WE GOT THIS.
3. Can we have one more game that isn’t a blowout?
The last two games of this series have been one massive Jump to Conclusions mat. First, the Raptors eviscerate the Sixers with a 31-point win in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead and move the Sixers to the brink. Then, the Sixers respond with a runaway win in Game 6 to force a Game 7 and cause Philly fans to believe again.
However the momentum shifts, hopefully we’ll get one more game that doesn’t feature a decisive advantage at halftime. A Game 7 blowout would sure be deflating for whatever promising season comes to an end.
4. Which team will make its 3-point shots?
Funnily enough, who blew out who in Games 5 and 6 pretty much came down to who was making outside shots. The Sixers shot only 6-of-24 to the Raptors’ 16-of-40 in Game 5, then the tables were turned when the Raptors (9-of-36) fell short of the Sixers (10-of-28) in Game 6.
Whoever wins could just come down to which of Green, Pascal Siakam, J.J. Redick, Tobias Harris and more are feeling it from deep early.
There was nothing much like we are going to experience here on Sunday night against the Philadelphia 76ers. This will stop most of us on Mother’s Day. This will be our sporting priority. Carter once led the Raptors to a Game 7 in the second round against a different version of the 76ers. But if we listen hard enough, we can still hear that potential game-winner from Carter clanging off the rim and not dropping. The sound of the franchise.
Chris Bosh certainly tried to push the Raptors to playoff heights, but he didn’t have the right kind of help, the right kind of coaching. Almost every year, things changed and so often they remained the same for a team forever searching for an identity of something beyond chaos.
And even with a plan, that plan wasn’t always executed the way it was drawn up. When Tim Leiweke ran Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment and drove everyone around him crazy, he did do some amazing work. He hired Brendan Shanahan to run the Leafs. He somehow talked the Denver Nuggets into allowing Masai Ujiri into coming to Toronto to run the Raptors, a place in which Kevin O’Neill was once fired as coach for having temper tantrums, a place in which Butch Carter’s coaching career ended with an attempted palace coup.
Leiweke fired Bryan Colangelo as general manager, almost essentially because he traded away a first round pick for Kyle Lowry. Why, Leiweke once told me, would a losing team trade an asset like its first pick away?
Ujiri took over and was going to tank. He agreed to trade Lowry to the Knicks and the deal was blocked by the owner. He inherited Dwane Casey as coach, and not unlike Brendan Malone coaching for Isiah Thomas, Casey refused to lose. Somehow, everything began to change for the Raptors. Lowry proved worthy of the first pick. A team began to build.
They won a bunch of games for a bunch of years but every year ran into the wall that was LeBron James. They were good, just not good enough. And then this year came around, and everything seemed to change.
The defining characteristic of the Toronto crowd is that it is late.
Oh, sure, a Scotiabank Arena crowd can certainly work itself into a good lather, can get a proper din in the place when the Raptors are rolling, but it’s not for nothing that the home crowd’s perpetual inability to get into its seats on time is often a point of discussion in the playoffs. Television analyst Jack Armstrong, as nice a man as you will ever meet, alternates between upbraiding fans to be more present in the arena, and begging them to be like that.
It works, but only sometimes, which underscores the awkward situation in which the Toronto Raptors find themselves: They really need a big boost from a home crowd that is not entirely used to providing it.
This wasn’t always the case. The former Air Canada Centre was legitimately bonkers as recently as 2014, when the Raptors came out of nowhere to make the post-season and so the crowd was full of people who genuinely supported the team. Some of that has been lost over the years, as the Raptors have been consistently good and have become more of a hot ticket. Prices rise, the average fan is squeezed out, and the resulting audience is more corporate, less invested in the team from day to day. There are, absolutely, still diehards in the stands, just fewer of them than there once was.
There is also this: Raptors fans have seen some things. This is a team that has lost home games in the playoffs over the years at a rate that is close to alarming. They finally won a Game 1 at home against Philadelphia to buck their incredible 2-14 run in series openers — and then promptly lost Game 2.
“It’s what we live for,” Raptors guard Danny Green was saying this past week. “It’s what we play this game for — moments like this and times like this.”
