The Eastern Conference semifinals were supposed to be an epic appetizer before the final four, a grouping of teams ready to stake a claim to the conference since the previous ruler took his talents to Los Angeles.
With a big enough sample size in front of us, it’s safe to say that while the series have been compelling, they haven’t been revealing, and we’re still waiting to see if we can believe our eyes and ears as the Milwaukee Bucks await their next opponent.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ 112-101 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night to force a Game 7 certainly didn’t clarify matters.
The Bucks’ 20-point margins of victory against their first two opponents are either an indication of mismatched competition or unexpected dominance, even though the regular season numbers indicated this was possible.
The consistency the Bucks have displayed for the better part of seven months has been hard to embrace for some because of their relative lack of history — usually teams don’t come from nowhere unless there are big personnel changes — but the Bucks’ improvement has been steady and true.
Dispatching the Boston Celtics in a series many expected to be a clash of the titans can be attributed to an overall dysfunction with the Celtics and a seeming disinterest in competing against a team they figured out wasn’t flinching because the green-and-white uniform stood across from them.
The Celtics did everyone a favor by not showing up beyond the first round, a tactic many would’ve expected from the Toronto Raptors, given their recent history. But that would be shortchanging the most impressive unit in basketball, the presumptive MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and a good coach in Mike Budenholzer.
The stakes are high for Game 7.
In Thursday’s win, Philly’s money players came up big, especially Jimmy Butler. But if you go up and down the starting lineup, it’s Toronto that has the most playoff experience, and in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors have two players who know what it’s like to win a championship, having captured one with San Antonio in 2014.
For that reason, Toronto should be the best performing team under pressure.
The Sixers have much playoff experience in Butler and J.J. Redick, but between Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons they have fewer than 100 games of playoff experience, and no one on the Sixers’ starting lineup knows what it’s like to be on a championship team.
It’s the money players who will determine Game 7. That’s what Game 7 is all about. Nothing that came before this will matter. It’s who’s most comfortable in this pressure situation.
Is Jimmy Butler a better money player than Danny Green? Is Joel Embiid a better money player than Marc Gasol? Is Ben Simmons a better money player than Kawhi Leonard? Is J.J. Redick a better money player than Kyle Lowry?
Interesting to see how different these teams are as the 2000-01 team was a top tier defensive team while the 2018-19 team is an elite offensive team but the other difference is the rosters. This season’s team has more talent in the starting lineup with three all-stars (Embiid, Butler, Simmons) while Redick is one of the best three pointer shooters in the NBA today. On the flip side, Iverson was the league MVP and their second best offensive player was the Sixth Man of the Year, Aaron McKie.
Also it has to be considered that the Eastern Conference 18 years ago may have been less deep than it is this season. That year the Pacers were a roster of aging stars, the Raptors were a good but not great roster, and the Bucks had two of the top 20 players in the NBA that season. This season, the Sixers had the third best record in the NBA and the Bucks have an MVP candidate, the Raptors have arguably the best player in the NBA today, the Celtics have three All-Stars on the roster, and don’t forget about how the Nets pushed the Sixers in the first round.
My conclusion: Pound-for-Pound the 2018-19 Sixers team is more talented than the 2000-01 Sixers, even if they don’t advance the the NBA Finals this season.
Hibbo Omar, 14, is inside the gym of Scarborough’s Salaheddin Islamic Centre, where a fast and frenetic basketball game is well underway.
Cheers break out after a three-point basket.
“Block someone!” Afnan Assoweh, 14, yells. “Drive up, look around.”
The game pauses briefly as the Grade 9 student demonstrates how to properly inbound the ball. Having played basketball with the boys at her school, and watched the Toronto Raptors with her older brother, Assoweh is confident that despite her age, she can help coach the other women in the room. A first-time baller nods, imitates the action, and steps back into the five-on-five.
