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Five thoughts on last night’s Game 7: Raptors 92, 76ers 90

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We were all witness... to the greatest moment in Toronto Raptors history.

NBA Playoffs 2019 Five thoughts Game 7 recap: Toronto Raptors 92, Philadelphia 76ers 90, Serge Ibaka Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

How are we feeling this morning, Toronto? Recovered from the insanity of that game? That moment? That shot?

It was ugly, yet beautiful, wasn’t it? It’s such a cliche, but both teams really left it all out there. Kawhi Leonard took (seemingly) all the shots, and Ben Simmons hounded him all night. Joel Embiid played (seemingly) all the minutes, and Marc Gasol matched him all the way. Kyle Lowry was everywhere (and over everything). Jimmy Butler was quiet, but terrifying, as always.

And in the end, it was Leonard who sent everyone in the building home in tears — albeit, for the 76ers players and the Toronto fans, for very different reasons.

One for the Ages

Since Thursday night, I’d been dreading this game. Even though I was relatively confident that this Raptors team could win it, I didn’t want this series to go seven, and I didn’t want to deal with the stress and the drama of a Game 7. Then on Friday night I actually started to get sick with a head cold and I even considered selling my ticket.

But by Saturday night, I’d come around to just appreciating the moment; I’d decided I’d just (do my best to) shut out the noise and enjoy the game for what it is: a rare opportunity to see my team participate in one of the great sporting events, a playoff Game 7.

And man, it did not disappoint.

The entire game was a great experience, and that final shot will forever go down as a “never forget where you were” moment. I’m so glad I got to experience it, I’m glad I had that change of heart, and I hope you all appreciate it too — not just the win, not just the second-ever trip to the Conference Finals, but just the moment itself, the singular nature of it, how rare it is to experience something like that.

Sure, at the of the day, it’s just sports, it’s not life or death, but still, it can be pretty special, right?

Weathering the Storm

I say this not as a metaphor for how crappy and cold it was outside the arena, though it certainly was that. But the 76ers went on a 16-0 run in the third quarter. 16-0! In a game where scoring was difficult and the defensive dials were ratcheted up to 11, that’s impressive.

What’s even more impressive, though, is how little it affected Toronto — both the team, and the crowd. I tend to think the mental fragility of Toronto teams of the past is a little overblown, but the mental fragility of the fans... we’re prone to a lot of nervous clenching. But I loved how the crowd got behind the team in this moment, down seven. With Kyle Lowry calmly dribbling past half court, executing a simple screen action with Serge Ibaka that led to Ibaka pinning Jimmy Butler deep and scoring an easy layup to end the run, the “Let’s Go Raptors” chant was as loud as it had been all game.

Then came a Kyle Lowry defensive stop, knocking a ball away from James Ennis, and then Ibaka dropping a pass to a cutting Kawhi Leonard. Then after an Ennis free throw, a Kawhi miss and a Ben Simmons turnover, we saw a Raptors possession where Lowry collected two offensive rebounds, the second leading to a Leonard three pointer that cut it to one. And after two JJ Redick free throws, Leonard found Marc Gasol on a drive, Fred VanVleet contested a Redick shot and Lowry attacked and scored a transition layup to take the lead, and the building was officially the loudest it had been since Terrence Ross stole the ball in 2014...

... and after VanVleet stole a Ben Simmons pass, had his layup blocked by Joel Embiid, but Lowry stole the offensive rebound from Simmons and dished to Ibaka for the layup, it got louder.

It was a truly sensational four minutes. Everyone on the team contributed, was completely locked in on both ends, made all the hustle plays, and the crowd was completely behind them.

The Bench Showed Up (Finally)

The Raptors played seven players last night. Seven! But those two guys had a huge impact on the basketball game.

Let’s talk about Fred VanVleet first; he’d been out-sized in the series, and generally terrible, but when Kyle Lowry went out early with two fouls last night, he stepped in and had his best game of the series — but, in Lowry-esque fashion, you wouldn’t know it from the stat sheet. He didn’t score and didn’t have an assist, but he was more aggressive on offense, got to the foul line, stuck to Redick better on D, and had two steals. He finished with a +10 on the night, and honestly, that he wasn’t a disaster was a huge plus.

And then there’s Serge Ibaka, who was sensational.

To be fair to Serge, he’s had a solid second half of the series. But there’s no way I saw last night coming. He played 29 minutes, almost all of them alongside of Marc Gasol (who played 45) and the Raptors needed every one of them. He was their best three-point shooter (3-for-5), including a huge one in the fourth after getting elbowed in the face by Ben Simmons was a monster on the offensive glass (including hauling one in off a Leonard miss with 40 seconds to go that shaved precious seconds off the clock), defended pretty much everyone on the floor at one time or another, and finished a ridiculous +22.

After getting their butts handed to them by Philly’s bench all series, things finally swung Toronto’s way: Ibaka outscored Philly’s reserves 17-8.

How About That Defense?

All game, the Raptors’ defense was locked in. The offense, once again, was hit or miss — and, really, was mostly Leonard, and through three quarters he was mostly “miss”. But from the opening tip, it was clear the Raptors weren’t going to let Philadelphia score anything easy.

Most impressive to me were the late-clock situations they forced in the fourth quarter. They forced a 24-second violation with about 10 minutes to go, and another with just under three minutes to go. They nearly forced another on the very next possession — a contested Jimmy Butler airball — and after a Leonard three-pointer, nearly forced another on the next Sixers possession, one that ended with a Lowry steal and Siakam layup the other way. Three straight possessions of lockdown D in the highest possible leverage moments!

Meanwhile, Toronto somehow managed to dominate the glass in this game, after getting killed on the boards by Philly’s size all series. Playing Ibaka more helped, and Embiid’s general exhaustion helped, but you gotta love the general hustle and effort the Raptors showed. I already mentioned the three critical Lowry offensive boards and the one huge Ibaka one; Ibaka also had one on the final Raptors possession of the third quarter, a cutback off a Leonard miss. All told, Toronto was a +11 on the offensive glass and +8 overall, and a +5 in turnovers, all of which led to a +24 in field goals attempted... and man, did they need every damn one of those.

Is This About the Sixers... or the Raptors?

I think we’ll see a lot of talk about the 76ers’ young stars, and whether they’re ready and can live up to the moment and the pressure of a Game 7. Embiid was clearly gassed; there’ll be questions about his conditioning. Simmons, while solid on D, was fairly invisible on the other end; there’ll be questions about his consistency, after his impressive showing in Game 6.

But, I have to ask: What’s the rush?

Yeah, I get that “The Process” took a long time and patience only lasts so long. And, the organization artificially accelerated it this year, by trading for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. But Embiid has played three seasons; Simmons, two. Do I need to break out the resumes of how long guys like LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Wilt Chamberlain, and on and on were in the league before they won their first title? It’s pretty freakin’ rare to have championship success in your first four years! (And yes, I know Kawhi won a title in year three. He was — at best — the third option on that team.)

Simmons’ game will continue to develop. Hopefully, Embiid’s body will hold up, and he’ll begin to take better care of it, and he’ll be able to dominate consistently. They’ll be fine!

And if the organization loses one or both of Harris or Butler, and has to rebuild around their two young studs — I think they’ll still be fine, but that’s on management, not on Simmons and Embiid.

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So it’s on to Milwaukee and Toronto’s second-ever Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors won’t be favoured, their shooting continues to be non-existent, and the Bucks look like a juggernaut. But a new series is a fresh start and anything can happen. Let’s enjoy the ride however long it lasts!