It’s what they play for. It’s what we watch for. And it’s fleeting. Think about Green. He’s played in the league 10 seasons now, almost all of them for a competitive franchise, and this will only be his fourth career Game 7, his first as a member of a team not named the San Antonio Spurs. Green’s been on the victorious side just once, and he’s worn the heartbreak of a Game 7 in a 2013 NBA final wherein he missed five of six three-pointers en route to a devastating defeat. Raptors teammate and Spurs alum Kawhi Leonard has played alongside Green in all three of those games.
Think about Toronto centre Marc Gasol. He’s played in the league 12 seasons now, and he’s only a veteran of three Game 7s, including one to get to a conference final back in 2011. All these miles into a basketball journey that’s spanned 70 playoff contests, he’s never played for the winning team in a seventh game.
Still, it’s for moments like this that Masai Ujiri acquired these guys. Leonard, who’s been Toronto’s constant all post-season, is a former NBA final MVP. Green, though he’s shot inconsistently, has a history of clutch-situation performance. Gasol, though he’s never been to an NBA final, has played in two Olympic gold-medal games and multiple European championship finals. Stack those resumes atop those of Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry, who’ve both played on the winning side in a pair of NBA Game 7s, and you’ve got a team with considerable big-stage history, albeit not together.
“I think the minutes things for both teams are going to be off the table (Sunday),” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said Saturday afternoon. “So, I would expect the best players to play absolutely as many minutes as they possibly can all the way through until it’s decided.”
Nurse was responding to a question specifically about Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, who has averaged only about 29 minutes in 10 playoff games this year but would be expected to handle a far greater load in Game 7 on Sunday night. But the Raptors coach could just have easily been speaking about Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard, who has had his workload closely watched throughout the season so he’d be ready for a situation like this: one game to keep a season alive.
Leonard has averaged about 37 minutes in 11 post-season games so far, but stretching him out for as long as Toronto needs would be at the top of Nurse’s priority list.
Leonard was his usual stoic self on the off-day leading into the most important game of the season. It’s not just another game, but he made it sound like that’s how he’s approaching it.
“You come in nervous or with some anticipation (to every playoff game),” he said. “Just (be) ready to play. So just go out and play. You can’t let your nerves get the best of you. Just go play basketball.”
FAMILY FIRST: Leonard’s sense of priorities is admirable. Locked into an intense seven-game series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Leonard gets away from the noise and the attention the best way he can: with his family. “Just hanging with my family pretty much,” he said. “Hanging out with my daughter, watching TV, playing games with her. I mean, that’s the most important thing that’s really going on. Basketball is just: Go out there and play, do your job, have fun. That’s all you can do. Leave it all on the floor. The most important thing in life is family and health.”
Heading in, Toronto has some important factors in its favour. We know historical statistics overwhelmingly show that the home side wins far more often than not in games of this magnitude. Plus the Raptors boast a significant experience edge in key clashes, since Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Serge Ibaka have all been to the NBA Final at least once, with Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry (and Norman Powell, for a few minutes at least) each playing in a conference final. None of that guarantees anything, but they shouldn’t be afraid of the bright lights.
Lowry even keyed one of the bigger wins in Raptors history when he broke out for 35 points, nine assists and seven rebounds to knock out Miami in Game 7 of this same point of the playoffs three years ago.
“Game 7s are what you play for, what you work for. It’s one of the best games in your career and, kind of, in the playoffs you get to a Game 7 you know how hard it’s going to be,” Lowry said.
“That Game 7 (against) Miami it was just about doing whatever it takes to win. I think this game it’s just working as hard as you can, leave it all out there like I said, we really have to win or go home.”
Nurse has seen the wild swings in this series and believes that history could help too.
“Those guys have obviously been there before, and I think the majority, or not the majority, I think some of those guys were not pleased with their play in the last game, starting with their effort and next I would say their execution offensively and defensively,” Nurse said.
Much has been made of Joel Embiid’s defense against the Raptors. Philadelphia’s star center is one of the best rim protectors in the NBA, and he has an advanced understanding of how to contain pick-and-rolls. Those attributes, however, do not by themselves account for the outrageous on/off numbers he has posted while playing through an injury and multiple illnesses. In his 192 minutes, the Sixers have outscored Toronto by 80 points with a 94.2 defensive rating; in the 96 minutes Philadelphia has played without him, it has been outscored by 97 points with a 119.1 defensive rating.
Some of this enormous variance is because Embiid is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and the Sixers have a glaring backup-center problem. It is this extreme, however, because the Raptors have shot 26.9 percent on 3s with him on the court and 38.2 percent with him on the bench — no other Philadelphia player has had this kind of correlation with their shooting. This prompts a question: Is Embiid, a notoriously paint-bound player, really affecting Toronto’s 3s, or are they just not going in?
