What is it like to cover an NBA playoff series? This question has fascinated me ever since I discovered the concept of a seven gamer as a teenager in Australia. Back then, the thought of a two-week battle to determine a postseason winner seemed baffling. Why use seven games to determine what one could do? The past fortnight has helped me gain some measure of understanding into the answer.
After covering all seven games of the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers’ playoff bout, I now understand there is nothing like a seven game series. And NBA playoff series are even more hectic than advertised. A series twists and turns. It moves and it shakes from city to city. It wears down the collective fortitude of everyone involved.
Take my personal travel schedule during Raptors-Sixers series. Four days in Toronto. Seven days back home in Philadelphia. Twenty hours back in Toronto. A Game 6 in Philadelphia, where those on the Sixers side – players, coaches, support staff and media were perilously left wondering if a final jaunt to Canada was needed for a decisive Game 7. It was, although that determination wasn’t made until Game 6 finished at 11pm local time, some 70 hours before Game 7 would tip.
The condensed travel schedule adds an additional layer of fatigue, during a time where every basketball-related event is more important than the one that preceded it. Media attention on practice days is amplified tenfold compared to the regular season. Each game feels like a seismic event. Take the narrative surrounding the Sixers: they were helpless after Game 1 and headed for the NBA Finals after Game 3. Brett Brown was getting fired after Game 5 and destined to make history after Game 6. It is so hard to not draw definitive conclusions after each game.
As an NBA fan I anticipated the narrative would move quicker than a Ben Simmons drive to the basket but living it up close is an assault on the senses. To keep track of my thoughts, I kept a running diary over the past 17 days, documenting key thoughts from each day, and collated quotes from players and coaches on both sides to track their thoughts.
The Toronto Raptors are headed to the conference finals, while the Philadelphia 76ers are headed home for the summer. Here is how it all happened, with a glimpse into the volatile journey of a seven-game playoff series, that ultimately ended up being a thriller right up till the final second.
April 26. Setting the scene for Game 1: streaks, familiar and growing up
The Sixers find themselves in the exact position as last season. In the second round of the NBA playoffs, on the road, facing a more experienced opponent. And the weight of history is stacked against them. Consider these two factoids: (i) Philadelphia hasn’t won in Toronto since 2012, and (ii) Kawhi Leonard has never lost to the Sixers. He is 13-0 in his career. Both streaks pre-date The Process. Brett Brown has never won in Toronto as an NBA head coach. Ben Simmons has never defeated Kawhi Leonard. Ditto for Joel Embiid. Although those around the team believe this is a new day.
The introduction of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, coupled with the growing maturity of young All-Stars in Simmons and Embiid, give the Sixers a newfound quartet that could lead the franchise over failures of the past. That was the message coming from pivotal Philadelphian protagonists as they boarded their plane to Canada.
Brett Brown: I understand that our history and lack of success is a real topic. I’d remind everybody that we have never played [Toronto] with the team we have, so the context needs to be somewhat considered.
Ben Simmons: This is a whole new team, a whole new series, so I look forward to getting started with this team.
JJ Redick: I don’t think you can drum up artificial confidence. You either have it or you don’t. Individually and collectively we have confidence, otherwise we wouldn’t be at this stage of the season. We feel like Toronto is as good as anyone in the NBA and we feel like we can be as good as anyone in the NBA.
Joel Embiid: That’s a team that causes a lot of turnovers. In the past they have turned us over a lot. Me and Ben.
Brett Brown: We lost to Boston and we started the preseason in September with those learning points form the Boston series and now we have moved them forward and it is towards the end of April and we are in the second round of the Eastern Conference championship. You can see that there is a little bit more wisdom with [Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid], a little bit more polish and a little bit more recognition of what is to be expected and there should be. That is the evolution of somebody’s career. As we all sometimes forget, Ben is 22 and Joel is 25. They have a lot to offer for the next decade plus.
April 27. Game 1: Kawhi Leonard’s masterpiece
Game 1 will always be remembered as the night Kawhi Leonard delivered a dominant blow to the Sixers. Leonard, who scored 45 points with clinical ease during Toronto’s 108-95 victory, began his onslaught early, scoring 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting in the first quarter. Leonard wasn’t just the best player on the Scotiabank Arena floor during Game 1; he looked like the best basketball player alive.
Toronto’s offence, which scored 92 points over the first three quarters to virtually secure victory, dominated Game 1 from the opening tip. At one point, the Raptors hit 13 consecutive field goal attempts in the first quarter, the longest streak in franchise postseason history. Leonard and Pascal Siakam combined for 11 of those field goals.
A common theme dominated Sixers personnel as they tried to explain what happened during Game 1. To a man, they struggled to articulate Leonard’s performance. They were reduced to superlative laden responses. Their confusion was warranted.
