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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