The regular season suggests that it is the latter, as the Sixers’ opponents shot 34.4 percent from deep with Embiid on the court and 34.0 percent from deep with him off the court. Reviewing the film backs that up: Embiid was an extraordinary plus-40 in Game 6, but his reluctance to venture to the perimeter directly led to many of the Raptors’ clean looks. Philadelphia dominated not only because Toronto wasted good possessions by shooting 9-for-36 from deep, but because of the ripple effects of all those misses.
“We just missed so many shots early, and they were just playing off the rebound so often,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after Game 6. “They were getting them off the rebound and pushing it out on us. We were not doing a great job in transition and, when we did, we end up cross-matched a little bit and they made us pay for those. And then when we did make them miss, they were getting their share of put-backs as well. So, kind of three things going there that [were] somewhat attributed to our poor shooting.”
One of the most enjoyable elements of this season, LeBron James’s first in the Western Conference, was the way various East contenders, liberated from his ominous shadow, were aggressive in their attempts to build rosters worthy of the N.B.A. finals spot that belonged to James-led teams for eight consecutive years.
Toronto rolled the dice in a big way in July by trading for the marquee free-agent-to-be Kawhi Leonard, then acquired the former All-Star center Marc Gasol at the trade deadline. Elton Brand, Philadelphia’s rookie general manager, countered Leonard’s arrival in Canada by swinging deals for two more desirable future free agents: Jimmy Butler (in November) and Tobias Harris (in February).
This matchup thus stands out for fans and pundits more prone to focus on how this spring’s postseason results will shape the future of the league than on the actual playoff implications.
Leonard has been the most dominant and complete player in the post-LeBron Eastern Conference playoffs. Yet Toronto’s chances of keeping him in free agency figure to take a major hit if the Raptors cannot secure a spot in the conference finals for just the second time in franchise history — especially with Game 7 on their floor.
The Sixers, meanwhile, will be swamped with what-next questions if they don’t advance.
Beyond the uncertain fates of Butler, Harris and the sharpshooting J.J. Redick, rumblings in league coaching circles have grown louder by the day that 76ers Coach Brett Brown needs an N.B.A. finals berth to keep his job. Brown, I’m told, has little chance of surviving a second-round exit.
So maybe it’s not the spectacle that another Game 7 featuring Golden State and Houston would have been — but it has plenty of appeal as a nightcap.
There was the everything-on-the-table talk between Ujiri and Kyle Lowry, who had been intermittently sulking over losing his best friend to San Antonio. Around the same time, there was Memphis and Toronto talking about Gasol two weeks before the deadline and circling back around, and the Grizzlies rejecting the idea of trading point guard Mike Conley Jr. for Lowry. Had Ujiri known Kawhi was staying, he likely could have gone even bigger at the deadline. But he didn’t know. Nobody does, yet.
And after a season of tinkering with lineups and schemes, and patching injury holes, and stitching it all together game by game — as Kawhi said in March, “There’s 82 games, and for me these are just practices, and playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up” — it’s all been a race to see how quickly these Raptors can build something durable. As Nurse put it, maybe the durability varies. Toronto and the Sixers have wrestled back and forth all series, and there are so many pieces whose performances have changed. Toronto, like Philadelphia, is still growing into itself.
“I think we’re still doing that,” said Gasol. “To this day, we’re still figuring it out. There are a lot of things to know. It’s just how you approach them … We’ve got to grow, and we’ve got to show growth tomorrow. And the next day after, too. Growing, it’s not always on your terms. You’ve got to continue to grow whether you like how it’s going or not.”
It all led to this. Pascal Siakam had to blossom, and Danny Green had to endure. Ibaka had to rediscover his game, then cede the starting job to Gasol. Anunoby had to have his sad, lost season and be sidelined by his appendectomy. VanVleet and Norman Powell had to have their confidence shaken into what has sometimes seems like dust. Lowry has had to figure out the right time to do the right thing, including when to shoot, as has his unselfish-to-a-fault fellow traveller, Gasol.
“We got to take ’em before we make ’em,” said Lowry. “That’s the one thing we’ve been working for. We’ve got great professionals in here. We’ve got good shot makers, great shot makers. We’ve got good shooters, great shooters. We’ve got players that can make all the right plays. That’s what this game comes down to: making the right plays, taking the right shots … I think we know. We’ve just got to do it.”
