What a long strange trip it’s been. The Toronto Raptors closed out the first round with a win on April 23, and yet they remain, almost three weeks later, locked in a hellish battle with the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s like the pair of fights between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, but if they fought seven bouts instead. Both teams are playing for their souls. If the Raptors lose, they could also lose Kawhi Leonard, the best player in franchise history; this could feasibly be Leonard’s last game as a Raptor. Toronto would keep, however, their seemingly unshakeable narrative of playoff demons. If the Sixers lose, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are free agents, and there’s noise from Philadelphia brass that Brett Brown’s job could be in trouble. This is a crossroads, but only one team can emerge out the other side. It’s a high-leverage moment.
It’s been a long strange trip for me, as well. I’ve compared the Raptors to Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Magnus Carlsen, and Genghis Khan, among others. Tomorrow morning, win or lose, will require some serious allusions.
Games seven are momentous affairs. Of course, both teams face knockout situations, which is unique in the NBA. Such moments form the mass with which personal legacies are formed. Kyle Lowry famously put up a breathtaking 35 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds, and 4 steals in his 2015-16 masterpiece victory over the Miami Heat in game seven. That was the last game seven played by the Raptors franchise. (Toronto and Philadelphia did play a game seven in the second round in 2001 for the right to play the Milwaukee Bucks. Vince Carter’s miss has echoed through the entirety the franchise, and you best believe that no matter what happens today, there will be comparisons between Carter and Leonard.)
But many of the participants today have seen their own games seven. Danny Green and Leonard played together in three games seven in three consecutive years. That was with the San Antonio Spurs, going 1-2 against the Los Angeles Clippers (loss, 2015), Dallas Mavericks (win, 2014), and Miami Heat (loss, 2013). Leonard was not nearly as uniquely unstoppable on the offensive end in any of those years, but he still managed to average 15.7 points and 10.7 rebounds in the three games.
Also in 2013, Jimmy Butler earned some game seven experience in a win over the Deron Williams-Brook Lopez-led Brooklyn Nets. He played a full 48 minutes for the Chicago Bulls, only putting up 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. (Like Leonard, Butler also went on to lose to the Miami Heat in 2013, falling to them in the next round.) It’s quite possible that Butler plays a full 48 minutes again tonight, but he’ll need better counting numbers for the Sixers to have a chance in this one.
Marc Gasol has played in three games seven, going 0-3 against the Oklahoma City Thunder (2014), Clippers (2012), and the Thunder again (2011). Gasol himself played well, however, averaging 18.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. Like so many in Toronto’s rotation, he has plenty of experience in any situation that can arise on a basketball court, including a high-pressure game seven. That is to say, the above games are far from an exhaustive list of players’ games seven experiences.
Leonard has already etched his name in Raptors’ history during this playoff run. Lowry will be in our hearts forever. Butler, on the other side, has played with pride and prestige. But there’s plenty of legacy left to earn in this game.
Toronto Injury Updates
Plenty of guys are hurting. Lowry’s finger, Siakam’s calf are the most prominent. But it’s game seven, and the main guys are of course all going. Chris Boucher (back spasms) is out, as is OG Anunoby (appendectomy).
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Patrick McCaw, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Eric Moreland
Philadelphia Injury Updates
Embiid and Harris seem to have recovered nicely from their injuries earlier in the series. Nothing to report from the Sixers side of the injury report.
PG: Ben Simmons, TJ McConnell
SG: JJ Redick, James Ennis, Furkan Korkmaz
SF: Jimmy Butler, Jonathon Simmons
PF: Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, Jonah Bolden
C: Joel Embiid, Greg Monroe, Boban Marjanovic, Amir Johnson
- We’ve had enough data in the six games already played that there’s some trends starting to emerge. The thing is, they’re trends that we’ve known for a long time. Namely, the Raptors’ starters are basically their only high-minute lineup that can be relied upon to consistently win its minutes. They’ve had a net rating of +8.0 in 121 minutes over the whole series. Oddly enough, they’ve also been the only Raptors’ lineup to have played in every game.
- The Sixers’ starters have a +6.4 net rating in 96 minutes played. That both starters can have positive net ratings just goes to show how different are both coaches’ substitution patterns. Brett Brown has done a great job engineering minutes for his starters against Toronto’s bench.
- Despite the lopsided score in game six, Toronto’s starters were actually fine. They lost their 19 minutes by 3 points, so Toronto was outscored 16 over the rest of the non-garbage time minutes of the game. Toronto was only outscored by 3 with the starters in the game despite only shooting 5-for-17 from deep in that stretch. That’s wild.
- Otherwise, Toronto has had some success from the twin tower lineups. Best among them has been Lowry-Green-Leonard-Ibaka-Gasol. That group has now played the second-most minutes for Toronto in the series, at 22, and they have a net rating of +18. The rebounding and defense has been excellent for that group, so look for Nurse to ride it for long stretches if Siakam remains less than 100 percent.
