76ers

With everything at stake in Game 7, Sixers know they need to play with 'complete freedom' again

With everything at stake in Game 7, Sixers know they need to play with 'complete freedom' again

Brett Brown said Thursday night before Game 6 of the Sixers’ second-round playoff series against the Raptors that he wanted his team to play with “complete freedom.”

When you consider everything at stake, the fact that they pulled it off in a 112-101 win is highly impressive.

Joel Embiid said he’ll take the same simple approach Sunday night.

Just got to play basketball. Basketball is fun. I understand that it's Game 7, but we got to come in and fight, just like we did tonight. Our back was on the line tonight. I feel like our back is still on the line so we just got to do the same thing. It's all about defense. If we play defense like we did tonight or Game 2 and Game 3, I think we feel like we can beat anybody, so we got to come in and be ready.

The reality that the Sixers really do seem like they can beat anybody on some nights is one reason why this Game 7 might be more meaningful than most. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have been the best team in the Eastern Conference throughout the season, but the Sixers have shown they can beat them. You can’t dismiss the possibility of the Sixers making their first NBA Finals since 2001. 

First things first, though — they need to win a Game 7 on the road. The last time the Sixers achieved that was 1982 in Boston.

If they can’t do it Sunday, they enter an offseason with a seemingly infinite number of questions that need to be answered. How much money, and how many years, are they willing to commit to Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris? How different will the bench look next season? Can they find a dependable backup center, or do they think they might have one in house?

Out of the current roster, only Ben Simmons, Embiid, Jonah Bolden and Zhaire Smith appear to be guarantees to be back next season — barring any trades, a caveat we have to make in light of Elton Brand’s recent history.

Jonathon Simmons is locked in for $5.7 million next year with just $1 million guaranteed, although the Sixers will have to decide whether he’s worth a roster spot. James Ennis has a player option for $1.85 million, but he’s proven he’s worth more than that. Butler is seeking a max contract.

Outside of those players, the Sixers have eight unrestricted free agents on the roster, headlined by Harris. If they lose Sunday, we’ll shift from talking about championship aspirations to discussing which ones the team would be smart to keep around.

There’s plenty on the line for the Raptors, as well, beyond the obvious (their season). They’re looking for just their second Eastern Conference Finals appearance in franchise history.

The Raptors have been making their pitch to Kawhi Leonard all season. A chance to play in the Eastern Conference Finals and, perhaps, the NBA Finals seems a lot more attractive to a superstar than a third straight second-round exit and another 50-win season falling short of expectations.

You don’t need to explain any of this to anyone involved. Even if Embiid might not be thinking about things like Ennis’ player option or Vince Carter’s missed opportunity 18 years ago with the Raptors against the Sixers, he knows what Game 7 means and said he’s willing to play as much as his team needs.

“If I've got to play 45 minutes and push myself out there, then that's what I got to do,” he said. “If that's what it takes to win, if my presence on the court is needed, I've got to do that. Doesn't matter if it takes the whole game. I'm fine with it. I'll keep on pushing myself. In Game 7, we're going to need it."

*All contract information via Spotrac 

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The greatness and reclusiveness of Andrew Toney

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NBCSP

The greatness and reclusiveness of Andrew Toney

Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got all the headlines for the “Showtime” Lakers, but Michael Cooper was their defensive stalwart. An eight-time All-Defensive Team pick, he was to L.A. what Bobby Jones was to the Sixers.

Most opponents wanted no part of Cooper. Andrew Toney wasn’t most players.

On March 7, 1982, in a game that featured six Hall of Famers, Toney owned the Spectrum floor.

“I always remember them saying Michael Cooper was a defensive specialist,” former Sixer Earl Cureton told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff. “Andrew used to ask me, what was that. They say they got a guy that’s a stopper. And he went out on national TV and scored 46 on him one night. After the game he said, ‘Who’s the guy that’s supposed to be the defensive specialist? Who was he?’”

Toney was fearless. He didn’t sweat his opponents, even if they were All-Stars or Hall of Famers. He wasn’t afraid to give it to his teammates in practice or defy his head coach from time to time.

