2019 NBA Playoffs

Raptors 92, Sixers 90: Season ends in heartbreak for Sixers on Kawhi Leonard's buzzer-beater

Raptors 92, Sixers 90: Season ends in heartbreak for Sixers on Kawhi Leonard's buzzer-beater

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TORONTO — It was a hell of a ride, but it’s over.

The Sixers fell to the Raptors, 92-90, in a dramatic Game 7 of their second-round series at Scotiabank Arena Sunday night. Toronto will advance to the Eastern Conference Finals to take on the Milwaukee Bucks.

A Kawhi Leonard missed free throw led to a Jimmy Butler layup with 4.2 seconds left to tie the score at 90-90. Then Leonard hit an incredible fadeaway that took the kindest of rolls from the corner over Joel Embiid as the clock expired to win it.

It was a tough task for the Sixers, who would’ve had to win their first Game 7 on the road since the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. They fought hard in this one, but the Raptors really ratcheted up their defense late, forcing the Sixers into several bad possessions down the stretch.

Now begins an offseason full of plenty of uncertainty for the Sixers. Will Brett Brown still be their head coach? Will Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris return? What about JJ Redick?

Here are observations from the final game of the season:

• The first quarter may have set the game of basketball back quite a few years. Not sure if it was nerves or what, but the Sixers missed their first eight shots until Redick hit a three midway through the period. They were getting decent looks — shots just didn’t seem to be falling. The five turnovers also didn’t help and gave the Raptors a few easy looks in transition. Toronto shot just 20.8 percent in the first quarter but held an advantage because of eight made free throws.

It was impressive the way the Sixers bounced back in the second quarter. They weathered the storm and actually held their first lead of the game at 34-33 with 4:29 left in the half. They also committed just two turnovers, a big reason they were able to get back into the game.

You had a feeling that Toronto was letting the Sixers hang around a little too long. The Raptors had opportunities to pull away, but the Sixers kept coming back. In the end, Toronto came up with a few huge stops late to seal the win.

• Embiid didn’t get off to a strong start, missing his first five shots. Most of those shots were on the perimeter, but they were good looks that he’s capable of making. He got his first basket on a pick-and-roll as a roller. It’s something that’s been effective in getting Marc Gasol on the move. The Raptors were doubling him on just about every touch. He did well in finding open teammates, hitting Ben Simmons for a couple easy looks underneath.

Embiid started the game just 2 of 10. He began warming to the task as the game went on, but it was too little too late. He finished with 21 points on 6 for 18 shooting with 11 rebounds and three blocks.

Yet again, just his mere presence defensively affected Toronto, as it has all series. The Sixers were trailing 44-40 at the half, but Embiid was a plus-five. Embiid has always stated one of his goals is to win Defensive Player of the Year. This series has illustrated why that is incredibly realistic. In a two-point loss, he was a plus-10.

If the Sixers have a healthy Embiid for this entire series or a capable backup five, they very likely win it.

• It took five games, but Simmons figured out how to attack the Raptors. He was so much more aggressive, pushing the basketball at every opportunity and finding his spots when Embiid saw doubles. With Leonard guarding Butler, Simmons won his matchup with Pascal Siakam. He was 2 of 2 for eight points in the first half.

Like Embiid, if Simmons had figured things out a game or two sooner, this series might’ve gone a different way. Still, the final two games were certainly building blocks for Simmons as he continues to figure out the NBA at just 22 years old. He had 13 points, eight rebounds and five assists. He did turn it over five times after having a spotless Game 6.

• Speaking of Leonard, he shot just 6 of 16 in the first half, though he drew two early fouls on Simmons. He didn’t have a great shooting night but was outstanding in the fourth quarter. He carried the Raptors on his back throughout the series. It was truly one of the most impressive playoff performances in recent memory. He poured in 41 points on 16 of 39 shooting. Of course, he hit when it mattered most.

