- Joel Embiid and the all-grown-up Sixers have handled business up to this point in the playoffs. They're now just two wins away from their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since Allen Iverson led the charge in 2000-01.
PHILADELPHIA — For years, the Sixers trumpeted the mantra “Trust The Process,” marking the team’s steady rise to the top of the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia showed signs of growth en route to ending a four-year playoff drought in 2018. Then “The Process” met the Celtics, who discarded the Sixers in these same Eastern Conference semifinals to make quick and easy work of a team with plenty of potential but not enough punch. Philadelphia fought hard through 21 lead changes to save its season, only to ultimately fall four games to one, stunting “The Process,” if only temporarily.
“The Process is never going to end,” Joel Embiid said after last season's Game 5 loss. “This is a process to get to the playoffs, we did it. This was a process to get to the conference finals, we didn't. Next year, that's our goal.”
Next year is now this year, with a season’s worth of lessons and experience lodged in between. The Sixers find themselves in the same place, the Eastern Conference semifinals, against a different opponent, the second-seeded Raptors. Despite dropping Game 1 in Toronto, Philadelphia remained poised on the road, rebounding to earn a crucial split in a series many predict to go the distance. A championship-starved crowd starring the beloved Allen Iverson greeted the Sixers back home for Game 3 and cheered along to a 116-95 win and 2-1 series lead.
But Embiid had no interest in putting "The Process" in perspective postgame. The difference a year makes was evident in his answer.
“This is not a good time to talk about 'The Process' … We have to focus on the playoffs,” Embiid said. “And we have a great opportunity up 2-1. On Sunday, we have to take care of business."
Growth hasn’t come without adjustments, and the Sixers rounded out the roster from a year ago. Personnel-wise, the Sixers went all-in to trade two pivotal role players for Jimmy Butler, who scored an efficient 22 points in Game 3 after posting 30 in Game 2, and acquired Tobias Harris (13 points) and Mike Scott at the trade deadline. Embiid, hampered by injuries all postseason, appeared healthy as ever, erasing a turnover to start the game to finish with 33 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. His energy on offense sparked the Sixers, whose starters finished in double figures. His defense set the tone.
Illustrating Embiid's dominance on both ends late in the fourth, the Sixers' big man barreled through the lane to throw down a windmill dunk minutes after blocking Pascal Siakam. The impromptu aerial display put the Sixers ahead by 26 points with just over five minutes left and blew the roof off an arena filled with 20,658 fans. Sixers head coach Brett Brown had no choice but to admit he had the best player in the series.
“I mean for me it goes straight to the blocks,” Brown said. “You know, we can talk about a windmill dunk. You can talk about some finesse post moves and that. But I go to defense. That’s what interests me the most to date with this series. ... He is our crown jewel defensively, and I suppose offensively, too. But certainly defensively. And his rim protection and blocking shot ability tonight stood out as much to me as anything in an incredible performance.”
On Embiid's strength, the Sixers stifled the Raptors' offense. Outside of Kawhi Leonard’s 33 points and Slakam’s 20, only Danny Green scored in double figures for Toronto, with nine of his 13 points coming off a trio of first-quarter threes.
For the Sixers, contributions came from all angles and sides, as the team shot 51.2% from the floor, and made 10 of 23 threes (Embiid and JJ Redick nailed three apiece). Philadelphia’s consistent and balanced scoring attack wore on the Raptors, who tried to keep pace before the game broke open during their 14-point fourth quarter with Embiid’s windmill serving as the hammer. Everything clicked.
“You know, the way we’ve been adjusting and the way we’ve been playing together, I still feel like we have so much potential,” Embiid added. “Especially with Tobias [Harris], Ben [Simmons], JJ [Redick].”
After Thursday night, the all-grown-up Sixers have handled business up to this point in the postseason. One more win at home in Game 4 on Sunday, and Philadelphia jumps into the driver’s seat heading back to Toronto. Two more wins, and Philadelphia jumps back into the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2000-01, when Iverson willed the organization to the NBA Finals.
"The Process" has come a long way, even if Embiid is not ready to discuss it.
"It’s good that we’ve been closer than we’ve been through all these years, but we have a lot more to give," Embiid said. "We have a chance to do something special. And that’s what I’m focused on.”