While we reflect back on the greatness of the last Sixers team to capture a championship, it’s impossible not to think about Toney and the complicated legacy and relationship he has with Philadelphia.

To hear those that saw Toney at the peak of his powers, he was almost a mythical figure — and was on a path to something special.

‘Andrew!’

The eighth overall pick in 1980 out of Louisiana-Lafayette, Toney joined a team that was loaded with talent and coming off a loss in the Finals to the Lakers.

He was about to share the practice floor with larger-than-life figures like Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins. That didn’t phase the rookie one bit.

“The initial day at practice over at Widener [University],” Erving said to Zumoff, “he literally came over half court — about four feet past the half court line — and he pulled up and shot a jump shot. Everybody in the gym was just like, ‘Woah.’ And [head coach] Billy [Cunningham] was saying, ‘Andrew!’ and we heard that all six years that we were together.”

That fearless approach may have caused his head coach to yell his name from time to time, but Cunningham gladly took the trade off because of how special Toney was on the court.

“I remember a game, we’re playing the Lakers during the season,” Cunningham said to Zumoff, “in the Spectrum, I think it’s overtime. I call a play to inbound the ball to Maurice Cheeks and then get the ball to Andrew. Andrew just kinda runs and grabs the ball. …

“I’m going, ‘Andrew!’ and he just kind of waves me off. He takes the ball, and two or three Lakers come at him and he shoots the ball over them, banks it in and there I am as the coach, saying, ‘What are you gonna do?’”

Unlike the understated Erving or Cheeks, Toney was brash. With the equal amounts of fear and respect he garnered, he seemed to have a right to be.

‘He definitely had a Hall of Fame career’

The 1982-83 Sixers were loaded. They featured four Hall of Famers — Erving, Moses Malone, Cheeks and Jones. They were led by a Hall of Fame player and coach in Cunningham.

But ask anyone around that time and they have to bring up the name Andrew Toney. “The Boston Strangler” was a two-time All-Star in his own right. 

“Hall of Fame. There’s no question about it,” Cunningham said.

“He definitely had a Hall of Fame career,” Erving said.

“He’d have been a Hall of Famer. Hands down,” Cureton said.

Charles Barkley on more than one occasion has said Toney is the best player he ever played with. Larry Bird said Toney “was one of the best guys I ever played against.

Unfortunately, during the 1984-85 season, Toney began experiencing pain in his feet. This led to conflict with then-Sixers owner Harold Katz, who questioned whether Toney was actually hurt. The team had just awarded Toney with a lucrative contract after his second straight All-Star season in 1983-84.

After an ugly public dispute, it was found that Toney had stress fractures in the navicular bones in both his feet. He played just 87 games his last three seasons.

And just like that, a career that seemed destined to end with Hall of Fame enshrinement ended not long after his 30th birthday.

“I remember Andrew telling me after he [retired],” Cunningham said, “and he’s down in Atlanta and he went to a YMCA or some place to play a little pick-up basketball, and he couldn’t walk after trying to play. He was in such pain with his feet.”

If not for the injuries, there seems to be a consensus from those that watched Toney closely that he’d be right there with his enshrined teammates from 1982-83.

“Andrew dominated,” Cureton said. “If no injuries or nothing happened to him, he was going to be a Hall of Famer. Look where everybody [from that team] is at. Bobby’s in the Hall of Fame, Moses in the Hall of Fame, Doc in the Hall of Fame, Maurice just went into the Hall of Fame. Andrew Toney, rightfully, should be right there with them.”

Giving Toney his due

These days, Toney lives down in Atlanta. Erving also lives in the area and the two play golf from time to time. Erving said Toney takes his golf game just as seriously as he once did his game on the court.

During the 1982-83 season, Erving was 32 years old and still looking for his first NBA championship after capturing two titles in the ABA. He wasn’t in his prime but was still a star. As the playoffs came around, Erving took on a lesser offensive role.

While Malone, who was the league’s MVP for a second straight season, was the focal point, Toney was just as important to the team’s offense.

“[In the Finals against L.A.], it was Moses inside, Andrew outside,” Erving said. “You look at the footage of those plays, we were probably calling as many plays for him as we did for Moses. ... You could never tell how many plays were called for him based on his statistics because he just created his own statistics. Coming down and trying to set something up you’re always looking for some type of advantage, and Andrew was the main guy in that regard.”

