Here’s 10 takeaways from Toronto’s 92-90 win over the Philadelphia in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
One - Clutch: Norman Powell surmised after Kawhi Leonard hit a game-winning three in Game 4 of this series that Leonard was the second coming of Kobe Bryant. Well, now that’s two Kobe performances in four games, as Leonard drained a baseline jumper falling out of bounds with a 7-foot-3 Joel Embiid charging at him with all his might. The shot danced around for what seemed like a lifetime, before mercifully dropping through the friendly rims at Scotiabank Arena to decide the series. Leonard then sank into a mob of teammates, and even the most stoic player in the league couldn’t hold back his emotions.
Two - Determined: Aside from the heroics, this was also a Kobe-esque performance in the sense that Leonard was just determined to win this game. He took 39 shots — an NBA record for any player in a Game 7 setting — and at times it bogged down the offence, but it was out of necessity. Leonard had to take matters into his own hands because his teammates just couldn’t score. It wasn’t pretty, and Leonard looked exhausted midway through the third, but he turned it on late and poured in a number of clutch jumpers before his signature moment. He shot 10-of-30 through three quarters, before coming on down the stretch with 15 points in the fourth.
Three - Clutch (Again): The next time someone points to Kyle Lowry’s scoring output, refer them to this performance. Lowry blitzed Embiid in the middle of the floor for a vital steal with just a minute left in the fourth, before kicking it ahead to a streaking Pascal Siakam for a layup that put the Raptors up four points. Lowry also played the entire second half after suffering a sprained left thumb, and he fought off players twice his size for key offensive rebounds. Lowry’s scoring wasn’t there, but the Raptors would be dead in the water without his hustle and his instincts. And to top it off, Lowry was the only one who thought to track down the game ball to ensure that Leonard had it in his collection.
Four - Colossus: Every Game 7 needs an unlikely hero, and tonight that was Serge Ibaka. On a night where nobody could hit an open shot, it was Ibaka (of all people) who stepped up and drained three triples as part of his vital 17 points off the bench. Ibaka was 0-of-9 from deep through six games, and yet he was the only player who confidently stepped into his threes and, at one point, even nailed a pull-up triple. Once again, Ibaka’s ability to provide quality minutes at power forward gave the Raptors a massive boost, not just in terms of rim protection, but also just to soak up minutes on a night where head coach Nick Nurse could only afford to trust five players.
Five - Grind: Lowry wasn’t the only one who jumped in the fray, as the Raptors really won this game on the offensive glass. The Sixers looked exhausted in the second half, and the Raptors capitalized by securing 11 extra possessions to boost their otherwise defunct offence. All seven Raptors who saw the floor won at least one offensive rebound, and it was clear that the Sixers didn’t really have the legs to run out in transition even if they had numbers.
Six - Character: The Sixers appeared to have taken control of the game with a 16-0 run in the third quarter. The Raptors lost their focus for a moment after briefly going up nine points, and it took them a solid five minutes to regroup while Leonard looked gassed. Thankfully, their veterans stepped up, as Lowry snagged two key offensive rebounds, recorded an assist, and absorbed a charge on Embiid. Meanwhile Ibaka scored a layup, found Leonard cutting for a high-low assist, and beat out three Sixers for a putback. That 17-7 run allowed the Raptors to reassert control of the game at a time where it looked as if the season was about to slip through their grasp.
Seven - Decisive: Nurse made the right call to shorten his rotation down to six players, just as he did on the road in Game 4. Fred VanVleet bought Lowry some rest when he injured his thumb, while Ibaka chipped in with 30 minutes at power forward and center. Nurse even benched the struggling Danny Green for the fourth quarter, which was a difficult but gutsy call. It was awkward at times to have Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and Siakam sharing the floor, but the Raptors figured it out defensively, put the ball in Leonard’s hands to deliver, and it worked out.
Eight - Vital: Gasol’s defence against Embiid proved crucial yet again. Nurse finally made the call to rip up his rotations and match every second of Embiid’s court time with Gasol, and it produced another substandard effort from Embiid who shot 6-of-18 from the field. Gasol was just a brick wall in the post, and Embiid couldn’t solve him outside of drawing some questionable foul calls. Embiid’s scoring average dropped from 27.5 per game in the regular season down to 17.6 in this series, and he shot just 37 percent from the field.
Nine - Tentative: Siakam made that streaking layup at the end, but it was noticeable that he became tentative as the game wore on and didn’t want to attack in the fourth. Siakam simply can’t afford to withdraw on a team without any reliable scorers outside of Leonard. He must maintain his aggression, and he can’t just always defer to the one they call ‘The Claw’.
Ten - Look ahead: The Raptors have two days off before starting the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks. One immediate concern comes to mind: The Raptors won’t be able to play their ultra-big lineups against a team with as many shooters as the Bucks, and so it’s imperative for one of VanVleet or Powell to raise their game in this series. The likes of Lowry, Gasol, and Siakam will also need to fire away from deep because the Bucks are even more aggressive than the Sixers when it comes to denying the paint.
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