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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