76ers

Kawhi Leonard's game-winner forces Sixers to consider what could have been ahead of a pivotal offseason

Kawhi Leonard's game-winner forces Sixers to consider what could have been ahead of a pivotal offseason

TORONTO — What a helpless feeling it was.

As Kawhi Leonard’s jumper from the corner was bouncing on the rim for what felt like 10 minutes, all the Sixers could do was watch and hope that it didn’t go in.

It did and Leonard polished off one of the finer postseason performances in recent history as the Raptors eliminated the Sixers, 92-90, in Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena Sunday night (see observations).

Leonard was left with just 4.2 seconds left and had to get off a difficult shot over the outstretched arm of 7-footer Joel Embiid. 

Sometimes, the other guy just makes an unreal play and you tip your cap.

“He hit a tough one,” Jimmy Butler said. “You tip your cap to that. He’s an incredible player. You know it. We all know it. There’s nothing more to say about it.”

Leonard’s brilliance is a large part of why the Raptors won the series. In fact, it’s the largest part. The 243 points he scored were the third most in a playoff series since the merger behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan and ahead of LeBron James.

But Leonard being superhuman at times wasn’t the only reason Toronto was able to prevail in seven games. The Sixers have plenty of self-reflecting to do as an offseason of uncertainty looms.

The health and wellness of Embiid has to be at the top of the list of issues for the Sixers. Embiid was bothered by tendinitis in his knee throughout the playoffs. He dealt with gastroenteritis in Game 2. After he was sensational in Game 3, an upper respiratory infection plagued him through Games 4 and 5. All you have to do is look at the plus-minus to understand Embiid’s importance. He was plus-10 in Game 7, a two-point loss. Brett Brown tried to use Greg Monroe in the first half. Monroe was a minus-nine in 1:41.

The performance of the team’s other young All-Star was an issue in the second round of playoffs for the second straight season. Ben Simmons was pretty much invisible offensively through the first five games of the series. To his credit, he figured some things out and was excellent in Game 6. He also did about as good a job as anyone could’ve against Leonard.

If the Sixers get a healthier Embiid and the Simmons from Game 6 sooner, there’s a strong chance they win this series.

“With those two young guys, they have so much potential to be great,” Butler said. “The best thing about them is they both want their teammates to be as great as they are. They’re constantly working. They’re constantly wondering how they can be better and help other guys get better. Those are the types of cornerstones we want in our organization. They compete, they hate to lose and they bring it every single day. I have nothing but good things to say about both of them. Obviously, they’re only going to continue to get better.”

You don’t want to oversimplify things, but why the Sixers ultimately lost is cut and dry. 

Turnovers are a huge part of what the Raptors feast on. They want to turn you over and then get out on the break. When they’re forced to play in the half court, their offense is pretty much Leonard or famine. When the Sixers gave the ball up in this series, it played right into Toronto’s hands. In Game 7, the Raptors scored 21 points off 17 Sixers’ turnovers. One of those turnovers came with under a minute left and gave Toronto two easy points.

The other problem was rebounding. The Sixers used their size to punish the Raptors on the glass early in the series. That shifted as the series wore on and Serge Ibaka spent more time at the four. The Sixers gave up an inexcusable 16 offensive rebounds Sunday night. Between that and the turnovers, Toronto got 24 more field-goal attempts.

So while Leonard’s magnificent series and remarkable buzzer-beater may have sealed the deal, there was much more to it than that.

“It made it more difficult,” Tobias Harris said. “Not just this game but the whole series, we fought as a team. It doesn’t come down to that one shot, but it stinks that that one shot was how it ended for us. I thought we had our opportunities tonight, on both sides of the court and some plays we didn’t capitalize.”

With an offseason of uncertainty looming, the Sixers will be forced to reexamine what could’ve been.

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Non-stop drama, a high-tech mask and Joel Embiid's playoff debut

Non-stop drama, a high-tech mask and Joel Embiid's playoff debut

NBC Sports Philadelphia is re-airing Game 3 of the Sixers-Heat 2018 playoff series Sunday night at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia. 

At 26 years old, Joel Embiid has played 19 career playoff games. The lead-up to the first one was full of frustration, drama and angst.

Minutes after the Sixers’ 17-game winning streak ended with a loss to the Heat in Game 2, Embiid posted on his Instagram story, “F---ing sick and tired of being babied.” 

He’d been a glum observer from the sidelines that night, still out with an orbital fracture of the left eye he’d sustained in a collision with Markelle Fultz on March 28, and had seen his teammates cool off from three-point range and allow a 36-year-old Dwyane Wade to score 28 points. Embiid wanted to play, thought he should be permitted to and figured it couldn’t hurt to let the world know how he felt. 

Not for the first time — and certainly not for the last, either — Brett Brown found himself fielding awkward questions about how his players were being handled medically. 

“He just wants to play basketball," he said at the podium. “He wants to be with his team, he wants to play in front of the fans and he wants to see this through. When he’s not able to do that, he gets frustrated, and I respect his frustrations. … I do know the spirit he delivered that [Instagram story] you just talked about reflects my conversations with him.

"It’s completely driven by team, competitiveness, I want to play basketball, that type of feeling more than anything.”

