TORONTO — Is it possible for a team to make a defiant, bold statement without scoring in the N.B.A.? In 2019? The Philadelphia 76ers, a team that seemed vastly outgunned against the Toronto Raptors in the first game of their Eastern Conference semifinals, would like a word, and possibly a time machine to consult the basketball gods of yesterday. And that word they would like might be “outlast.”
The Sixers gutted out a series-tying win on Monday night at Scotiabank Arena, 94-89, and did so with only one of their stars playing well in an arena where Philadelphia had not won since 2012. Neither team cracked 100 points, a rarity in today’s high-paced, no-conscience 3-point heavy style of play. In the first round of the N.B.A. playoffs, both teams scored less than 100 only twice in 36 games. During the regular season, the worst offensive team in the league, the Memphis Grizzlies, averaged more than 103.
“When you shrink your rotations, it’s naïve for us to think you’re going to play a game like a track meet when it’s a fist fight. It’s a grind the whole game,” Brett Brown, the coach of the Sixers, said after the game.
Grind? Sure. Fist fight? Bring it on. But this one was a slog. The Sixers played like they were clinging to their basketball life. Game 2 might have satisfied fans nostalgic for the N.B.A. of the 2000s, when the tortoise was favored over the hare and “SportsCenter” highlights were full of 18-foot bank shots from Tim Duncan. Philadelphia won despite shooting less than 40 percent from the field, but this style of play also might be how it advances to the next round: pure survival. The Raptors are, on paper, a deeper, more talented team. For the Sixers: slow and steady wins the race.
Of course, in the playoffs, bench players stay on the bench more. Games slow down. Teams ask elite players, who are conserved during the regular season, to play more minutes against the better defenses of the best units.
But Philadelphia’s top star was limited in Game 2: Joel Embiid, the swaggering franchise center, was a game-time decision because of gastroenteritis (He described it, uh, more colloquially in the postgame news conference but added that there was never any doubt he was playing.). Embiid struggled most of the game, shooting 2 for 7 from the field with six turnovers and only scoring 12 points. (One of those two shots sealed the victory for Philadelphia: a gorgeous spin and up-fake under the basket that put it up 3 late in the fourth.)
But another throwback helped pick up the slack for Embiid: the lumbering backup Greg Monroe. Conventional wisdom tells us that the game has passed him by and that Monroe belongs in the 2000s. He is slow-footed, a typically poor defender and makes his living in the paint, instead of being able to consistently stretch the floor with shooting. There’s a reason he’s playing for his third team this season (all three happen to be playing in the Eastern Conference semifinals, including the Raptors and Boston Celtics).
Nicknamed “Moose,” he has gone from surefire N.B.A. starter to journeyman with an uncertain home. Monroe came in and scored 10 points on seven shots, and grabbed five rebounds in 12 minutes. Many of his points came simply bullying defenders near the basket. The Raptors tried to attack him defensively multiple times with quicker guards like Danny Green and Kyle Lowry. They failed. Monroe moved his feet just fast enough to disrupt their movement, helping Philadelphia to build a 19 point lead in the first half. It was the rare night when Monroe was the best center on the team.
“Greg coming in was going to be sort of a gut feel that I had and I thought he was great,” Brown said.
But the Raptors wouldn’t go down without a fight. It’s not unusual, of course: Toronto has Kawhi Leonard, arguably the best player of the Eastern Conference.
In a postseason where Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers has hit a jaw-dropping step back and then waved the Oklahoma City Thunder off the floor, and Kevin “You Know Who I am” Durant is on his own torrid run, Leonard has methodically and quietly destroyed his opponents. The 76ers have had no answer for the reserved Leonard, while their own outspoken blue chippers have collectively failed to match him.
The N.B.A. has risen in popularity over the last decade in part because of virality: poster dunks and ankle breaking highlights spread at a moment’s notice. Coaches and players go out of their way to troll their colleagues on social media. Not Leonard, though, who so shuns the spotlight that this in itself has become a meme-worthy bit on message boards.
In Game 2, Leonard dropped 35 points on 24 shots, single-handedly almost rescuing Toronto from a loss. His output was only slightly less dominant than in the first game of the series, when the Sixers might have been better off not defending him at all: 45 points on 23 shots. Monday was the 11th time Leonard scored 30 or more points in a playoff game.
But Philadelphia held on, even after the Raptors cut the game to one possession in the fourth quarter, thanks to one star performance: Jimmy Butler, a ferocious player who is also a throwback, typically priding himself on slashing and tough defense, rather than taking the first available 3-pointer, having only launched 2.7 a game for his career.
To put this in perspective, James Harden of the Houston Rockets, who led the league in scoring this year, averaged more than 13 three-point attempts a game. On Monday night, Butler scored 30 points and hit four from long range, adding 11 rebounds and five assists in 43 minutes.
“Jimmy Butler is a gamer,” Coach Nick Nurse of the Raptors said. “He wasn’t going to be quiet this whole series. Right? This guy can play. We know that.”
Or as Brown put it: “This was James Butler. That was the adult in the gym.” (Butler later clarified that his name was actually Jimmy and made clear this has always been the case.)
Now the series shifts to Philadelphia, and perhaps the Sixers have found a way to battle a favored team with more weapons: slow the game down and, to use the old sports cliché, grind it out. They certainly have the tools to do that, with Embiid and a re-emerging Monroe in their frontcourt. Embiid, usually a towering whirl of brilliant footwork in the post, is likely to need to overcome his knee (and stomach) issues in order for Philadelphia to have a puncher’s chance.
But so far, the Sixers, in splitting the first two games on the road, did what they needed to do: they survived.