Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Chris Boucher #25 of the Toronto Raptors pulls down a rebound during the second half of Game Six of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Philadelphia 76ers at Scotiabank Arena on April 28, 2022, in Toronto.COLE BURSTON/Getty Images

It’s hard to say exactly when it was over, but it was long before it ended.

It was probably when James Harden sank a stupidly difficult fadeaway three with more than nine minutes left, then flopped to the ground like he’d been hit with an axe handle. That pushed the Philadelphia lead to 23.

The crowd had given up, but it didn’t mean they weren’t angry. As well as being pretty good at basketball, the 76ers also have a world-class diving team. They’d been flopping around the court all night, but this was something special.

The audience rained jeers on Harden. Having started in on this act, he had to continue pretending to be hurt. The teams convened at centre court, both coaches shrieking at the referee.

For just a moment, it felt like general bedlam was possible. But everyone here was from Toronto, and it is very difficult for us to be that interesting.

The remainder of the game was played out desultorily. Toronto was blown out 132-97. Just as it was beginning to feel like it was possible, the grandest comeback plan in NBA history was foiled. Allowing themselves to believe in it is probably what killed the Raptors.

Afterward, Harden was going over the box score with teammate Tobias Harris. Harden was a ridiculous +38 on the game. He couldn’t help but giggle when he saw the number, then say it aloud twice. Fun times.

So the Sixers were enjoying themselves. But what’s the verdict on the Raptors? The usual stuff about learning from experience. Which is another way of saying there’s no verdict yet.

In this series, Toronto exhibited the wild swings in mood and quality that are the hallmark of a young team without a great idea. They were terrible, until they were good. Then they were good until they were terrible.

If this were more of a traditional basketball hub, the first 10 minutes of Thursday night’s second half would live in infamy. Given the freedom of the perimeter, the Raptors could not make a bucket for love nor money, though that didn’t stop them from chucking them up.

In the end, they beat themselves. But they also refused to lie down when they were already beaten. Which team is the real Raptors? Take your pick.

If it’s a game of swings, the Raptors swung and missed. What did you expect when they went down 0-3? That they were going to be the ones to crack 75 years of history? If so, never lose your wonderful capacity to dream big. You’re going to need it in a few days when the Leafs take over local playoff duties.

In the end, this was a Raptors team that got as far as it deserved. Nothing was ventured and, when they look back on it in a couple of weeks, they’ll realize nothing was gained. They lost a couple of key players for a couple of key games. The Sixers megastar played half the series with a dead hand. Call it even. The better team won.

What this series did do was give the Raptors a simple mission going forward – get the Philadelphia 76ers.

Every good team needs a bad team to hate. Working hard to be as irritating and front-running as humanly possible in Game 6, the Sixers provided the Raptors with their indispensable nemesis.

It wasn’t just the flopping. It wasn’t just Joel Embiid hugging the referees pre-game. It wasn’t just Harden’s foul shopping or Embiid goading the crowd when they began a highly unoriginal and profane chant about him. It was more the general sense of superiority.

The Sixers never could seem to get their heads around the idea that they were struggling to put away the Raptors. Like it was just a bit beneath them.

The primary villain – God bless him – was Embiid. He was the guy who’d suggested after Game 5 that the referees had been told to extend the series. He was the guy airplaning down the court after dunking in a game that was already over. He was the one chirping Scottie Barnes in the dying minutes (Barnes trying his best to stare straight ahead and maintain his dignity).

“This was the most serious game we played this year,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said afterward. “No messing around.”

Come on. “Serious”? That is not the word that comes to mind with this team. Crafty, maybe. Cunning. Possessing a flexible on-court morality. Those are all words that leap to mind.

Philadelphia is hard to like, but easy to admire. This is what a desperate and undermanned contender looks like – they do what they have to do to make you beat yourself. All the Nixonian dirty tricks – the flapping around, the sneaky elbows, the constant whining – are just in the great tradition of Philadelphia sports.

It’s possible Rivers is the nicest person in the NBA. But even he is willing to play his role as a black hat now that he’s living in Philadelphia.

Asked about his club’s next man up – the Miami Heat – Rivers said, “I watched two hours (of Miami game tape) today.” Then he shrugged and said, “That’s confidence, I guess.”

Absolutely right – that’s confidence. Feeling the need to mention it right after you’ve humiliated a team in its own barn is something else, though.

The idea of the expensively assembled NBA super-team has taken a beating this year. The Lakers fell apart in the regular season, then the Nets did the same in the playoffs. Philadelphia is the last man standing in that regard.

Here’s hoping they go all the way. Here’s hoping Embiid & Co. go on to pull this same sort of thing in Florida (though I can see Kyle Lowry clotheslining the first guy to stretch out his arms after a basket). Let the legend of the 76ers continue to grow.

So that next year, the Raptors have a tightly focused notion of what they have to do. They have to play Philadelphia again. And this time, they have to teach them the same lesson they were just taught.

If that happens, then Toronto will really be on to something.