Brett Brown: The variety of ways that Kawhi Leonard scored and could get his shot off on some pretty good defensive players and big athletes was incredibly impressive.
J.J. Redick: He’s a spectacular player, he had a spectacular night and he hit some spectacular shots. He’s a superstar. He’s as good as there is in the NBA at generating his own shot and making tough shots. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat.
Ben Simmons: Personally I felt I did a pretty good job on Kawhi. He’s a tough player. He’s a physical guy with a lot of length who can shoot the ball.
Joel Embiid: Their two best players showed up tonight and I didn’t tonight, so I have to do a better job.
Nick Nurse: Kawhi was pretty damn good tonight. That was a big time performance and I just like the force that he is playing with at both ends.
Kyle Lowry: Kawhi was just in the zone. He probably could’ve had more, but he facilitated some and made some shots.
Danny Green: I’d say that’s one of the top three performances I’ve seen from him. It’s obviously different when the stakes are different with different opponents. It’s a very different opponent we’re playing against right now. The stakes are high. He’s playing really good basketball for us.
Kawhi Leonard: This individual stuff, it’s not big for me. To reach these goals, it’s great when you do it and you could win. But our focus is every game trying to win the ballgame. That’s why we’re playing this game. We’re not playing so I could score 50 or get 40 points. We’re all on this team trying to say, ‘Raptors win,’ at the end of the day.
Brett Brown: You can certainly shake their hand, Pascal and Kawhi. They were excellent but are you just going to live with that through a series? I doubt that. What that looks like and what is it? We will figure that out tomorrow.
April 28. 48 hours in Canada to find an answer
Tomorrow arrived quicker than Brown and the coaching staff would have liked. The Sixers were back on the training court just 14 hours after the leaving Scotiabank Arena with a 1-0 series deficit. Despite the quick turnaround, there was an obvious mandate facing Brown and his team: how to slow Leonard? That was the focus of a frosty Sunday afternoon in Toronto, and as the Sixers plotted their revenge, they embraced the underdog tag for the first time all season.
James Ennis: Just got to show Kawhi Leonard more bodies. I think he saw a lot of gaps with one defender in front of him. I think we need to give him different looks. Send double teams and stuff like that. He made tough shots, contested shots. He’s an elite scorer.
J.J. Redick: We have to figure out how to deal with Kawhi and Siakam. Some of the other mistakes we made are fixable things that we need to be better, whether it is communicating or getting back on defence, those two things.
Brett Brown: It’s all on the table. When somebody has that volume of points in isolated situations you go all over the place. You can say ‘do you double him?’ If so, what areas of the court are you coming from.
Ben Simmons: Show [Kawhi Leonard] more of a crowd. Be more physical and getting back in transition.
Tobias Harris: First off, improving our physicality versus Kawhi and then showing more of a crowd. I thought we kind of let [Leonard and Siakam] get to their spots on the court. Give them credit.
Brett Brown: Nobody really gives us a chance. My media person game me an ESPN article and I think two out of 20 thought the Sixers could win. Our local writers, zero for six thought we could win. We understand that. It’s not anything that influences us. In many ways it motivates us.
Jimmy Butler: We want to try steal one on the road and go back to the crib 1-1. We will go back there, look at some film and talk about the scout. Yeah we want to win. We don’t want to go down 0-2.
April 29. Game 2: James, Jimmy, Mr Butler and the adult in the gym
With adjustments aplenty, Philadelphia levelled the series with a 94-89 victory in what can only be described a titanic rock fight. Game 2 won’t ever be confused with what usually passes as aesthetical basketball. It was far from that, but it provided the victory Philadelphia needed to potentially stimulate a seismic shift in their franchise.
Simmons was entrusted with Leonard from the opening tip and made him battle for every one of his 35 points. As crazy as it sounds, Simmons played elite defence for the majority of Game 2. His point-of-attack defence and activity set the tone for the Sixers and Leonard’s astonishing shot making is more a statement of his offensive prowess than anything Simmons lacked. Embiid battled gamefully through gastroenteritis, while the Sixers bench came through with a number of glowing cameo performances. But this night belonged to Jimmy Butler.
Game 2 was the actualisation of everything the Sixers wanted from Butler when they acquired him back in November. Every time Philadelphia needed a basket, Butler was present. His shot making helped the Sixers build a double-digit lead in the first half and as that lead evaporated, it was Butler who delivered timely buckets to keep them afloat. It was a performance that had Brown bloviating, exasperated even, as he found unique ways of articulating Butler’s maturity.
Brett Brown: This was James Butler. That was the adult in the gym. I get as excited with the volume of threes that he sought as much as anything. He was just a tremendous rock. He willed us to a lot of different situations. He was a great teammate on the bench.
