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TORONTO — Someday, a team will come back from down 3-0 to win an NBA playoff series.
But it won’t be the 2022 Toronto Raptors.
After becoming the 14th team to extend a best-of-seven series to Game 6 after falling behind 3-0, the Raptors didn’t have enough to prolong this series for another game. The Philadelphia 76ers — thanks to a dominant third quarter that saw them outscore Toronto 37-17 and at one point score 17 straight points — came away with a 132-97 victory over Toronto Thursday night in Game 6 of their first-round series here at Scotiabank Arena.
The win moves Philadelphia into the Eastern Conference semifinals for the fourth time in five years, where the 76ers will hope to finally break through and reach the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since Allen Iverson led them there in 2001. Philadelphia begins its series in Miami against the top-seeded Heat Monday night.
The 76ers were led by a balanced attack across the board. Joel Embiid, playing through a torn ligament in his right thumb, finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds in 36 minutes, going 12-for-18 from the field. James Harden had 22 points, 6 rebounds and 15 assists, playing with the aggression the 76ers desperately needed from him. And second-year guard Tyrese Maxey had a huge bounce-back game as well, finishing with 25 points and eight assists after scoring 23 points combined in Games 4 and 5.
It was exactly the kind of performance the 76ers needed — but one that was far from certain to take place when this game tipped off shortly after 7 p.m. Thursday evening. After Game 3 of this series, when Embiid’s last-second 3-pointer in overtime gave Philadelphia a 104-101 victory here over the Raptors last week to take a 3-0 lead, it seemed as if the 76ers had put their demons to rest from their heartbreaking loss to Toronto in the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals.
But things didn’t quite work out that way. A sluggish performance from the 76ers allowed Toronto to get back into the series with a home victory in Game 4, followed by the Raptors dictating play from start to finish in Game 5, leading for all but the opening minute as the crowd inside Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center got tighter and tighter by the second.
“I just think, again, that we got put in a big hole here, 3-0, and we just knew that getting one could get us back in this thing and give us a chance to keep it going,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Wednesday. “Listen, everybody was disappointed about the 3-0 start, and it felt a little heavy for a while, but not that long a while.
“I think when we finally got back to the film room the next day, I liked the body language, I liked what I was hearing communication-wise and I felt that we were ready to go.”
That mentality was enough for Toronto to get itself back into the series and to bring it back here for Thursday night’s Game 6. But it wasn’t enough to carry Toronto to the precipice of history.
Instead, it was Philadelphia — which spent the past three days hearing endless chatter about whether the team, and specifically Embiid, Harden and 76ers coach Doc Rivers, would be able to close this series out and reverse past playoff heartbreaks — that ensured it wouldn’t find itself on the wrong end of yet another disappointing postseason result.
The 76ers did so thanks to an offensive onslaught that left the sellout crowd here stunned as to how the game slipped away so quickly. After Philadelphia held a 62-61 halftime lead, the 76ers came out to start the third quarter and almost instantly put to rest any thoughts of this series going back home for a do-or-die seventh game Saturday night. Scoring on their first eight trips down the court, the Sixers opened up a 13-point lead before the Raptors fans could even get back into their seats after the halftime break.
Eventually, the run ballooned to a 30-9 stretch over the first 8:08 of the third, capped off by a Harden step-back 3-pointer that made it 92-70 in favor of the 76ers, forcing Toronto to call its second timeout of the quarter and Harden to roar in celebration.
For several 76ers, Game 6 served as a redemption arc — for none more so than Harden, who came under fire for his play after taking just 11 shots in Game 5, with Embiid himself saying Harden needed to be more aggressive, and that it was on Rivers to get him to be.
Harden appeared to take that message to heart to begin Game 6, throwing down a dunk — his second in two games, after not getting a single one in his first two months as a 76er — as part of perhaps his best quarter this series, scoring 10 points and making 5 assists to help stake the 76ers to a 34-29 lead after one.
The hot pace offensively for both teams to start the game continued throughout the first half, with both teams executing what they wanted offensively and getting unexpected contributions from across the roster. For Toronto, it was backup big man Chris Boucher pouring in 19 points — a playoff career high — and eight rebounds before the break; for Philadelphia, it was Danny Green hitting four 3-pointers and scoring 12 points in the first half.
Philadelphia hit nearly 58% of its shots in the first half; Toronto was just under 50% and once again struggled from the 3-point line (3-for-15), but had 10 offensive rebounds and a 12-3 edge in second-chance points.
Most importantly, however, the 76ers held a 62-61 lead — setting up both teams for what seemed like it would be a thrilling second half with everything to play for.
Instead, the 76ers came out and made sure any talk of history being made in this series would be put to rest.