Kyle Lowry had a massive Game 7 against the Miami Heat in 2016, scoring 35 points and flirting with a triple-double to carry the Raptors to their first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals.
On the eve of Toronto’s do-or-die Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, and with a second appearance in the conference finals on the line, the team captain reflected on that big night three years ago.
“It was the moment,” Lowry said at the team’s practice facility, his young son Karter in tow. “Game 7s are what you play for, what you work for. It’s one of the best games in your career and in the playoffs you get to a Game 7 you know how hard it’s going to be.
“For me you go out there and you play hard. That Game 7 in Miami it was just about doing whatever it takes to win. This game it’s just working as hard as you can, leave it all out there.”
The 33-year-old guard said there’s no point comparing this win-or-go-home game to 2016 — “Different game, different series, different time, different team.”
But if there’s anything the Raptors can take comfort in is the fact that Lowry and Toronto traditionally bounce back with big games after losses.
“We’ve had some moments of not playing very well, of getting knocked around,” said coach Nick Nurse. “This team almost always responds. I expect them to respond tomorrow.”
The execution Nurse is talking about largely comes down to Toronto’s starting lineup, which has been a tremendous positive for the team over the course of the playoffs. Raptors starters have a 24 net rating for the post-season, but faltered in Thursday’s Game 6. For one reason or another, the offence just wasn’t clicking.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s was. And, as it turns out, the only starting lineup to outperform Toronto’s during the playoffs is Philadelphia’s, which is just edging out the Raptors with a 25 net rating.
So what will we get in Game 7? Will Toronto’s familiarity with desperate situations be the edge? Among the 10 starters in this series, the Raptors have 13 Game 7’s to Philadelphia’s six. And, more broadly, 375 total playoff games to the Philadelphia’s 217. It has to be helpful on some level. But what’s all that experience really worth?
“I don’t know. To me, I remember being a younger player with Memphis and facing Game 7’s — and it didn’t really matter,” said Gasol, the Raptors centre who’s played 70 NBA playoff games. “I think it’s more to do with character and the way you’re built. If they’re in the Eastern Conference semifinal, that means they’re pretty strong mentally. They have a really good, talented team with size. You can’t take possessions off.”
A moment of truth, do or die, franchise-defining — insert any sporting cliche when trying to sum up Sunday’s Game 7 between the Raptors and Sixers, an Eastern semifinal series generally devoid of drama.
It could all change with so much at stake and so many questions that will be posed in the aftermath.
The biggest tip for Philly’s “Process,” and a potential final game in a Raptors jersey for Kawhi Leonard, there are all kinds of subplots and storylines to follow, basketball-related issues for both franchises to mull as the off-season awaits.
What has abundantly been made clear is that neither the Raptors nor the Sixers will beat the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA’s best regular-season team that advanced to the Eastern final after steamrolling the Pistons and Celtics, producing a sweep in the opening round followed by the proverbial gentleman’s sweep in the second.
The Bucks are loaded and will be well rested when the East final tips off next Wednesday night in Milwaukee, whether it’s the Raptors who prevail Sunday or whether the Sixers escape Toronto with a win.
Two franchises that went all-in this season and yet only one will advance knowing full well they will be cast as the underdogs when the Greek Freak takes aim at his first NBA Finals appearance.
Talent-wise, there’s no question Philly has the edge over the Raptors.
Leonard will be the best player on the floor, but Joel Embiid will loom as the most dominant, given his ability to protect the rim and paint, one of those game-within-a-game battles.
If Toronto wins…
Toronto doesn’t feel as top-heavy as the Sixers, but their talent fits together much more smoothly. Kawhi is a stud, Pascal Siakam is on his way there, and both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka combine size, experience, and talent to give opposing front courts fits. Playoff Kyle Lowry has been up-and-down (or for him, perhaps down-and-up?), but Danny Green has been as steady as advertised.
Like with Philly, things become more shaky after the sixth man. Fred VanVleet has had a hard time keeping up in the postseason, and former Bucks “shoulda” picks Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw have also struggled to remain consistent. The Raps are missing OG Anunoby hard, especially given that their front court depth just isn’t there. Flexing Ibaka and Gasol at the center spot works for a while, as does having Kawhi slot up to PF if Center Pascal becomes a thing, but the only insurance policy is…Eric Moreland?