Ben Simmons: Jimmy was locked in. He was talkative on both ends. I think he was able to push us and give us that boost. He was really that guy that gave us the energy on both ends.
J.J. Redick: You can tell when he is being more aggressive to score. He has an unbelievable feel for the game and knows when he needs to create.
Jimmy Butler: I’m telling you, whenever we let our defence dictate our offence, we’re such a great team. We can’t let it be the other way around. As long as we don’t turn the ball over and we guard, we give ourselves a chance to win every night.
Nick Nurse: I thought we were just a little stand around-ish, and a little trying to play mismatches a little more than just continuing to play and let things come to us. It didn’t start out very good with flow.
Greg Monroe: It doesn’t get any bigger than this, on the road, Game 2, we were down 1-0. I’m happy [Brett Brown] trusted me, I was ready. I felt comfortable with everything we do, everything he asked me to do, so anytime someone gives you that amount of trust it gives you an extra vote of confidence.
Ben Simmons: Guys stepped up. Greg and Amir getting in there. Guys did a good job. That’s what it’s all about. Jonah hitting that three in the corner. Everyone doing a little bit of everything and trying to contribute.
Joel Embiid: I felt like that was a big game for us. After Game 1, we all felt like we had a chance. That after a few adjustments we could get on top and tonight we did that, but that’s all that matters. A win. So now we got to go home and take care of business.
April 30 and May 1. Back to the crib, fresh ink and appropriate fear
Brett Brown has spoken all season of the appropriate fear his playing group caries for elite opponents like the Raptors. It’s a concept that, as Brown conveys, means his star-studded roster respects the talents of other NBA elites without feeling overawed by their power. It’s a perfect message for these Sixers, as they certainly have the brashness of a leading contender. Brown’s fearful analogy brings a sense of focus to the group. Even in the afterglow of their best win of their season, Philadelphia remained on edge and they were anything but comfortable.
The Sixers have now seen how supernova Kawhi Leonard can go. They appreciate that one-time NBA heavyweights Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry can all play better than they did in Games 1 and 2. They also feel a response is coming from Nick Nurse. One win in the NBA playoffs can signify many things and between Games 2 and 3, Brown preached of the need for Philadelphia to focus making the Game 2 triumph a series altering event.
Philadelphia fans were a little more crazed than those within the franchise. Game 3 is being dubbed the biggest Sixers home game since 2001, the year Allen Iverson led the franchise to their last NBA Finals appearance. The mood was further ratcheted up thanks to some fresh ink. Matthew del Rio, a local Sixers fan, got the words “Mike Scott Hive” tattooed on his ribcage in the days before Game 3. Mike Scott responded in the most Mike Scott way possible (see below) and the scene was set for a rumbustious night at the Wells Fargo Center. A crazy atmosphere awaits.
Jimmy Butler: Anybody can get hot for us on any given night. It’s going to be hard to shut everybody down. At the same token, they have guys who can do the same thing. As much star power as both teams have, it’s all about who is going to make the other team take the most contested shots. Who’s going to rebound, not turn the ball over and guard to the best of their ability. We have two really good teams going together.
Brett Brown: Anytime anybody feels comfortable, you are in trouble. There can be zero comfort level in anything. It’s the dynamics of human beings, let alone athletes, it is how people are wired. It is my job, and it is truly the way that I think so it’s not force-feed, there is no level of comfort.
Joel Embiid: I’ve been watching a lot of film. I’ve always been able to figure it out. I’ve been in these types of situations before so I am going to figure it out. I am not too worried about it. At the end of the day it’s all about doing whatever I am asked to.
Ben Simmons: I think we did our job and did what we wanted to do in Toronto. We went up there and got a win. We just need to take care of home court.
Greg Monroe: It’s very important to take care of home court.
Mike Scott [on the potential Game 3 atmosphere]: That shit better be crazy. I know it’s going to be crazy. I know it’s going to be loud. I am just trying to amp them up and use some reverse psychology. I already know it’s going to be crazy. Fans are going to be wild and going nuts. Talking their shit, cheering, hopefully booing the hell out of the other team and holding us down like they always do.
Mike Scott [on a fan getting a tattoo in his honour]: That shit was dope. That’s crazy. It was dope. Shout out to him. I got him tickets for Sunday. It’s crazy. I love it. I have never had fans like this since UVA. As far as the league, these are the best fans. No disrespect to Atlanta, the Clippers or DC, but I have never had fans like this. I love it. They embrace me and I embrace them. I feel like I am one of them. It’s dope.
May 2. Game 3: Sixers Hive activate
If Game 2 was a glimpse into the potential of this Philadelphia team, Game 3 was a warning shot to the NBA. These Sixers have arrived and the Toronto Raptors’ postseason is officially in peril.
