The Milwaukee Bucks rout of the Boston Celtics notwithstanding, the second round of the NBA’s conference playoffs has been a hoot.
If the Houston Rockets win Friday at home against the Golden State Warriors, it sets up a Super Sunday with three Game 7s, the Portland Trail Blazers-Denver Nuggets and an entirely unanticipated decider between the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors.
We’d like to focus on the Sixers-Raptors here because after the way the dinosaurs toyed with them in Game 5, ripping the Sixers to shreds, Philadelphia came back on Thursday with an 112-101 win in Game 6 that has us now believing anything is possible.
This should not be a major surprise. The Eastern Conference was as wide open Kawhi Leonard always seems to be after LeBron jumped to the Lakers. And that’s exactly how this season has played out. The Bucks have been great, but its not outside the realm of believability that either Philadelphia or Toronto can take them in the conference finals beginning next week.
You could tell the Sixers were pissed off on Thursday. They turned on the gas defensively from the outset, focusing on the indomitable Leonard. Let’s face it, if they didn’t figure out a way to stop Leonard we’d be talking about the Sixers in the past tense.
Of course, for this strategy to work, the Sixers would have to depend on the other Raptors to throw up bricks to validate the decision to double-down on Leonard. The Raptors complied. They missed 13 of the 20 open field goal attempts they took in the first three quarters. And that included 7-of-9 three pointers. If you’ve spent any time watching the Raptors this season you know that’s rarely been the case.
“We had a lot of open looks early and we missed them,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “We didn’t play well tonight.”
Along with frustrating the Raptors offensively, the caroms enabled the Sixers to spring their transition game and run the ball down Toronto’s throats. And once that began happening, the crowd got hyped and the Sixers filled with confidence.
It sounds simplistic, but it’s likely worth noting Toronto is probably a better half-court team than the Sixers. So when the Sixers are able to run, they are at an advantage.
“It was just making a point of actually doing it and not [just] talking about it,” Ben Simmons said. “Obviously, I’m pretty quick, so I’m able to push the ball. I think it was just being aggressive downhill and just playing my game.”
Simmons is a great player, but he has a tendency to be one-dimensional. He needs the ball and to be on the move to be totally effective and that played out in his masterpiece effort – 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Another big difference in Game 6 was the Sixers tenacity on the boards. And then there were Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid. Butler scored 25 points and Embiid contributed a sound double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds).
“That Game 5 didn’t necessarily surprise me and then the expectation was that we just rarely sort of have those back-to-back horrible games,” the Sixers’ JJ Redick said. “So it was almost like I could have predicted tonight as well.”
All in all, its been a breathtaking series. You watch and you can tell how desperate both teams are to win. The Raptors and Sixers, certainly more than the Celtics, made bold moves this season to fortify their rosters and prepare for what they now face. The team that loses on Sunday will have reason to feel crushed by disappointment.
The Sixers have not won the Eastern Conference championship since 2001 and the Raptors never have. And now with Kevin Durant’s calf injury gumming up the works for the two-time defending league championship, there must also be a sense that opportunity to win the NBA championship has presented itself.
Adding to the desperation for the Raptors is the reality Leonard will likely be a one-year rental. There have been strong rumors he wants to play with LeBron in Los Angeles, although the current state of dysfunction there may ultimately dull that passion.
Imagine if the 76ers were able to deal for Leonard, knowing now how they got Butler out of Minnesota in November. Butler has scored at least 20 points in five straight games, proving once again that he should be in the conversation among the league’s top players. We will stay or will he go?