NBA, NBA Playoffs, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors

76ers respond to force Game 7 in Toronto

The 76ers came out with exactly the sort of urgency and purpose that should be expected of a home team on the brink of elimination to force a Game 7.

The series history suggested the Philadelphia 76ers would respond after getting blown out in Toronto in Game 5. More than that, however, it was the Sixers’ character and resolve that indicated, irrespective of the outcome, Game 6 wouldn’t go over in the same fashion Game 5 did. Philadelphia came out with exactly the sort of urgency and purpose that should be expected of a home team on the brink of elimination, dusting Toronto, 112-101 (a score that casts the Raptors’ performance in a more favorable light than it deserved). Philly jumped on the Raptors early, and once it settled into a consistent rhythm late in the second quarter, didn’t relent until both teams conceded the final outcome.

The game turned on the momentum of several sizable runs, most of which came in the first half. The 76ers made separate runs of 13-5, 10-0 and 11-0 in the first half, then stretched their lead out for good with a 9-0 spurt in the third quarter. Toronto countered with 10-0 and 12-0 runs in the first half, but couldn’t spin together enough of them to keep the game within a reasonable margin when it came time for the Raptors to make their final push. Jimmy Butler closed the first half by sinking a driving layup, then picking Kawhi Leonard’s pocket and dropping in a finger roll before the buzzer — a sequence that seemed to shift momentum the 76ers’ way for good.

In addition to sinking a higher percentage of its shots, Philadelphia generated higher-quality looks than Toronto for most of the game. The 76ers had the firepower to keep the pressure on and control the runs, to show Toronto different looks on both ends of the floor then adapt when the Raptors began to catch on. Toronto’s role players were the difference in Game 5; Philly is operating on the premise that they can’t be for an entire series. With 29 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists, Kawhi Leonard was sharp — though, by his impossible standard, only pedestrian — and Pascal Siakam foraged for 21 points once he gained confidence in his jumpshot. Kyle Lowry played well, but must eventually have a game in which he does more than the little things — this wasn’t it. Danny Green never really found a rhythm and Marc Gasol hardly even looked to assert himself.

Game 5 notwithstanding, Toronto needs Leonard to be exceptional in order to win. The Sixers have enough weapons that solid performances from any three of them will do. Games like Thursday’s are the reason a team cashes in its assets for Butler and Tobias Harris. Philadelphia came from all directions and Toronto could only notice a few at a time. If it wasn’t Butler getting to his spots and rising up over defenders, it was Ben Simmons charging down the lane or Joel Embiid punishing Toronto’s bigs. While Harris scored an inefficient 16 points, he supplemented it with nine rebounds and five assists. J.J. Redick’s gravity had more impact than his actual numbers (11 points on 4-of-11 shooting).

After oscillating between glue guy and the guy for most of the season, Butler has found the right groove in the Sixers’ offense at just the right moment. His 25-point, 6-rebound 8-assist effort on Thursday reflected a player that has discovered how to impose his will within the flow of the offense without commandeering it. He’s been the catalyst of Philadelphia’s shift toward a more pick-and-roll-oriented attack and effectively serves as the point guard in second units without Embiid or Simmons — against the smart, physical defense of Leonard and Green, no less.

Embiid, who still doesn’t quite look himself, wasn’t particularly efficient, but the Raptors undoubtedly felt the full brunt of his impact. He planted himself inside on defense and changed Toronto’s entire shot profile as a result — his 12 rebounds, 2 blocks and game-high plus-40 were a mark of his utter dominance on the defensive end. Simmons, meanwhile, responded to an anonymous Game 5 effort with one of his best efforts of the series, mixing in breakneck transition rushes with furious assaults on the offensive glass. He found cutters and shooters off of many of those drives, but the determination with which he attacked the basket spoke to a change in approach and, notably, found a way to make himself a threat without the ball.

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The trouble for both teams came when the coaches had to dip into their benches. Serge Ibaka took 10 shots to score 9 points and no other bench Raptor attempted a field goal during the game’s competitive portion. Norm Powell showed flashes, but nothing more. The Sixers’ depth hasn’t been much better in the series, yet the contributions of James Ennis and Mike Scott have been critical. Philadelphia has four backup centers, yet somehow none can be trusted to provide reliable spells for Embiid. Despite Embiid’s monster impact and the 76ers’ wide margin of victory, Boban Marjanović was a disastrous minus-15 in five first-half minutes, and Brett Brown went primarily with Scott at center after that. In Sunday’s Game 7, Brown might opt simply to play Simmons or Harris at center when Embiid sits.

Toronto remains the better team, and neither side has won the subsequent game following a double-digit victory in this series. Leonard may be the only player on either team capable of single-handedly swinging a Game 7. Both teams have a right to be confident heading into Sunday, but thus far, neither has been so convincing as to put the series out of question.

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