With Joel Embiid showing off every skill that simultaneously makes him the best five man and showman in global basketball, the Sixers romped to a 116-95 victory and a 2-1 series lead. Tonight was one of Philadelphia’s most complete showings of the season. It was unquestionably their most significant, as the team now sits just two games away from the Eastern Conference Finals. But there was something bigger brewing. Game 3 was the type of showing that existed in Elton Brand’s dreams, when the rookie general manager shook the roster up during the regular season. A long and athletic team overpowered one the NBA’s best outfits, with a unique cocktail of players that combined into an overwhelming force. That was the Philadelphia 76ers during Game 3.
Toronto appeared ill-equipped to deal with an opponent gaining momentum. Their much-vaunted depth has eviscerated. Kawhi Leonard scored 113 points through the opening three games of the series. Pascal Siakam had been the perfect Robin to his Batman, chipping in with 23.3 points per game, but that was where the help stopped. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol became passive offensive players. Danny Green hit a flurry of shots early in Game 3 but could only add four points over the final three quarters. Toronto’s starting group was getting thoroughly outplayed and fixing that was the first adjustment they had to make to save their season.
Nick Nurse: I think we got outplayed in just about every area we could get outplayed in. Just in overall physicality, energy, cutting, rebounding, passing — you know, all of that kind of stuff — we got thoroughly outplayed, and it’s been a while. Right? It’s been a while since we’ve seen this team play that way. I think the first adjustment, we’re going to have to make it, I guess we’re going to have to play all of them a lot harder.
Kyle Lowry: We’re being unselfish, and we have to be more selfish. We have to help Kawhi and Pascal, and score more and be a little bit more assertive. We’re just being very — we’re passive. We’re too passive to a fault.
Danny Green: They’re playing better, we’re not, they’re making shots, we’re not. I just think we’re making the game harder on ourselves than we need to be sometimes. Sometimes you make the easy play and go from there: take the first one, the first easy play, the first easy shot.
Joel Embiid: When you have great basketball players on the floor, it’s easy. It’s not that complicated. We’re all willing passers. We’re so unselfish. We understand that it’s all about moving the ball. We don’t want to ever get in situations where one guy has the ball and trying to create. We know that we got to move the ball. It just makes it easier.
Ben Simmons: I think everyone is just locked in right now. Obviously we are playing a very talented team who is well coached. A lot of respect for them and it’s going to be a fight.
Jimmy Butler: It’s simple enough to know that whenever you have some good basketball players out there, the game happens. You make the right plays, you do what you’re supposed to do with the basketball, and that’s all it is. The game is really, really simple. I think at times we, as players, decide to make it hard. But if you’re open, shoot it. If you’re not, pass.
Mike Scott: I be like, ‘God damn, this [Joel Embiid] dude is nice.’ He’s special. He’s one of one.
May 3 and 4. 48 hours to seize control
The grind of a playoff series has well and truly arrived. With it, comes an undeniable shift in the mood of all participants. Blame is being pointed towards Toronto, while Philadelphia is showered with praise following a dominant Game 3. Media sessions are becoming blunt. The drama is tangible. And the weight of a series that could define the immediate future of both franchises is beginning to take its toll. Here is just a snapshot of what occurred between Games 3 and 4:
Here is just a snapshot of what occurred between Games 3 and 4:
- Ben Simmons was fined $20,000 and assessed a flagrant foul 1 for elbowing Kyle Lowry in the groin during Game 3.
- Pascal Siakam was ruled doubtful for Game 4 with a right calf contusion that appeared to happen when he tripped Joel Embiid in the final quarter Game 3.
- Nick Nurse flagged lineup changes.
- Brett Brown spoke vaguely of predicting said changes.
- Kyle Lowry took responsibly for his lacklustre series to day. He admitted to passing up open shots in Game 3 and noted that he must become more assertive. And when asked about the difficulty of changing roles on the fly, Lowry made no excuses.
- Kawhi Leonard was compared to Michael Jordan.
- Marc Gasol called on his team to be better.
- James Ennis spoke of desperation.
Cue the theatre.
Brett Brown: As the playoffs have gone on and now we are now going into Game 4 of the second round with Toronto, I think the evolution of us being able to take a vanilla [game plan] base and being able to expand on that. Defensively I think we are able to do that. I think we have been able in both the Brooklyn and Toronto series to take a baseline defensive vision and philosophy and from time to time change a matchup and a scheme.
James Ennis: This is a desperate game tomorrow.
Ben Simmons: It’s Kawhi. He’s going to make tough shots just like any great player. You’ve just got to make it tough on him, can’t give him easy looks. Just be present in the moment.”
Kyle Lowry: I’ve been a scorer more so the last bunch of years, the last couple kind of taking it down a little bit with the emergence of the team, the offence, and the way things have changed. But just going out there and knowing, I know what I can do. I know I can put the ball in the hole, and going out there with that mindset is going to be huge tomorrow.