Though Toney had bravado — and the scoring ability to back it up — he was by no means a selfish player. He wanted to win.

And he proved that, often taking a backseat to other stars on the team and backing up Cheeks as the team’s point guard throughout their time together.

“He just had unlimited abilities,” Cunningham said. “Of all the players on that team, Andrew Toney sacrificed more than anyone. Winning was the most important thing to him so therefore he would do whatever was necessary.”

But what about his relationship with the organization?

Toney and Katz have made up after all these years. Toney was even at a game a few years ago when the Sixers were celebrating the anniversary of the 1982-83 team — though he didn’t speak to reporters or take part in a pregame ceremony.

“Andrew was a tremendous player,” former Sixer Clint Richardson told Zumoff, “and I’m just praying that at some point Andrew will get his recognition in the organization that he deserves. I’m not sure how it’s going to happen. 

“I’m trying to facilitate some things with him, but he definitely needs to be recognized as one of the top players in the Sixers organization. I think it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of the right time and the right connection with Andrew and him feeling comfortable. I think it’s gonna happen.”

Should No. 22 hang in the rafters at the Wells Fargo Center next to Nos. 2, 6, 10 and 24? Maybe then we’d get to see “The Boston Strangler” ring the bell before a key matchup against the Celtics.

If you ask those that watched him play, the answer would seem to be yes.

For those of us that didn’t, he still feels like a mythical character.

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2020 NBA draft profile: Cassius Winston might not be a special athlete, but he’s a tremendous playmaker

2020 NBA draft profile: Cassius Winston might not be a special athlete, but he’s a tremendous playmaker

Cassius Winston 

Position: PG 
Height: 6-1
Weight: 185 
School: Michigan State 

Cassius Winston can’t dunk and is unassuming physically, but he put together a tremendous college career. The 22-year-old has the most assists and highest assist percentage in Big Ten history. He shined in a ton of important games over the past four years, being named Big Ten Player of the Year as a junior and leading Michigan State to a Final Four appearance. 

Strengths 

If you give Winston the ball at the top of the key and a screen, odds are he’ll make something positive happen, either as a passer or a scorer. Go under the screen? Despite elevating into his jumper with a pigeon-toed stance, Winston shot 43 percent from three-point range in college. Hedge the screen? Winston is great at shifting pace, staying patient and manipulating the defense. He’ll draw the defender out, wait until he’s in a bad position and capitalize on it. Blitz him? He enjoys setting up his teammates and is a skilled passer who can quickly hit the roller, fire the ball cross court if the defense overcommits or simply give it up to the open man on the perimeter.

Though he’s undersized, Winston still finds plenty of ways to score around the rim. By playing off the defense’s rhythm and expectations, he’s effective in the paint with layups and floaters that use unconventional timing and angles. He also shot 84.5 percent from the foul line at Michigan State and averaged 18.7 points per game over the last two years. 

Weaknesses

Winston is definitely not Allen Iverson, a 6-foot guard who was a blur in the open floor and could sky above players he was shorter than. He’s much more of a special basketball player than a special athlete. That means the large majority of his basketball skills still must work in the NBA. He likely needs to remain an above-average outside shooter, a highly efficient pick-and-roll player and a confident playmaker when defended by bigger, quicker players.

Another reason it's so important for his offensive traits to translate is that he’ll probably be vulnerable on defense. Though Winston did finish with 1.2 steals per game this season and rates above many of his peers in defensive effort and intelligence, he doesn’t have the agility or size to bother most point guards. 

Fit 

The Sixers haven’t had a stable backup point guard situation this year. Drafting Winston might be one way to rectify that, or at least to add another name into the mix. 

If he’s available at pick No. 34 or No. 36, Winston is worth serious consideration. His game lines up well with what the Sixers need — sharp, intuitive playmaking along with an impressive track record as a three-point shooter. Winston’s defensive deficiencies would also be less problematic here than in most other possible destinations, since the Sixers are sixth in defensive rating and obviously a very large team. 

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