Like with the Sixers, the Bucks’ depth can be a strength against Toronto, but it may find that the benefits of their spacing are more important. Gasol and Ibaka are big, but are not fast, and if they have to cover Brook Lopez or Nikola Mirotic out past 30 feet consistently, there will be lanes for Giannis and Bledsoe to attack. Additionally, Khris Middleton has been as effective as anybody against Kawhi (The Claw still gets the job done, but Khris at least makes him work for it), so the game will come down to consistency. Can the Bucks consistently get the Raptors’ bigs to stretch out too far, and if Toronto goes small can Milwaukee punish that with Center Giannis lineups (featuring Ilyasova or Mirotic)? Recent history suggest that the Bucks absolutely can do either, or both, against elite competition, which Toronto absolutely is considered.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse was adamant that rebounding could be the deciding factor in Sunday’s game noting that it has been an issue for his team in this series. What concerns Nurse the most is the defensive effort his team puts into getting the Sixers to take the kind of shots that the Raptors want them to take and then after all that allowing a put-back or an offensive rebound.
“We have to be better,” Nurse said. “We have to be more physical in our blockouts, we have to be super conscious of finding bodies, running to the basket, and then we’ve got to rebound like some grown men. We’ve got to go up and grab them with two hands, and squeeze them, and hold onto them and get in a strong body position.”
“It’s a little bit more physical, chippier, if that’s a word,” said Scott, who was a member of the Hawks when Atlanta lost a 92-80 slugfest to the Pacers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2014. “Of course, the crowd. You’ve got to cherish each possession, take care of the ball for the most part, get buckets, be physical, and try to win the game.”
This is a rare series where the Sixers do not have a dominant physical advantage. Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are all high motor players with centers of gravity that are difficult to move. The smaller the court gets, the less the Sixers are able to play their optimal style of game.
Enhancing the Raptors’ edge in this department will be the fact that they are playing at home. While road teams have won two of the last three Game 7s in the NBA postseason and are 4-4 in their last eight, the home team has historically held a huge advantage with a 76-22 record since 1976. That’s a significantly higher percentage than home teams overall during that stretch (.652). Then again, that’s not necessarily a function of the home court, since the home team in Game 7 is also the higher seeded team (and, thus, the series favorite, at least in theory).
Nurse: "It's like (people say), 'It's impossible that your team played that poorly'. Well, Golden State's laid a couple eggs in the playoffs too this year. You've just gotta look around a little bit. Things happen, you've gotta bounce back. That's where we are."
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) May 11, 2019
Don’t look for Butler to put any weight on his one previous Game 7.
“I don’t remember it,” Butler said before practice.
It was during his second year with the Chicago Bulls, during the 2013 postseason. Butler, who was still finding his way in the NBA, played all 48 minutes in a 99-93 victory against the Nets in Brooklyn. He finished with nine points, five rebounds, and four assists.
So Butler, who would become a four-time All-Star, won’t exactly be drawing from that Game 7 experience.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with absolutely anything,” he said. “I am at a different point of my career, I am with a different team.”
One thing remains the same in Butler’s mind.
“It is definitely hard to win a Game 7, especially on the road.”
The Sixers staved off elimination Thursday with a 112-101 win, one in which Butler had 19 of his 23 points by halftime, when the Sixers led, 58-43.
Butler cooled off in the second half, and part of that was because the Raptors put All-Star Kawhi Leonard on him.
Does he expect to see more of Leonard guarding him?
“Sure, why not,” Butler said.
“The most important thing in life is family and health,” Leonard said on Saturday. “Basketball is just go out there and play, do your job, have fun. That’s all you can do, leave it all on the floor.”
Leonard can leave it all on the floor and elevate a team from anywhere and this offseason he will likely be choosing between Toronto, where the Raptors can offer him $50 million more than anyone else, and Los Angeles, where both the Clippers and Lakers are expected to make compelling cases for why Leonard should choose them, including coming home.
Leonard and his long-time partner Kishele Shipley are both southern California natives and a return to the Golden State and being close to family as they raise their own family might be the only thing that really matters to Kawhi in the end.
On the other side, the 76ers are fighting to convince their own stars to stay put. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris will also hit the free agent market this summer and to this point it looks like winning and loyalty will be the most convincing arguments the Sixers can make when they offer the pair huge contrants.