Nick Nurse: We could go with Norm, Serge possibly, and again none of it is ideal matchup-wise, those would be the guys who have been playing. We have started Patrick McCaw in these scenarios, at least once, and that could be an option to keep the rotations similar, we will see.
May 5. Game 4: That’s Kawhi, man
On a dreary Sunday afternoon Sunday, Philadelphia stopped to celebrate the very best sporting events the city knows. The Broad Street Run, an annual 10-mile race down famed Broad Street, shut the metropolitan area down in the morning. The Phillies, Philadelphia’s Major League Baseball team, beat the seasonal storms to squeeze in a lunchtime outing. These were just the appetizers. At 330pm local time, the Sixers took to the Wells Fargo Center court and in front of a frenzied home crowd they took aim at the Raptors once more. A repeat of Thursday’s beat down would give Philadelphia command over the series. They were so close.
It’s impossible to disconnect Toronto’s Game 4 101-96 victory from Kawhi Leonard’s greatness. He finished Game 4 with 39 points on an insanely efficient 13 of 20 shooting performance. He maintained a clinical offensive outburst, steadying the Raptors when they fell behind for the first time in the third quarter. And when Toronto needed a big shot to secure victory, Leonard did that too. With just 65 seconds remaining and his side clinging to a one-point lead, Leonard dribbled away from Ben Simmons, skipped back behind the three-point line and launched up a contested shot over Joel Embiid’s outstretched arms. It was an attempt that would make even the greatest of shot makers shake their head in disbelief. That was instead a sensation left to the sold out Wells Fargo Center crowd, as Leonard’s shot slid through the nylon.
What else happened in Game 4? Joel Embiid was sick. Paskal Siakam was injured. Neither team could make a shot. Tobias Harris was especially devoid of a shooting touch. Ben Simmons was critiqued for being passive. Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry showed up. But everything comes back to Kawhi being Kawhi. Just like Game 1, a Leonard masterpiece carried the Raptors.
The series now returns to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday night, and the Sixers are again tasked with winning away from home to progress into the Eastern Conference Finals. Butler admitted that the Sixers got humbled in Game 4 but remained confident. Simmons agreed. The Australian was eager to move on and focus on the opportunity that awaited his team.
Kawhi Leonard: In Game 3, we let them off the hook, and they scored 116 or 120 points or something — that’s not what we do. The close games we’re in, the games we won, we held them under 100 points, and that’s what we’ve gotta do.
Kyle Lowry: Kawhi is dominant, just dominant. I’ve only played with one other guy like that, Yao Ming, where when he got it rolling, you can’t stop him. Kawhi has been doing this for a month.
Danny Green: Kawhi’s been doing it time and time again. He’s getting better with time and each game and picking apart the defence, taking what they’re giving him.
Brett Brown: The stuff that [Kawhi] can get off, and we had two people out there, the stuff that he can do to create his own shot is Kobe-like.
Jimmy Butler: He is a really good player and he has been doing that for a long time in the league He has done that in every game this series, so what else can you do?
Serge Ibaka: That’s Kawhi, man. That’s what he does for a living.
Ben Simmons: You never let the highs get too high or the lows get too low. It’s on to the next game. We still have an amazing opportunity to go for the Eastern Conference championship and get to the NBA Finals. We are looking forward to it.
May 6. It’s all about Aussie Ben
Yesterday was about one of the NBA’s elite wing players delivering a masterpiece when his franchise needed saving. Today, the focus shifted to Philadelphia’s own All-Star, who hopes to join Leonard as one of basketball’s leading men. Ben Simmons’ performance in Game 4 drew the ire of many local pundits in Philadelphia. Was Simmons too passive in Game 4? Was his defence good enough to oppose Leonard? Did he pass up shots? Was he afraid of the free-throw line? Such questions dominated the local discourse the morning after Game 4.
Brett Brown conducted a conference call on the Sixers travel day, and in what became a routine occurrence, his Australian point guard was the focus.
Brett Brown [on whether Ben Simmons can become an elite NBA defender]: I think that his physical gifts give him the ability to achieve what I declared at the start of the season. I do think that it is in him and I think he will end up an All-NBA defensive player. This particular series and this particular matchup would be as hard as it gets. I think that him on an island, he has done well.
Brett Brown [on the growth of Ben Simmons in his second NBA season]: The growth of Ben this year from a coaching perspective has been significant. I think his work ethic with putting in extra time. I think that his attention to detail with knowing your opponent. I think that his growth as a leader and our point guard has been significant. At 22-years-old none of us should be as critical or harsh.