- Toronto’s highest net-rating among lineups that have played real minutes, however, belongs to the starters with Ibaka in place of Gasol. That seems insane, right? But Ibaka – and all the bench players – actually have great net ratings when alongside four starters. Ibaka for Gasol (+39.6), Powell for Green (+83.3, but only in one minute across two games), and VanVleet for Siakam (+95.5, but only in six minutes across three games) have won their minutes by overwhelming margins. The problem has been when the bench pieces play together. Let’s narrow the lineups from 5-man rotations to smaller lenses so we have higher minute totals.
- VanVleet and Powell have a net rating of -27.9 in 57 minutes across 5 games.
- VanVleet and Ibaka have a net rating of -18.9 in 72 minutes across all 6 games.
- Powell and Ibaka have a net rating of -29.1 in 43 minutes across all six games.
- Combine the three, and it doesn’t get any better. VanVleet, Powell, and Ibaka have played together for 39 minutes across 5 games, and they sport a net rating of -28.6. This is a game seven. If the three play together for even one possession, that would be a dramatic failure on the part of the coaching staff.
- This may be a truism, but Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the series, and he is a Toronto Raptor. If you’re feeling worried, that’s a fairly potent balm for your anxious soul.
- Shooting should be at the top of everyone’s minds. It has been a major predictor of the Raptors’ success. The Raptors shot 9-for-36 from deep in the fateful game six. If they repeat that performance, it would spell disaster. Green shot 2-for-8 and Gasol 0-for-3. They are great shooters who need to hit. In Gasol’s case, he needs to be more willing to fire. Further to Toronto’s negative, Leonard has finally cooled off, shooting identical 0-for-4 from deep in both games six and seven. However, Toronto has been far better at home in the series. From distance, they’ve shot 33.7 percent in three games at home and 27.7 percent in three games on the road.
- The noise coming out of the Raptors today and yesterday has all been about trust. They know that they are a great shooting team. They know that they have been creating great shots. Those two facts haven’t equalled made shots yet, but Toronto doesn’t want to over-compensate and go away from their strengths.
- “I really believe we’ve got a good-shooting team,” said Nurse at practice yesterday. “It’s not like I’d be saying god we should have shot, you know, we had a body of work where we were the best shooting team in the league, from the Marc Gasol trade on, so it’s not like I’m pie-in-the-skying it here. So i think that’s exciting. We always talk about law of averages, or what’s the word you always use, regression, regression to the mean, variance, small sample size.”
- More from Nurse on shooting, pre-game today, his explanation of better shooting in some games was all about pace. Getting into half-court sets early, using more force in actions and screens, just creating that rhythm rather than letting it come to them.
- Minute limits are off the table for both sides, according to Nurse. “Yeah, I think the minutes things for both teams are going to be off the table tomorrow. 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.”
- Brett Brown played Boban in game six? It seemed like Monroe had fully supplanted him in the lineup, but Brown still tossed Marjanovic 7 minutes, which the Sixers lost by 18 points. That’s an outrageous number in a game the Sixers won by 11 points. Marjanovic has a team-low -7.3 raw plus-minus so far in the series. If he plays in game seven, Toronto can expect to comfortably win those minutes by a wide margin. He could be the least effective defensive player in the league.
- The real question is who is going to receive backup center minutes for the Sixers in game seven. Monroe had done well, but Brown still went away from him in game six. Marjanovic would be a poor idea, and Brown opted not to use him in the second half. Amir Johnson is a possibility, but he’s creaky and gives almost nothing on the offensive end. The best option could be to play center by platoon, choosing instead to have a horde of gigantic wings in the game. The Sixers did that in game six, running a lineup of Butler-Ennis-Harris-Simmons-Scott in the second half. It’s tough to say who is the center in that lineup, but the Sixers were only outscored by 1 point in 3.3 minutes. The Sixers are at a disadvantage whenever Embiid hits the bench, and he’s not able to play 48 minutes, as Butler or Leonard could tonight. Whether the Sixers choose Marjanovic, Monroe, Johnson, or Scott to play the 10-15 minutes of backup center the Sixers will require, the Raptors need to win those minutes.
- Speaking about coaching errors, Nick Nurse has not had a flawless postseason. It hasn’t been nearly as horrific as some have made it out to be; however, some errors stand out, like failing to match Gasol’s minutes to Embiid’s quickly enough, and subbing Leonard in too late in the fourth in game two. Nurse is a rookie head coach, and right or wrong, this game will greatly affect his perception around the league, as well. He did not know he was inheriting Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol when he took the job, but the Raptors’ expectations skyrocketed when those deals took place. In the big picture, Nurse has done a great job steering Toronto to their current situation. Single games, single moments, probably shouldn’t be bellwether’s for much larger efforts, but here we are.
- Starting lineup on the shirts tonight:
- Officials tonight are Scott Foster, Tony Brothers, and Jason Phillips.
- Vegas likes Toronto. They’re -6.5, with an over-under of 210.