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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