Brett Brown [on Ben Simmons passing up shots in Game 4]: He is 6’10” and his length and ability to get to the rim we encourage all day, every day. It’s where he can most significantly offensively stamp his thumbprint of the game. It difficult in the playoffs to think that those types of opportunities, even as good as he is, are as frequent. I just finished watching the game. There were a few times where maybe he could have gone a step further and tried to draw contact with either a strong finish or a dunk. I don’t think it is anything that is bothersome.
Brett Brown [on the mindset of Ben Simmons]: The thing that disappoints me is, me knowing what I know in regards to the volume of time that he has put in trying to improve his free throw. Pre-practice. Post-practice. Days off. At times it hasn’t translated into that sort of 70% shooting that has been his goal. In relation to him cutting and moving more behind the ball, at times he can do that and find open space. At times we can exploit a mismatch if somebody gets cross-matched onto him. If he has maybe Kyle [Lowry] or Danny [Green] as an example. Perhaps we can look and find him more in a paint environment. I do not see any connection of the dots that relates to aggressive attacking to a lack of confidence going to the line.
May 7. Game 5: A certified arse kicking
When an NBA playoff series is tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 wins the series 82% of the time. This was the biggest game of the season for both teams, so a high leverage, back and forth basketball slugfest was predicted. That didn’t eventuate. One team showed up for Game 5. One team didn’t. Jimmy Butler’s postgame comments so clearly explain which team was which. “We got our arse kicked,” Butler said, “Simple as that. No other way to put it.”
Philadelphia was throttled 125-89 by the Raptors and they now sit one game away from elimination. The 36-point margin of victory was the largest in Toronto franchise postseason history. It was also Philadelphia’s worst postseason defeat since 1982. The Sixers energy was lacking. It was totally absent, actually, and the result was a performance that undoes much of the goodwill earned over the playoffs to date.
Weaknesses that plagued the Sixers during the regular season fuelled their Game 5 demise. Philadelphia committed 19 turnovers – a total that Brett Brown labelled “haunting” after the fact – and shot 6 of 24 from three. Toronto lived off the Sixers ineptitude. They accumulated defensive stops and sprinted up the court unencumbered, as illustrated by their 33 fast break points. While there are louder takeaways from Game 5, more macro ones, too, the Sixers platooning their defence with clumsy offence was at the root of their demise. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid combined for 13 turnovers and the negative play of their two All-Stars again played heavily into a poor offensive output.
Simmons looked overmatched over the past two games. The Raptors appear to have him figured out. Embiid was again diminished thanks to an upper respiratory infection and looked a shell of himself. J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris combined for 18 points on just seven made field goals. The pair were a combined minus 55 in 67 minutes of court time. The Sixers bench morphed into the liability it was predicted to be before the series. This was a complete, team wide failure.
The Raptors answered their critics in Game 4 and reinforced that performance in Game 5. It is now the Sixers’ turn to do the same. If they don’t, their season will be over. “Just got to bring it,” Simmons said, “We need to lock in tomorrow. Do whatever coach sets up with the plans. We got to fight.”
Brett Brown: The second period is where it got away from us. I give Toronto credit. We didn’t have answers for a few of their platers and it snowballed.
Jimmy Butler: We got our arse kicked. Simple as that. No other way to put it.
Tobias Harris: We turned the ball over too many times. When a team goes in transition, they’re hurting us in two ways, turnovers and missed shots. Tonight, we had both of these and they were able to get out and find shooters in transition, and really make us pay.
Ben Simmons: Our energy wasn’t there at all. I think offensively we just didn’t get into our stuff. We didn’t execute plays, didn’t move the ball, didn’t play with pace, weren’t physical enough, didn’t have the energy…it’s the playoffs, you got to bring it. It should never be like that.
Joel Embiid: It sucks. I know I’ve got to do a better job for us to win. I’ve got to do the little things. I need to score the ball. I’ve got to show up.
Nick Nurse: We are certainly happy with the result and we did a lot of good things. We feel like we have a bunch of guys that can shoot, always on the floor with five guys that can potentially knock down a shot and we made some tonight.
Pascal Siakam: When we play together as a team and we get stops. When everybody runs I think everyone gets touches and everyone gets involved. I think we did a good job tonight getting stops and running.
May 8. One last stand for Brett Brown?
Brett Brown was the only member of the Sixers franchise to front the media in the solitary day before Game 5 and 6. While his players prepared to save their season, Brown was left to rehash the failures of yesterday and prognosticate over what awaits. Brown was forced to answer for his team and that alone provides the perfect imagery for the ramifications of a pivotal Game 6.
Brown’s job is under serious threat. A series ending defeat – one that is favoured according to the bookies – could signal the end of his six-year tenure in Philadelphia. Elton Brand, Philadelphia’s general manager, has repeatedly told the media that he expected this Sixers team to make the conference finals. Sixers managing partner Joshua Harris was asked prior to the playoffs if he would be willing to guarantee that Brown would be back in 2019-20. This was Harris’ response: “We have a lot of confidence in Brett,” he said. “We’re focused on the [Brooklyn] Nets.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.
