Stopping Joel Embiid is going to take more than Nick Nurse's crusade against fouls

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PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid is a finalist for Most Valuable Player, but he’s certainly the league’s most irresistible force — a magnet on one end, a plague on the other.

Bodies swarm to him when he has the ball, and eyes are obsessed with him when he doesn’t, opponents desperate to avoid the eclipse he presents defensively.

There’s never too much attention placed on a figure so important, which makes it even more crucial that some strategy, any strategy, works.

Nothing did on Monday.

Embiid’s 31 points and 11 rebounds powered the Philadelphia 76ers to a 2-0 lead over the Toronto Raptors with a 112-97 win at Wells Fargo Center, under the backdrop of Raptors head coach Nick Nurse throwing down the gauntlet in the time between Saturday’s series opener and Monday.

Nurse was so concerned with Embiid’s orbit he doubled and tripled down on off-day rhetoric, almost daring the officials to call a fair game — from his eyes. If he planted a seed of doubt in the minds of the officials, it couldn’t hurt.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Twelve free throws in 12 first-quarter minutes later, Nurse would soon find out, especially after challenging his players to be more physical.

Big Bank take Little Bank.

Every Raptor who tried a hand at Embiid wound up in foul trouble — and Embiid was well aware of the emphasis on a more physical treatment, drawing a double technical with OG Anunoby for pushing each other during a dead ball.

As the clock ticked away, Nurse and Embiid engaged in some words along the Raptors’ sideline.

“I’ve always been a big fan [of Nurse], but I told him, respectfully … to stop bitching about calls, because I saw what he said last game,” Embiid said. “If you’re going to triple-team somebody all game, they’re bound to get to the free-throw line.”

Nurse issued Embiid a heavy compliment, and chalked up the exchange to two competitors competing. He claims Embiid said, “ ‘I’m gonna keep making all my free throws if you keep fouling me,’ and I said, ‘Well, you might have to.’ ”

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid reacts after making a basket during Game 2 of their NBA playoffs first-round series against the Toronto Raptors on April 18, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
The Sixers' Joel Embiid reacts after making a basket in Game 2 of Philly's playoffs first-round series against the Toronto Raptors on Monday in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

It makes 25 trips to the foul line in two games for Embiid, and he’s made 21 of them. He went as far as to say the officials would’ve taken heed of Nurse’s words, so it would be harder for him to earn calls.

He’s probably the hardest player to officiate since Shaquille O’Neal in his heyday, a massive human being with the wily skills of sneaky guards and the rule-book knowledge of a habitual line-stepper.

“They put me on the floor, a few times. This is where it gets interesting for me,” Embiid said. “I’m gonna come back with more power. That’s the reason I got a few offensive fouls tonight. I’m gonna make you foul me. The refs don’t want to call it, so it’s all about having self-awareness.

“You listen to everything said after the game. Referees and the league is the same way. They’re gonna come in, let stuff go, not gonna call some fouls. You gotta jump into people, finish through contact. I’ve been doing this quite awhile, that’s usually the adjustment.”

If Precious Achiuwa stood on Pascal Siakam’s shoulders, they’d still be giving up something in defending Embiid. Even the league’s best defenders find themselves overshadowed, figuratively and literally.

An early 11-2 Raptors start soon evaporated through a haze of whistles, a task made tougher with rookie Scottie Barnes being out after injuring his ankle in Game 1 and Gary Trent Jr. barely able to go in the first half with illness.

Fred VanVleet, who matched Embiid’s free throws with long bombs early, seemed to run out of gas while chasing around Tyrese Maxey and James Harden all evening. Fifteen of his 20 points came in the first quarter, and he was 2-of-14 in the last three quarters.

“We went through a little of a spell … and all of a sudden an opportunity to stay with them [was gone],” Nurse said. “It’s hard enough, but it’s getting a little harder. Hopefully these guys can be healthy by Game 3.”

He was particularly discouraged by the events that occurred while Embiid sat in the second quarter, when Maxey, the Game 1 hero, and Harden started running wild. Usually, that’s a time for teams to gain ground on the 76ers, but with so much attention focused on Embiid, something had to give and the dam broke before halftime.

It didn’t quite look like a replay of Game 1, but being down 15 and then 29 before the end of the third, Nurse and the Raptors didn’t have much in the way of answers.

Tobias Harris and Maxey took full advantage, while Harden played a low-key game in 41 minutes, shooting just 3-of-9 to score 14 with six rebounds and six assists. Maxey again provided a burst, hitting three triples and scoring 23 points with nine rebounds and eight assists.

Harris, whom Doc Rivers gave a psychological massage to in the postgame by noting Harris has had to alter his game more than anyone since the Harden trade, scored 20 with 10 rebounds — hitting all three of his 3-point attempts.

It was part of an Embiid-centered barrage of open shots, with the 76ers hitting 14 of 30 from three.

“I’ve had to make some adjustments, but having a coach like that, we sat down and had a real conversation,” Harris said. “He told me what he envisions me doing and how I can do it at a high level. From there, I was at peace and never looked back.”

As the night raged on, the frustration grew for the Raptors. Siakam, ably defended by Harris thus far, picked up a technical early in the fourth quarter. After mounting a modest comeback in the fourth, cutting the lead to 11, Anunoby slipped on a drive, leading to a Maxey triple.

The fourth-quarter run the Raptors made gave Nurse some hope that with some adjustments and home court, they can turn it around before this supposed evenly matched series gets out of hand.

“This was going to be a huge challenge tonight, even healthy. Coming here and getting a game, people would’ve considered that a major upset,” Nurse said. “I don’t see our guys are discouraged at all. They’ll rise up. We need to get one and get back in this series.”

As the seconds ticked down, the 76ers' song, “Here Come the Sixers,” blared while Embiid and Nurse exchanged pleasantries.

Here come the 76ers.

Or more accurately, here comes Embiid.

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