But before any of those offers and decisions have to be made the Raptors will have to face the Sixers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and there is one thing for sure, they can’t win without Leonard.
Finding the balance between the team’s need for Leonard to have a good game and relying on him to carry the team is a fine one and the Raptors are hoping they strike the balance on Sunday.
Kyle Lowry has played seven seasons in Toronto.
That’s longer than Roberto Alomar played with the Blue Jays, longer than Doug Gilmour or Curtis Joseph played with the Leafs and the same number of seasons Ricky Ray managed with the Argos.
And all Lowry talks about, when pressed, is winning. The possibility of winning a championship. It’s what motivates him, what he hopes for. And this may be the closest he will ever get in this, his 13th NBA season.
But he has to win Sunday night. The Raptors have to win Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, against the team Lowry grew up idolizing, to have any opportunity to advance to the NBA Finals.
This used to be Lowry’s Raptors team, his and DeMar DeRozan’s, and they made it to the Eastern Conference final once, but never really looked like a team that could advance beyond that. Too often Lowry and DeRozan were why the Raptors won, why the Raptors lost.
The dynamics have changed in this year of Kawhi Leonard. Lowry is important, but it’s Kawhi’s show. It’s Pascal Siakam’s show. It’s more balanced than previous years with one superstar. And with Lowry playing an essential role rather than being the most essential part he was in the past.
These are the games that change player’s lives. These are the ones you talk about the way Gilmour still talks about 1993, the way Alomar can talk about the home run in Oakland that changed everything. This is the biggest game of Kyle Lowry’s career as an NBA player. Maybe his last real shot.
He just acted like an NBA player instead of an NBA halftime show.
He acted like Jimmy Butler.
“You know he’s going to show up. He’s going to play hard. He’s going to do everything in his power to make sure that we get that win,” Embiid said. “You want that type of guy on your side.”
“That type of guy” routinely shows up at the gym an hour before the first bus arrives for practices on the road, and that type of guy is in full lather by the time his teammates are lacing up their sneakers. That type of guy routinely misses the last bus back to the hotel because he’s sweating through a 30-minute three-point make-or-miss game against player development coach Remy Ndiaye.
“That type of guy” routinely is seen honing his chiseled physique at 6 a.m. the gym in his neighborhood in suburban Philadelphia — on game days.
Will Embiid ever become “that type of guy”? Probably not.
But he’s getting closer.
“I think [Butler] has had a significant impact on Joel,” said coach Brett Brown. “It’s hard to watch somebody be in a gym before the bus comes to the gym, sweating and getting shots; it’s hard to look at somebody’s attention to his health, his body; it’s hard to watch somebody perform at this level, on this stage, at a level that he has, and not be impressed.”
Embiid is impressed.
“We’ve been really close since he got to Philly. We’ve built a friendship off the court. I think that’s helped us a lot on the court, too,” Embiid said. “We always have the discussions — I mean, if he’s not feeling well, he comes to me [and says], ‘Take over.’ If I’m not feeling well, I do the same thing. We always talk to each other, figure out how best to help our teammates.”
Game 7 – with all its buildup (in this case there’s even an extra day’s worth), stakes, and presumed intensity – is coming.
So what was the mood like around the 76ers about 32 hours before the big tip of their Eastern Conference Semifinal finale against the Toronto Raptors?
Saturday morning, we got a little taste. The practice court attached to Scotiabank Arena was open to the media for 30 minutes before the Sixers started getting down to work in advance of Sunday’s win-or-go home clash.
A handful of players met with reporters, as did Brett Brown, and across the board, the vibes for the most part were business-like, focused, and confident. For valid reasons, too.
Having already staved off elimination once in the second round, the Sixers have every right to be feeling good about themselves. They powered past Toronto, 112-101, Thursday in South Philadelphia to win Game 6, and level the series at three games apiece.
Young All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were both terrific that night, while another All-Star, veteran Jimmy Butler, authored his latest primetime performance this postseason. The Sixers’ defense was stout, and the club controlled the perimeter and interior alike.
It was a complete victory – and, as we begin to give you a sample of the mood inside the gym at Saturday’s practice – the Sixers are well aware they’ll need a similar effort, if not better, on Sunday to oust Toronto in the Raptors’ own arena.
“Some of the young guys asked me about it. I just told them we just gotta man up, grow some balls, you know — it’s gonna be hostile,” Scott said at practice on Saturday.