Brown is confident his Sixers can bounce back and win Game 6. Ditto for a Game 7 if it were to eventuate. Brown’s players needed to perform to turn blind confidence into a prophesy. And his players have just one more chance to convince the Sixers front office that Brown remains the man to lead this franchise.
“I think that we have shown we have the ability to play good basketball,” Brown said on the day’s conference call. “We have shown we have the ability to beat the Toronto Raptors.”
This was the only quote that mattered. The Sixers have handily defeated the Raptors twice over the past 10 days. Can they do it again? The answer to that question might dictate the future of Philadelphia’s head coach.
May 9. Game 6: Can’t nobody f*ck with us, know what I am saying?
Ben Simmons has been the focus of much attention during his second NBA playoff campaign. A return to the NBA’s biggest stage has, at times, brought out the very best of Simmons – cite game 3 in Brooklyn – but questions remained over his worth entering a must win Game 6. To be more specific, doubts remained over whether Simmons could be at his best against an elite NBA outfit like the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors had seemingly solved the Simmons. Australia’s first All-Star had scored just 30 points and recorded just 19 assists over the past four games. Worst of all, he looked ill-prepared for a defensive scheme that emphasised the denial his athletic gifts. That changed in Game 6. Simmons delivered the best postseason performance of his career during a dominant 112-101 Sixers victory.
Simmons played 34 minutes and committed zero turnovers in Game 6. He avoided the very ailment that has been a personal bugaboo in almost every poor showing during his career. Game 6 was only the sixth time that Simmons had gone through a full game without committing a single turnover. Simmons made his force felt on the offensive glass. He ran the basketball down Toronto’s throat, too. He was everywhere defensively. This was the most aggressive version of Simmons and his reward would be the biggest test of his professional career.
A Game 7 on the road is the NBA’s ultimate examination. Home teams have an enviable record in winter take all showdowns and despite the impressive showings from all in Sixers white tonight, they head north as underdogs, with their season on the line.
“A Game 6 close out game that has allowed us to go and play and to have an amazing experience,” said Brett Brown. “I have been fortunate to be in a few Game 7s and they are very unique. They are special. They are a life lesson. A life opportunity.”
A tremendous occasion awaits the Sixers. There are many unanswered questions hovering over the franchise and these will likely find closure on Sunday evening. There is so much on the line but at the end of the day, there is just one more basketball game to play for a place in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“We’ve got a lot of talent and with that comes responsibility,” Simmons said. “Everybody has to do their job. It goes back to starting with defence, playing together, sharing the ball and moving it. It’s special.”
Brett Brown: For Ben Simmons to be our bell ringer, with some of the other performances confirms what he did tonight. His no turnovers and his attack mode. His four offensive rebounds his push and pace on missed shots especially. All of those things are what made him be an NBA All-Star at 22-years old. I thought he was excellent tonight and we needed it all.
Nick Nurse: I think Ben Simmons was certainly aggressive. Give him credit. I thought he made a lot more straight line, non-hesitant moves tonight. When he decided to go, he decided to go and he wasn’t thinking about passing, He was taking to the rim and we weren’t providing enough help down there. And he hurt us on the glass early. He was really good tonight. He is a really good player.
Ben Simmons: I think it was just making a point of actually [pushing the pace] and not just talking about it. 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.
James Ennis: It was a desperate situation and we gave all we could and came out with the win.
Jimmy Butler: We let our defence start us out and dictate our offence which is what I always say, whenever we play like that, we are hard to beat. Home, on the road, neutral site, that’s how we have to play basketball.
Mike Scott: It was all from the ball moment, everybody playing together. When we move the ball and share the ball, can’t nobody fuck with us, know what I am saying?
Joel Embiid: I’ll keep on pushing myself; in Game 7 we’re going to need it. I’m going to need to be on the court and I intend to be ready for everything if I have to play a whole game.
Kyle Lowry: Game 7 is going to be a big game for us. We’ve got to play harder. We’ve got to do everything we need to do to win the game. It’s Game 7. It’s do or die. Win or go home, really.
May 10 and 11. It’s what we live for
The stakes are identical for both teams. Win or go home. Board the plane to Milwaukee for a chance to claim the Eastern Conference, or slide into an off-season of uncertainty. Sunday could be the last time Kawhi Leonard plays for the Raptors. Ditto for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in Philadelphia. There will not be any more opportunities to adjust or counter the opposition. Only one game to keep the season alive.
Brett Brown: 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 7 is different. Everything is just zoomed in, it’s just raw. It always gets back to, in my opinion, defence. There will be no like, ‘that’s a great shot,’ everything’s contested, lots of times you hope to just get a shot.
