The NBA playoffs are a game-to-game affair where adjustments and momentum swings define each series. This Sixers-Raptors matchup has been proof of that.
The Raptors have the benefit of playing at home for Game 7—a slight, but real advantage—and the Sixers will look to ride a wave of momentum into a road win.
Obviously after Game 5 I have concerns about the Sixers’ ability to manufacture their own energy on the road, but I’m not sure that’ll be a problem with it being Game 7 (win-and-go-home and all).
Here are the keys to a Sixers win in Game 7.
Don’t let Toronto go on the first run
The one thing that does concern me is their ability to manage an offensive burst from Toronto. Runs are inevitable in basketball, and the Raptors have had their fair share of them in this series. I think it’s important is for the Sixers to build some sort of early cushion (even something as small as 5 points) in order to sustain an early run on the road.
The Sixers ended the first, second, and third quarters on a run last night, and each time it halted Toronto’s rhythm and, to a degree, broke their spirits (the crowd was incredible). While my general concern about playing on the road is small, if they were to fall behind 10+ points at some point I have a hard time imagining them being able to compose themselves enough to climb back into the game. That’s exactly how things went down in Game 5, and Brett Brown won’t have the Philly crowd around to let him know when to call a timeout.
A strong first quarter is a must; the Sixers can’t afford to come out flat on either end of the floor. I know that sounds obvious, but they could overcome a poor start at home. If the Toronto crowd gets going early, and the Raptors are able to sit on a lead with their suffocating defense and grind-it-out style of offense, then this will be the end of successful season that, truthfully, could have gone a lot better.
Own the boards
The keys to this game aren’t all that complicated—at the end of the day the Sixers are the slightly more complete basketball team.
It starts with dominating the glass. Philly is one of, if not the best rebounding team in the NBA, and we saw that last night (52 boards to Toronto’s 34). They have a size advantage against almost every team in the league, and with how much they turn the ball over they can’t afford to give away extra possessions.
One thing Toronto has been able to do at times throughout this series is out-work Philly on the glass, and if the Sixers want any chance of taking Game 7 they can’t let that happen again.
Ben’s offense needs to travel—and so does our team defense on Kawhi
In the three road games this series, Ben recorded a total of 27 points & 12 assists, compared to 41 points & 17 assists in the three matchups at the Wells Fargo Center. Throughout this series Simmons has appeared far more comfortable on offense at home than on the road, and last night proved that he’s actually more valuable to the Sixers offense than Embiid is.
Early in the series I excused Ben’s lackluster numbers on offense as a product of his demanding defensive assignment (Kawhi), and while I still believe that to be a fair assessment, last night made clear that having him engaged on offense is the more important focus.
I can’t find the data on it, but Brett Brown clearly took a more team-driven approach to defending Kawhi last night. Beyond the fact that he didn’t force the Simmons-Kawhi matchup—all of Butler, Ben, Harris & Ennis took turns defending him—they were also more quick to double team than in the past five matchups.
While Butler gives up a little size to Kawhi, he played his best on-ball defense of the series last night, and the fact that he (and the other wings) were able to relieve some of that pressure from Simmons clearly paid dividends on offense, where Ben was a man amongst boys last night.
There’s not a player in the league who can stop him in the open floor, and if you give him breathing room in the half court all he needs is one step on you and he’s going to the rim.
Beyond that, last night reminded us of his greatness as a passer. We tend to marvel at his no-look dimes, but where Ben really has value is his ability to locate open shooters and zip a pass right into their shooting pocket. It’s this sort of facilitation that we take for granted because Ben makes it look easy, but at least 2-4 times a night we get a solid three point looks in the half-court or in secondary-transition because Ben is able to snap a ball into the pocket of JJ, Tobias, Mike Scott, Ennis, or Jimmy.
If those defensive adjustments were made to free up Simmons on offense, then I tip my cap to Brett Brown—it worked. And if they were done in attempt to change up the looks on Kawhi in hope of slowing him down, then I also tip my cap. Regardless, BB clearly pulled the right strings last night.
For all the commotion that was made around Simmons having to carry the load on defense against Kawhi, it’s become pretty clear that he’s more valuable on offense, and the true defensive burden lays with Embiid.
Embiid needs to focus on leading the defense (and he needs to play 40+ minutes)
Hopefully this won’t be the case moving forward, but the Sixers don’t have a backup big capable of not turning this defense into a turnstyle at the basket, and for that reason we saw JoJo log 36 minutes last night.
He was pretty bad on offense for most of the game, but you can look no further than his team-leading +40 plus/minus as proof of his impact on defense. Not only was he a deterrent at the rim and in the paint, but he was the quarterback that the rest of the unit so desperately needs.
Embiid doesn’t get enough credit for being as cerebral as he is, but he does a great job of recognizing opposing team’s sets and calling out the proper coverage. Beyond his imposing size and athleticism, his IQ and leadership is what makes him a valuable piece of this puzzle even when he’s not contributing as much on offense—though it’s worth noting that his mere presence on the floor and the spacing that creates is a huge contribution in its own right.
It really doesn’t matter if he scored 10 points or 35 points, Joel Embiid’s contribution on offense isn’t where Game 7 is going to be decided. We need him to be the MVP-level defensive anchor that he was last night, and that he can be every night.