The Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns booked their place in the NBA playoff conference semi-finals on Thursday after wrapping up series-clinching victories in contrasting fashion.
In Toronto, Joel Embiid scored 33 points in a 132-97 Sixers blowout over the Raptors to seal a 4-2 series victory that sets up a showdown with top seeds Miami.
Western Conference top-seeds Phoenix, mean-while, were pushed all the way by a gutsy New Orleans Pelicans team before completing a nerve-jangling 115-109 win in the Big Easy.
Veteran Chris Paul led Phoenix through a bruis-ing battle with 33 points — including a perfect 14-from-14 from the field — while Deandre Ayton added 22 points and Mikal Bridges 18.
The Suns’ 4-2 series win sees them advance to a semi-final meeting against the winner of the Dallas-Utah series. The Mavericks can clinch later Thursday with victory over the Jazz in Salt Lake City.
It marked an emotional return to New Orleans for 12-time NBA All-Star Paul, who began his pro-fessional career in the city with six seasons for the then New Orleans Hornets.
“I always say this city raised me,” Paul said af-terwards. “It’s nice to do it here in New Orleans…It’s home for me. I root for this team when I’m not play-ing against them. So to beat them was nice.”
The Suns were also buoyed by the return from injury of Devin Booker, whose 13-point haul in-cluded a crucial three-pointer late in the fourth quarter to edge Phoenix ahead.
“Having Book back was everything,” Paul added. “Down the stretch they started to blitz and they forgot we had Devin Booker standing over there on the wing.”
Booker meanwhile paid tribute to the perform-ance of the 36-year-old Paul. “I’ve been watching him since I was eight years old,” Booker said of Paul. “It doesn’t surprise me.
“The most surprising thing is after the games we dropped, the disrespect that was put on his name. He’s a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, arguably the GOAT in his position. And he deserves those flowers.”
Earlier in Toronto, the Sixers made sure there was no chance of a game seven decider as they thrashed the Raptors. Embiid, who has been bothered by torn ligaments in his thumb in recent games, delivered a dominant display which also included 10 rebounds, three blocks and two steals.
MVP candidate Embiid was given backing by Tyrese Maxey with 25 points while James Harden also came up big with 22 points, 15 assists and six rebounds.
It was a welcome return to form for the Sixers, who had looked vulnerable after losing games four and five to Toronto after earlier leading the series 3-0.
“We had a great practice yesterday and we needed that,” said Embiid, who said the Sixers had been motivated by their back-to-back losses.
“It was a blessing in disguise to lose those two games, because that wasn’t us,” he said. “We didn’t play the way we wanted to. We were extremely sloppy.
“Tonight we wanted to come in here and play with more intensity. Especially me. I was really bad last game, defensively. I wanted to play with a lot of energy and be physical.” Maxey meanwhile said the Sixers had been ready for a “fight”.
“Whether we get hit in the mouth we get back up and keep fighting, and that’s what we did tonight,” he said.
“Joel (Embiid) told me on the plane on the way up here ‘We lose if we don’t be aggressive.’ And that’s what I tried to do.—APP