Mike Scott: Some of the young guys asked me about it. I just told them we just gotta man up, grow some balls. It’s gonna be hostile. It’ll be a hostile environment. We got to take care of the ball. Make sound decisions. It’s gonna be tough.
Jimmy Butler: I just hoop, man. I got a little bit to say, not a lot. Half the time people don’t like the way I say things anyway and that’s OK. So I just go out there and hoop, lead that way, lead by example and see where we’re going to go.
Tobias Harris: Just really excited for the game. We are all excited and all anxious to play. We understand, obviously being here again and playing here again, we have to bring our own energy. We have to pick each other up and embrace one another and have confidence in our team and what we are going to do.
Joel Embiid: This is a big game. Whatever I’m needed to do, I just got to show up. I just want to win.
Danny Green: It’s what we live for. It’s what we play this game for — moments like this and times like this.
Nick Nurse: I think the majority, or not the majority, I think some of those guys were not pleased with their play in our Game 6 loss, starting with their effort, and next I would say their execution offensively and defensively. Again, usually what makes these guys so good, these experienced guys so good, is they always find a way to turn that stuff around
Marc Gasol: Success in Game 7s doesn’t really have to do much with experience. I think it’s more with character and the way you are built. If the Sixers are in the semi-final of the conference, that means they are pretty strong mentally and they have a really good, talented team with size. You can’t take possessions off.
Kyle Lowry: Game 7s are what you play for, what you work for. It’s one of the best games in your career. You get to a Game 7; you know how hard it’s going to be.
May 12. Game 7, baby!
The scene inside the Philadelphia 76ers locker room after Game 7 told the full story. Members of the Sixers sat quietly, each trying to process what had just happened. Joel Embiid cried. T.J. McConnell did too. Ben Simmons hugged members of his family. Jimmy Butler shook his head. James Ennis struggled to find any words to describe what had happened. J.J. Redick reflected on a career long search for an NBA championship. Hardly a word was to be spoken. In all reality, there wasn’t much to be said after the Sixers suffered the most gut-wrenching Game 7 defeat in NBA history.
Kawhi Leonard’s shot at the buzzer won Game 7, and this wasn’t just your standard game winner. Such a thing might not exist but Leonard’s shot was the epitome of absurdity. Getting his shot off over an outstretched Joel Embiid was its own miracle, but that was outdone by the magical journey the basketball took once leaving Leonard’s fingertips. It careened off the rim, swayed side to side and teased every person in attendance. Then it simply dropped through the nylon.
In the moments after the franchise had been sentenced to a volatile offseason, the players just sat, unspeaking and desolate, wondering how their season had come to an abrupt end. The Sixers as we know them will never be the same, although their fate is a discussion for another day. Tonight, was all about Leonard and his shot for the ages.
Brett Brown: I really felt when it hit the rim that it was going to end up going in. It didn’t surprise me that it went in. When it hits at that angle and goes straight up, you feel there is a chance it is going to go in. When it went up, it didn’t surprise me that it ended up falling in. It did seem like it was up there for a while. With the way he missed and the bounce of the ball and the fact it did go straight up and not to the right or the left… it’s a tough way to lose. That is a hell of a win. That is a tough shot. What a tremendous series.
Ben Simmons: He took a tough shot. He’s an incredible player and he made it. Jo obviously got out there and was able to put a hand up but he is a great player and he made a great shot. I got a lot of respect for the Raptors. Just the way they play. They kept grinding it out. They were tough on us. I am also proud of my guys. We stayed there. It was a fight
Joel Embiid: Kawhi is a great player, obviously. He did his thing. Got to give him credit. He made some tough shots the whole series. They leaned on him heavily. He’s a great player.
Jimmy Butler: He hit a tough one. You tip your hat to that. He is an incredible player. We all know it. Ain’t too much more you can say about it.
James Ennis: There were two people with their hands up. It was a tough shot. Lucky bounce. It bounced about four times around the rim. We fought tonight and gave it our all. It sucks.
Tobias Harris: I was hoping that it was going to be a miss. It bounced around there a couple of times and it went in. It’s pure disappointment, really. Heck of a shot. Give him credit and give them credit. They made plays and were able to come out of today’s game victorious.
J.J. Redick: It looked short. It looked short. There is a lot of emotion that happens when the ball starts rolling around the rim. I am really proud of our group. Give them a lot of credit. That was one hell of a Game 7.
Danny Green: It was one of those moments where it’s just like a real-life game winner, Game 7, like count it down when you’re back home and everyone was celebrating like that. It as a pretty awesome moment.
Kawhi Leonard: I just went into my shot, and just shot it as high as I could and I got some loft on it. It felt great.