• The Sixers’ big trade acquisitions had their moments. Harris got off to a strong start, going 3 of 5 for a team-high 10 points in the first half. He did well attacking the basket and didn’t hesitate when he got opportunities. It looked like the Sixers were making a point to attack mismatches Harris had against smaller defenders like Danny Green and Kyle Lowry. He finished 15 points on 5 of 9. Of course, many will look back at his 7-of-23 performance in Game 4 and wonder what could’ve been.

Butler struggled out of the gate and it felt like he was lying in the weeds with a 1 of 6 start in the first half. Then he hit his first two shots of the fourth quarter and it appeared like Jimmy Buckets was fully activated. Brown ran a ton of pick-and-rolls with Butler and Embiid down the stretch. It just wasn’t enough. Butler finished with 16 points on 5 of 14 shooting. He carried the Sixers for much of the series but couldn’t deliver in Game 7.

• The Sixers were hurt by 16 offensive rebounds for the Raptors, who took 24 more shots.

• Brown wasn’t sure if he was going to stick with an eight-man rotation or use just seven players. After seeing Greg Monroe’s first-half run, it appears he should’ve gone with seven. Monroe played just 1:41 and was a minus-nine. Brown wisely used Mike Scott as a small-ball five in the second half.

On the bright side, James Ennis was excellent yet again. He played Leonard extremely tough and provided his patented energy. He was the best reserve in the series for either team. Acquiring Ennis in a second-round pick swap with Houston was Elton Brand’s most underrated move.

• Speaking of Brown, his players played their butts off Sunday. I’m not sure what else he could’ve done to win this series. His best player was beleaguered with health issues. His other young All-Star struggled through the first five games. He didn’t have anything resembling a backup center. The man should keep his job.

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Toronto Raptors reporters weigh in on Game 7 of playoff series vs. Sixers

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Toronto Raptors reporters weigh in on Game 7 of playoff series vs. Sixers

Before Game 7 tips off tonight, we got the lowdown on the Raptors from the media on the other side. What would Toronto have to do to beat the Sixers in Game 7?

Blake Murphy, The Athletic

I think there are two key points. They have to hit open shots around Kawhi Leonard. The Sixers have done a good job getting the ball out of his hands. The Raptors have done a good job creating really good looks from three-point range and they are hitting 32 percent on wide-open threes. In a one-game sample, you can’t really expect that to normalize, but if that is closer to 40 than to 30 percent, I like the Raptors' chances on offense. And then on the other end, it’s mostly a matter of picking Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons up on the offensive glass. All series, unless Embiid goes off, the biggest way Philadelphia has been able to create cheap offense in the half court is when Toronto loses track of Butler and Simmons once the ball goes up.

Michael Grange, Rogers Sportsnet

Some population other than Kawhi Leonard has to score, someone amongst Ibaka, Gasol and Siakam. I’d say two of those three guys have to have a good game. I think that’s what Philly is willing to live with. Embiid seems to be ignoring all three of them most of the time. They are going to have looks from three, looks from mid-range, and then, if they can convert a reasonable percentage, I think the Raptors are going to be fine. But if they don’t look to shoot or to take advantage of the room they are going to get, then Embiid gets to camp out in the paint, make life difficult for Lowry and suck up all those offensive rebounds. Then you’re really just depending on Leonard to create anything. And that’s a risky way to go.

Doug Smith, Toronto Star

I know it sounds really simplistic, but I really think that for the Raptors to win, they’ve just got to make shots, because it takes transition away from Philadelphia where Ben Simmons is far more dangerous than he is in the half court. The Raptors' defense tends to feed off their offense and if they get on a roll, I think that’s what puts them over the top. It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be intense and it’s going to be very emotional. But if they calm down, get some shots in and their defense set up, take Philly out of what they do most effectively, I think that’s how they win.