It’s Sunday evening, and as visitors enter and exit the mosque for prayer, the Hijabi Ballers are living up to their name. In this weekly drop-in, Muslim women are invited to sharpen their skills, even if it’s their first time touching a basketball.
Hijabi Ballers was founded in 2017 by Amreen Kadwa, 23, as an ode to the athleticism of visibly Muslim women. According to its website, the organization aims “to increase representation, and consequently participation, of Muslim females in sports spaces and sports programs in the city.” In addition to Sunday ball nights, Hijabi Ballers currently offers an intro to tennis program and will be hosting a sports festival July 7. The initiative also recently collaborated on a video project with Nike to celebrate visibly Muslim female athletes in the GTA.
The play, which occurred late in the fourth quarter when Embiid’s hand hit Raptors center Marc Gasol in the face when the two were jostling for a rebound of a free throw, earned Embiid his third flagrant foul point of these playoffs.
How the Sixers forced a Game 7 with enormous stakes
Embiid returns to form for 76ers in ‘do-or-die’ win
“I mean it’s annoying, it’s stupid,” Embiid said after Thursday’s game. “I feel like the one in Brooklyn should be rescinded and tonight, it’s just basketball. I didn’t mean to do it. I just happened to hit him in the face I guess and didn’t mean to do it.
“It just happened. A lot of things like that happen. I got hit in the face in the first half by Pascal [Siakam] but kind of like the same situation that wasn’t a flagrant. I saw the video of it, I mean it doesn’t look that bad. … It’s tough. I guess I get one more and I’m gone for one game. So I got to look out for it, but that’s definitely, this one and in the one in Brooklyn that I feel like I didn’t deserve.”
Embiid picked up flagrant 1 fouls in both Game 2 and Game 4 of Philadelphia’s first-round victory over the Brooklyn Nets — both times for hitting Nets center Jarrett Allen. In Game 2, he elbowed Allen in the head while Embiid was executing a post move on offense. In Game 4, Embiid fouled Allen while Allen attempted a layup, which led to an on-court skirmish that resulted in the ejections of Sixers star Jimmy Butler and Nets forward Jared Dudley.
Toronto’s current star is sturdier, and is presumably less distracted. And after Kawhi’s first four impossible games of this series, he has been merely ordinarily great in Games 5 and 6: 16-for-36 from the field, 0-for-8 from three, averaging 25 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.5 steals, and two turnovers. That this constitutes a drop tells you how unearthly he was before.
But he’s right that he missed easy shots. Three of his four missed threes in Game 6 were wide open, and many of his turnaround or pull-up jumpers had space, thanks to his barrelling chest and boulder shoulders. And on closer inspection, five of Kawhi’s 29 points came in the fourth quarter, during which the Raptors were down at least 19 with Leonard in the game; six of the 29 came in the brief, disastrous minutes the Sixers spent with huge backup centre Boban Marjanovic lumbering around. It wasn’t Kawhi’s game, or any other Raptor’s.
And if he’s human, can the Raptors win? Maybe two days of rest between games, after two in three days — given the physical toll of how he plays — will get Leonard’s legs back under him. But even if he returns to that superhumanity in Game 7, that won’t guarantee Toronto gets through. It’s been the same song since Game 1 of both the regular season and this playoff series: You have a superstar. Don’t waste it.
“Maybe the making shots part (goes up and down), that’s the part that you control less of it,” Raptors centre Marc Gasol said. “But all the other stuff, we see when we do a lot of it, we are pretty good. So if we continue to do those things and take shots with confidence, and control the things that you can control — things you can’t control, them making shots, and not overreacting to that, and you not making shots, and not overreacting to that, and those things. You can control the mind part.”
