TORONTO — A humorous meme of Joel Embiid made the rounds of social media Monday night after Philadelphia’s seven-foot centre went scoreless for the first time in his NBA career.
It was the famous picture of Wilt Chamberlain holding a ”100” sign after he dropped a record-100 points on the New York Knicks in 1962.
Instead it was Embiid’s face superimposed on Chamberlain. The sign he held read “0.”
While Embiid is averaging 21 points a night, Marc Gasol and the Raptors smothered the Sixers’ two-time all-star on Monday — the latest in a list of NBA stars who’ve been thoroughly frustrated by Toronto this season.
Toronto’s defence leads the league in opponents’ field goal percentage, holding teams to 41.3 per cent. They’ve simply made an art of stopping the league’s best players. L.A. Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard shot just 2-for-11 for 12 points against his former team. The Lakers’ LeBron James: 13 points on 5 of 15. Portland’s Damian Lillard: nine points on 2 of 12.
And Embiid — who last March famously referred to himself as ”the most unstoppable player in the league” — shot 0-for-11.
“Marc Gasol, he’s as good as it gets, man, as a big-man defender,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Combination of size, physicality, IQ, effort — all those things that when you start listing (them) and your defence mentality becomes pretty good, and it kind of spreads a little bit, I think. So that’s kinda where it starts.
“Give guys all the credit, they’ve gone out there and executed the stuff pretty high-level,” Nurse added. “And played hard, right? They’re playing hard, man.”
The 34-year-old Gasol, who was acquired in last February’s trade that sent Jonas Valanciunas to Memphis, had just three points on the night, but the savvy veteran doled out nine assists and had Toronto’s defence looking like a well-oiled machine.
“He’s the defensive player of the year, a former defensive player of the year. He’s good,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said.
Raptors rookie Terence Davis is a longtime student of Gasol’s game, and said the veteran’s “very vocal” presence is invaluable.
“I’ve been watching Gasol for a long time, I tell him this all the time,” Davis said. “He played in Memphis (from 2008 until Toronto traded for him last February), and that’s home pretty much for me, it’s about 10 minutes away. As a young guy I used to go to the games, watch him and … just seeing him hold Embiid to a career-low, he’s special, man.”
There was a humorous moment in the fourth quarter Monday when Davis was called for perhaps a phantom foul on Josh Richardson. The rowdy Scotiabank Arena crowd cheered wildly as Richardson missed all three free throws.
“Ball don’t lie. That’s all I said to the ref, ball don’t lie,” laughed Davis.
The new Raptor appreciated the crowd’s reaction, saying: “I loved it, I really did. It felt like the crowd had my back right there because, clearly, you guys seen it. Yeah, ball don’t lie.”
The Raptors are 12-4 on the season and tied with Miami and Boston for second in the Eastern Conference behind Milwaukee. But their string of solid games has come despite missing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, among others. The two will miss their ninth consecutive game on Wednesday when Toronto hosts New York.
Nurse has said he hopes to have both Lowry (broken thumb) and Ibaka (ankle strain) back for Sunday’s game against visiting Utah, although neither practised on Tuesday.
“(Lowry’s) coaching. Assistant coaching,” Nurse laughed.
“He’s very direct,” he added on Lowry’s coaching style. “Obviously a lot of years and a lot of smarts in the game and the guys listen to him. He jumped out there in a drill today to say we aren’t quite doing this right … He tells them what is wrong and then he goes out there and shows them how to do it right.”
Sharp-shooter Matt Thomas joined Toronto’s long list of injured players when he broke his left middle finger Saturday in Atlanta. Nurse said he expects Thomas to be out about a month.
The Raptors’ next big defensive task should come against Canadian rookie RJ Barrett and the Knicks.
“He’s a scorer and he has the ball quite a bit. And he does multiple things with it,” Nurse said. ”They will let him bring it. They will run him off stuff, they will use him in a lot of ways. We will have to gameplan for him that is for sure.”
Barrett is listed as questionable for his homecoming because of an illness, but told reporters on Tuesday he “can’t miss tomorrow night. I have to go play for everyone I love — just go back there on the court and play basketball.”
The Mississauga, Ont., native, who missed Sunday’s game, is averaging 15.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists a night.
Barrett says he has a surprise in store for Toronto fans.
“I’m wearing a little something for them tomorrow on the court. I can’t tell you nothing,” he said. “It’s going to be a little something. It means a lot. Everybody kind of feels something for where they grew up, where they came from. For me, Canada, the whole country had my back. I love them for that.”
Barrett was asked if he had a favourite memory of going to Raptors games as a youngster.
“No, because every time I went to a Raptors game, they lost,” he said, recalling the franchise’s losing years. “So I thought I was a curse.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2019.