guy who just happens to be too good into a genuine sports hate figure.
That focused the audience’s attention. They didn’t even cheer when it was announced they’d all won a free slice of pizza. That’s how you know a Toronto sports crowd is into it.
From that point on, angry jeers followed Embiid’s every move. Unfortunately for him, he kept missing. That only encouraged people.
Afterward, Embiid was downbeat, but a long way from despondent.
Asked about the officiating, he said “I’m going to take my own advice and not say complain about it” – which is a clever way of complaining about it.
Asked how painful his hand was, Embiid said, “Africans don’t feel pain.” Then he flashed a cheeky grin, got up and left. If Toronto is provoking him, Embiid is enough of a dramatist to provoke them right back. This could work well for both parties.
By that point, the heated last few minutes of the game seemed a long time ago. But while they were bubbling, it was 2019 again. It reminded you how great live sports can be when people are fully invested in the outcome.
That’s not enough to turn the Raptors’ sinking ship. The most likely scenario here is that Toronto goes to Philadelphia on Monday and loses. It’s hard to imagine the Sixers playing this poorly two games in a row.
But if this series gets back to Canada for a Game 6 on Thursday, we could be onto something. Straight up, Toronto cannot match talents with the 76ers. But this new vendetta – Toronto vs. Every Embiid – could provide a wedge.
Wanting your team to win is one thing. Wanting – really, really wanting – the other team to lose can put people on a whole new plane of intensity.