So give the Sixers’ seven-footer his due. He may be a walking soap opera who has spent this series nursing a bad knee, a wobbly stomach, a high fever, a stuffy nose and a chronic case of sleep deprivation, and certainly his team has been handicapped by his seemingly ever-questionable status. But with a season on the line he backed up his boast with a monstrously effective performance in Philadelphia’s Game 6 win. Embiid’s 36 minutes of playing time saw the Sixers outscore the Raptors by a margin of 100-60; he’s one of just a dozen players who have posted an individual net-points differential of plus-40 or better since 2001, according to Basketball-Reference.com. And it wasn’t simply a one-off. After six games, Embiid is leading the series with a net rating of 20.9 — meaning the Sixers have outscored the Raptors by an average of 20.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Considering that number documents Embiid’s journey through his flu game (Game 2), his unable-to-sleep-with-a-fever game (Game 4), and Toronto’s 36-point blowout win in Game 5 in which Embiid was a minus-15 — well, it’s undeniably impressive stuff.
So as much as the storyline heading into Sunday’s Game 7 will revolve around Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and his team’s series-long struggle to find him more help, you can make the case the outcome might come down to something out of the home team’s control. The Raptors, in allowing this battle for a berth to face the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference final to come to this, have gifted Embiid the option to determine their fate. If he chooses to show up to Sunday night’s big game — if he chooses to play like the all-star with the seven-foot-five wingspan and the ballet-ready feet and abandons his penchant for occasional cameos as a sickly, sulking nonfactor — Toronto might not have an answer for his skill set.
“He’s an all-NBA player, an all-NBA defensive player, he’s smart,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said after Thursday’s loss. “You’re conscious of where he’s at on the floor … When he’s out there he’s a big body, he’s a force on both ends. So yes, we notice him when he’s out there and when he’s not.”
"I was in contact with Rich Paul, LeBron's agent today, he said it's completely false. LeBron hasn't talked with Kawhi or any of that. He wasn't in Philadelphia recruiting him." — @Chris_Broussard pic.twitter.com/TZcK201pm5
— Herd w/Colin Cowherd (@TheHerd) May 10, 2019
This is much more than one game to send the winner on to face the Milwaukee Bucks. It is a game that will resonate for years with each franchise, a game that could lead to a dismantling that might set the loser back for years and years.
So much at stake.
For now and for seasons to come.
Both teams have been building to this moment since last summer, and this capper to an inexplicably unexplainable series that’s made little sense since it began nearly two weeks ago could validate one series of moves and show the others to be failures.
Toronto went all-in on Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green for one year, and Marc Gasol for maybe a year and a half — tossing aside the safety net of DeMar DeRozan, NBA coach of the year Dwane Casey and a trio of players sent packing at the trade deadline — with the express intent of having a legitimate chance to at least play for an NBA title.
If this goes south and the Raptors lose on Sunday — if the best, most veteran, most experienced roster in franchise history, coming off a season which produced the second-best record in the entire league, can’t even make it to the conference final — where do they turn?
Does not getting out of the second round drive Leonard away in free agency? If it does, what becomes of the other veterans such as Green, a free agent, and Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Gasol, none of whom are getting any younger and all of whom will be in the final years of their contracts next season?
2001 SECOND ROUND
76ers 88, Raptors 87
Carter’s shot at the buzzer rimmed-out, giving Philadelphia a dramatic win at home.
The shot came hours after Carter attended his college graduation at North Carolina and then flew to Philly for the game.
Sixers star Allen Iverson had 21 points and 16 assists. Carter finished with 20 points on 6-of-18 shooting.
2002 FIRST ROUND
Detroit Pistons 85, Raptors 82
This will forever be remembered as the game where Raptors guard Chris Childs lost track of the score.
Childs forced up a desperation shot that missed with seven seconds left, thinking the Raptors were down by four instead of three. The Raptors had lots of time to look for a better shot in the final game of the best-of-five series in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Former Raptor Corliss Williamson had 23 points for the Pistons.
Dell Curry led the Raptors with 17 points.
The corollary is when the Sixers get out and run, everyone remembers why Ben Simmons was once the No. 1 pick of the NBA draft.