Paul Jones, Raptors Radio

My two things: Play the defense that they played for four of the six games in this series, and the five games against Orlando. Nine of 11 games they’ve been really good defensively, holding opponents under 43 percent shooting, and that translates during the regular season — going all the way back to when Bryan Colangelo was the GM here — to a ridiculous win percentage. And the other thing is, make open shots. The quintessential make or miss phrase comes to mind but barring that, they’ve won some games in the series here and against Orlando when they didn’t make shots because the defense was good. I think it’s going to be close. The line is Toronto by six — I wouldn’t touch that. I think it’s going to be within the six points. And another thing — Leonard has been in win or go home games three times and has never had more than 20 points.

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Is Brett Brown's job really on the line in Game 7 vs. Raptors?

Is Brett Brown's job really on the line in Game 7 vs. Raptors?

They say that anything can happen in a Game 7.

That certainly holds true for the Sixers and Raptors series which has seen four blowouts — each team with two wins in those — and two nail-biters.

Now, we may have another added wrinkle with a report surfacing that Brett Brown’s job may be on the line if the Sixers can’t win Game 7. Even if they’re victorious on the road Sunday, the team reportedly has a Finals-or-bust mentality when it comes to Brown, per Marc Stein of the New York Times.

Given how this season and Brown’s entire tenure have gone, that sounds like a terrible mentality if true.

Brown has his fair share of detractors — most of which are Sixers fans — but let’s give him credit for a few things. He coached this team through The Process. Those opposed to Sam Hinkie’s plan would constantly point to the team developing a “losing culture” and how that would affect young players. “Will the fans come back?” the critics would say.

All Brown has done is lead the team to back-to-back 50-win seasons for the first time since 1986. And he’s done it with an ever-changing roster. Brown used to joke that he would say to guys, “nice to meet you, you’re starting” during The Process years. Well, that didn’t change this season. Remember when the team was desperate for wing help and signed Corey Brewer to a 10-day deal? Brewer was then inserted into the starting lineup and asked to guard James Harden.

Look at the roster from last year’s run to the second-round of the playoffs compared to this season. The only real rotation players left are Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and JJ Redick. Of course this roster is immensely more talented, but that doesn’t make what Brown has done easy.

For all the excellent moves Elton Brand made, he failed to acquire a legitimate backup center. With Embiid’s health history, it’s something this team sorely lacks. And while acquiring players like Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris helped, Brown essentially coached three different teams this season. He managed to keep it all together, managing talented players and huge personalities. The only issue we’ve seen reported was when Butler allegedly “aggressively challenged” Brown, but that appeared to blow over as quickly as it surfaced.

No matter what happens this summer with all of the team’s expiring contracts, everything is built around Embiid and Simmons. The only stability they’ve ever known is Brown. Brand is the team’s third GM in four years with the last two being ousted in the most unceremonious of fashions. With all the chaos, Brown has truly been the face of the franchise. With more possible roster upheaval this offseason, the team needs a stabilizing force.

There are two things Brown has gotten and earned criticism for. He’s often too loyal to players he likes and he struggled mightily to make adjustments as Brad Stevens and the Celtics took down the Sixers in the second round in a gentleman’s sweep. 

During this playoff run, he took his favorite player, T.J. McConnell, out of the rotation. Amir Johnson is another Brown favorite that hasn't seen much run. Brown tried to ride out Boban Marjanovic as his reserve five, but went away from him when the hulking big man struggled.

Brown got killed for not making adjustments against Stevens last season. These playoffs have been a different story. Brown has constantly made adjustments in this series against Toronto and several have paid off. Even as we approach Game 7, Brown has tinkered with the notion of playing seven guys, likely his best option.

On top of everything, the caveat of all caveats, Brown’s best player has had health issues through the entire postseason. If the Sixers had anything close to a healthy Embiid in Game 4, this series might already be over. Can you judge a coach when their “crown jewel” isn’t close to 100 percent?

Lastly, who the hell replaces Brown? The best coach on the market was likely sitting on your bench already, but Monty Williams is headed to Phoenix. South Jersey’s finest Frank Vogel is off to the Lakers. Is Tyronn Lue your guy? He’s managed big personalities, but he’s also had the best player in the world during his only head coaching gig.

They say that anything can happen in a Game 7.

So maybe you shouldn’t make franchise-altering decisions based on one.

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