Thanks to a high-tech, customized mask with goggles that was made of polypropylene and embedded carbon fiber filaments, Embiid was cleared for Game 3 in Miami, resembling the "Batman" villain Bane and the rapper MF Doom. The mask was an unavoidable nuisance — Embiid removed it from his face on free throws — but it allowed him to play basketball again, shifting the drama from social media to the court.

Embiid tossed the mask up in the air, spiked it on the floor and generally didn’t treat the device with much reverence. Head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson got a good amount of screen time as the Sixers’ medical staff ran repairs and ferried masks out to Embiid. Justise Winslow was not amused by the situation. When he saw the mask lying on the ground around the foul line at one point in the second quarter, he stepped on it, then unsuccessfully tried to break it with his hands.

"He kept throwing it on the ground. I don't know if he didn't like it or what,” Winslow, who was later fined $15,000 for the incident, told reporters. “I was talking to JoJo, we were smack talking, trash talking, going back and forth. No love lost.”

The back-and-forth with Winslow seemed to invigorate Embiid, though he probably didn’t require any additional fuel.

“Little do they know, I have about 50 of them,” he said to reporters in Miami. “It’s going to take much more than that to get me out of the series. It’s going to be a nightmare for them, too.” 

It was a casually bold prognostication, and also not an entirely outrageous one. The Sixers sprinted away from the Heat in Game 3, turning a two-point lead entering the fourth quarter into a 20-point win. They were, without a doubt, the better team when Embiid played.

We haven’t actually mentioned anything yet about how Embiid played. If he didn’t have a black mask shielding his face, the cliched (but accurate) description of his performance would be that he looked like himself. Embiid had 23 points in 30 minutes, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks. He made three threes, drew 15 free throws and protected the rim well, limiting Heat players to 4 for 14 shooting on field goals he defended. 

Mask on or mask off, regular season or playoffs, he was clearly going to be the main story more often than not. 

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Jim Lynam laments Charles Barkley trade, a lesson current Sixers can learn from with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

Jim Lynam laments Charles Barkley trade, a lesson current Sixers can learn from with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

June 17, 1992, is a day that will live in infamy among Sixers fans. That’s when the team traded six-time All-Star Charles Barkley to the Phoenix Suns for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry.

Barkley would go on to make five more All-Star teams, win a league MVP and eventually be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The Sixers wouldn’t win more than 30 games in a season until Allen Iverson’s second season in 1997-98.

It’s a move that still stings — especially to one of the people that had a hand in making it.

As a guest on the Sixers Talk podcast, Coach Jim Lynam expressed his regret with the deal despite Barkley wanting out.

“Charles, from his perspective, he made it known in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to be here,” Lynam said. “And I would say in hindsight — this is just me, my own personal opinion — we made a mistake in listening to him. I tell Charles that to this day.”

Barkley was taken fifth overall in 1984, joining a Sixers team that was a year removed from a championship and featured Hall of Famers Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones, and two-time All-Star Andrew Toney. 

In 1986, the Sixers traded away Malone in another ill-fated move. Barkley has repeatedly spoken about the profound impact Malone had on not only his career but his life. Erving retired after the 1986-87 season. Cheeks was traded in 1989. Jones retired a year before Erving. Toney’s career was derailed by a foot injury and he was forced into retirement in 1988 at the age of 30.

That left Barkley with little help or guidance as he was entering the prime of his career. By the time Lynam took over as head coach in the middle of the 1987-88 season, the Sixers didn’t resemble the team Barkley had joined. Lynam would lead the team to the playoffs the next three seasons, losing to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the second round twice.

As Lynam moved into the front office as GM in 1992, he knew Barkley was not pleased with the team’s standing after a 35-47 season. Still, he wishes he and the team handled it differently.

A letter from a fan reacting to the move still sticks in Lynam’s mind. 

I got one letter in particular that I saved over the years and it started out, ‘Dear Coach Lynam,’ and it’s the first line, ‘Never trade a super[star].’ Literally, word for word. Second line, ‘Never trade a super[star].’ The guy repeated that line like 10 times. ‘Never trade a super[star].’ It was a classic of a letter, but end of story, the fella was right. 

“You can’t trade star, star talent unless you’re getting star, star talent in return, which is rarely the case. Somehow, some way you have to figure it out and work your way around it. Hindsight, yeah, a mistake by Jim Lynam and the 76ers and all who had any part of it.

It's a lesson Lynam learned the hard way and has influenced the way he thinks about the current iteration of the team.

As an analyst on Sixers Pre- and Postgame Live, Lynam watches Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on a nightly basis. It’s no secret the All-Star duo isn’t an ideal fit on the court, which has led some to wonder if the Sixers should explore a trade.

While he acknowledges the difficulty in getting it all to work, he also knows from his experience with Barkley that the solution is not to trade star players.

As it relates to current times, yeah, I think there is a problem here in terms of how do you best blend the talents of these two star players, Embiid and Simmons. Well, guess what, that’s what it’s about. Solving problems. There’s an old phrase, problems are meant to be solved, not rejoiced over. You can talk about them all day on talk radio and fine, that’s great for that segment of the population. 

“If you’re in the Sixers’ side of it, you got to figure this stuff out and I think these guys are doing a pretty good job of working toward that end. It’s not gonna be snap your fingers and go out and you win 70 games and two straight championships. It’s a process, no pun intended. … I have confidence that when it’s all said and done and you’re looking back on this years from now, you will see championships as a result.

You can listen to the entire Sixers Talk podcast with Lynam below.

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