The lanky Australian is a terror in the open court. He’s ridiculously fast, uber-athletic and a great decision-maker and finisher. In transition, it no longer matters all that much that Simmons refuses to shoot from outside of the paint. He was spectacular, driving again and again to the hoop, and it seemed to energize him on the boards too.
Simmons finished with 21 points, eight rebounds, six assists and no turnovers on 9-13 shooting in Game 6. He would have been the best player on the floor had Jimmy Butler not been so impressive. And maybe he was the best player — Brown called him “our bell ringer” afterward, noting you have to have quite a good effort to trump Butler or Joel Embiid’s huge games.
“For Ben to be our bell-ringer with some of those other performances sort of confirms what I think he did tonight,” Brown said. “His no turnovers, his attack mode, pick ’em, his four offensive rebounds, his push and pace on missed shots especially, all those things were what made him an NBA all-star at 22 years old. I thought he was excellent and we needed it all.”
“In the first half, the authority and the skill package and his will — put whatever words you want,” Brown gushed. “He led us.”
Butler’s first-half performance — 19 points on 9-of-15 shooting — was the main reason the Sixers led by 15 at halftime. He played some point guard and he dealt four assists.
Butler was, for once, a viable answer to Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard, who finished with 29 points. Butler even abused the Claw a couple of times.
With four minutes, 10 seconds to play in the second quarter Butler beat Danny Green, drew the defence of Leonard, and never took his eyes off the basket as he floated an alley-oop pass to Simmons for a 12-point lead.
Butler brought the house down four minutes later.
Leonard burst past Butler, but Butler stayed in the play and ripped Leonard’s dribble from behind. Butler then outraced Green to the rim for a layup with 0.4 seconds to play.
“He carried us, offensively” Embiid said. “And that last steal before the half was huge.”
Butler landed in Philadelphia via trade from Minnesota in November. He came cast as the finishing piece of The Process — an all-star veteran, the perfect big brother to Embiid and Simmons, the callow cornerstones.
But he arrived with baggage. At 29, he no longer had patience for players who couldn’t carry their weight, and expressed as much to the Timberwolves’ young stars Karl-Anthony Townes and Andrew Wiggins as much to their faces, in front of their peers.
“I’m sticking with the Sixers in Game 7. I do not trust No. 2 in the biggest situations. The Raptors at heart are still the Raptors. The new DeMar DeRozan is No. 2. The Sixers are good enough to beat the Bucks in the next round because of its star power and firepower.”
The Raptors’ great, good luck in acquiring Kawhi Leonard was that he appears completely unbothered by how he is perceived. It really bothers Irving.
Some nights, it looks as though Leonard doesn’t care very much what anyone is doing around him. He is that self-contained. Irving has a bad tendency to stop in the middle of the court and ogle or eye-pierce teammates after they’ve screwed something up.
After Thursday’s crooked loss in Philadelphia, Kyle Lowry spent some of his podium time slowly dragging a finger down the stats sheet, listing off all the teammates who’d missed a ton of shots. There were a lot of them. Notably, he wasn’t one.
Lowry wasn’t cruel about it, but it also didn’t need to be said out loud.
But you can’t get any sense of how things are going emotionally unless you are in the locker room directly after a big loss.
There’s a feeling that permeates a room that has been rattled. The Toronto Maple Leafs changing quarters had that feeling after they’d lost Game 6 during these NHL playoffs. The atmo was funereal rather than just quiet; the eyes of the guys in there a bit too wide. John Tavares – the Leonard of the Leafs – came out and said all the right things, but there was too much edge in the tone.
You didn’t know the Leafs were going to lose Game 7, but you had something more than an inkling.
On Thursday night, Leonard didn’t speak to the media. Afterward, he was sitting at his locker in his underwear, scrolling through his phone, as uninterested as though this defeat had come in February.