That’s playoff basketball in a nutshell, no pun intended. The game slows down, and it’s on you to impose your will on the other team for 48 minutes. The whistles don’t come as frequently, the shots are more closely contested, and the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.
Philadelphia is trying to look past all of that. For many of the Sixers’ best players, this will be their first Game 7 ever. Even Jimmy Butler, their standout performer of the playoffs, has just one Game 7 under his belt, and he dismissed that as an experience to draw from when talking with reporters on Saturday. Fair enough — he was a much different player on a much different team back in 2013, and all anyone is worried about is the here and now.
There are two seasoned veterans in these moments: JJ Redick and Brett Brown. Redick has been through five of these as a player, and Brown’s time as an assistant coach in San Antonio has allowed him to go through this process repeatedly with different stakes for each one. The Spurs were taken to seven in every round of the playoffs at one point or another during Brown’s tenure, and he sees a connection between each of those experiences.
“I’ve said it before and I mean this, it’s a life experience. It’s for sure a sporting experience, but playing in Game 7s [is] different,” Brown told reporters Saturday. “Everything is just zoomed in, it’s just raw. It always gets back to, in my opinion, defense. There will be no like, oh that’s a great shot. Everything’s contested, lots of times you hope to just get a shot…and it incrementally increases as the clock winds down.”
Veteran guard Tracy Murray laughed as he stepped to the free throw line, not because of the cartoonish dinosaur logo on his uniform, but because his own home fans behind the rim were distracting him by waving inflatable plastic sticks. Murray told reporters afterward that while he loved his new fans’ energy, he encouraged them to only wave the sticks during their opponents’ attempts. They simply didn’t know any better.
“The first year was an educational year,” Murray said of the moment, which fit into everything the Raptors organization began to build that season. The team’s color commentator, Leo Rautins, used in-game skits to explain what a charge or three-second violation was. Raptors players, most of whom were household names in the United States but literal and figurative foreigners in Canada, poured into schools to introduce themselves to kids, grooming a new generation of fans and inspiring a crop of adolescents who would years later turn Toronto into a hotbed of hoops talent.
Within a few years, that group of players took off, transfixed by watching the Raptors’ first transcendent star, Vince Carter, and capitalizing on the emergence of a powerful prep basketball scene in a country long known for hockey.
“I call them Raptor babies,” Murray said.
The Raptors have become one of the NBA’s top franchises, valued at $1.7 billion and fourth in the league in attendance, a crowd that again will buzz Sunday when the Raptors host the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference semifinals. Moreover, the team’s brand has become one of the most recognizable in the NBA; the Raptors have a powerful ambassador in Toronto-born hip-hop mogul Drake, and even their once laughable retro uniform from the team’s debut season has become a fan favorite.
Toronto’s 3-point shooting
The Raptors were ice cold from the 3-point line in Game 6, missing 27 of their 36 attempts.
The majority of those attempts were wide open, too – 25 to be exact, per NBA.com , of which they made only seven.
The problem isn’t just that the Raptors weren’t able to capitalize on those opportunities. It’s that the 76ers were able to take advantage of those misses – as well as the 12 turnovers they committed – by pushing the pace and attacking the Raptors while they were scrambled.
“We just missed so many shots early and they were just playing off the rebound so often,” Nurse said post-game. “They were getting them off the rebound and pushing it out on us.
“We were not doing a great job in transition and when we did, we ended up cross-matched a little bit and they made us pay for those.”
It’s another way in which Simmons was able to get himself going after not being much of a factor offensively in Games 2 through 5. Simmons made more of an effort to get out in transition, where he was among the league leaders in scoring this season.
And when he wasn’t scoring in transition in Game 6, Simmons was collapsing the defence and setting his teammates with high percentage looks.
In order to win, the Sixers are going to have to create some mismatches and draw double-teams on Joel Embiid mostly. In the latter scenario, the hope is for the All-Star center to pass out to a wide-open teammate beyond the three-point line.
The Sixers could also duplicate what they did with Ben Simmons in Game 6. He had the ball much of the time in the second half, which enabled him to be more aggressive. That came after Jimmy Butler had the ball a lot in pick-and-rolls with Embiid. But the Sixers made a conscious adjustment to get Simmons back in attack mode after not having been much involved offensively in Games 4 and 5. That tactic worked out well, as he finished with 21 points on 9-for-13 shooting.