A wildly unpredictable Eastern Conference semi-final series will conclude the only way that seems fitting on Sunday night when the Philadelphia 76ers visit the Toronto Raptors for a decisive Game 7.
Each team has taken turns being dominant or inept, depending on one’s perspective, with the latest twist coming in Game 6 on Thursday night when the 76ers completely controlled the game after being humiliated in Game 5 at Toronto.
The winner meets the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals. If Game 7 experience means something, then the edge goes to the Raptors, whose players have a combined 21 games of experience in a Game 7 compared to nine combined games by 76ers’ players.
“It’s not unlike where we have been a couple of times already in this series,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse told reporters. “They are critical games. They are all critical. We’ve got to play with great physicality, great speed, connected on the defensive end. I think we have to play one of our best defensive games of the year and play with some gusto on offense.”
Sixers coach Brett Brown said a Game 7 provides a different experience. “They’re very unique,” he said. “They’re special, they’re a life-lesson opportunity.”
The first six games of the series have been won by the team with the higher field-goal shooting percentage. Game 1, thoroughly dominated by the Raptors, was the only one won by the team that had the inferior shooting percentage from 3-point range while still having the better overall field-goal percentage.
The Raptors have leaned heavily on Kawhi Leonard and the supporting cast has not always backed him up.
“We win the last game, that’s all that matters,” Leonard said. “We lost some games playing their way, so it doesn’t matter. I’m going to try to win.”
The shooting has varied widely from game to game. Toronto shot 40 per cent (16-for-40) from three-point range in Game 5 when Leonard received strong support from his team-mates in a 125-89 win. Toronto shot 48.8 per cent overall in that game, while the Sixers shot 25 per cent (6-for-24) on three-pointers and 41.8 per cent overall.
In Game 6, however, the Raptors shot 25 per cent (9-for-36) from three-point range with Leonard 0-for-4, Marc Gasol 0-for-3, Serge Ibaka 0-for-3 and Danny Green 2-for-8.
Meanwhile, the Sixers made 35.7 per cent (10-for-28) of their three-point attempts and had a 46.1 to 43.2 per cent advantage in field-goal shooting.
“I feel like we messed up sometimes on transition and defense,” said Leonard, who had 29 points and 12 rebounds Thursday. “We didn’t knock down open shots early, you know, and they played well. They came with pace and knocked down their open shots early on, and we tried to dig ourselves out of the hole.”
With enigmatic Joel Embiid battling illness and inconsistency and Ben Simmons not producing until Game 6, Jimmy Butler has been the main force for the Sixers.
Butler led the Sixers with 25 points, eight assists, six rebounds and two steals on Thursday night.
Simmons had 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists and committed no turnovers on Thursday.
Embiid also was a big factor in Game 6 after playing so poorly in the previous game. He had 17 points and 12 rebounds with two blocked shots and was a presence beyond those numbers.
“He’s got an incredible defensive impact on a game,” Brown said. “Pick ’em, Kawhi, Kyle Lowry, whatever – if you see [Embiid] you’re probably going to think a little bit more about what you want to do, what’s your plan?
“His importance to our team is obvious. [Thursday] you saw a healthier Joel Embiid and for that example, situation, him and his health, he comes out and has a plus-40. It’s a huge number. It’s a huge plus-minus number in a playoff game. His significance is felt all over the place.”