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May 10, 2019

The biggest Sixers questions heading into Game 7 vs. Toronto Raptors

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050919-SixersUnderdogs-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

A fan holds a sign as Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) is interviewed in the foreground after a victory against the Toronto Raptors in game six of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center.

After being handed a beatdown the last time they traveled to Toronto, the Sixers were faced with two options — band together to force a Game 7, or lose and subject yourself to an offseason filled with questions about the future of the franchise. Philadelphia chose the former, delivering one of their best team wins of the year in the Game 6 victory.

With each Sixers star chipping in, from Joel Embiid's rim protection to Jimmy Butler's tour de force in the first half, the Sixers now get to play for their season on the biggest stage basketball has. Brett Brown is excited about this and believes his group will learn plenty about themselves from the opportunity.

"I've been fortunate to be in a few Game 7's and they're very unique," Brett Brown said after Game 6. "They're special, they're a life lesson opportunity."

As the Sixers prepare for that lesson on Sunday, there are a few major questions they'll have to answer along the way. In no particular order, here they are.

Which version of Ben Simmons will the Sixers get?

To say Simmons was a different player in Game 6 would be the understatement of the series. It was clear from the opening minute of the game that he was not going to let the series end without putting up a fight.

"His no turnovers, his attack mode, pick em, his four offensive rebounds, his push and pace on missed shots especially, all those things were what made him an NBA all-star at 22 years old," Brett Brown said after the game. "I thought he was excellent tonight and we needed it all."

"He attacked in transition, in the half, made some free throws, that's how we need him to be,"  Jimmy Butler added. "You can't key in on one or two guys on this team because we have so many guys that can put the ball in the basket, so many guys who can get a stop and take off dribbling with the basketball. Like I said before, that's how we're going to win."

When you have the gifts Simmons does athletically, the game is not especially complicated if you take the right approach. The problem is that against elite competition, we haven't often seen him apply that mentality on the offensive side of the ball.

But take one look at this play, deep into a game the Sixers had locked up, and you tell me if Simmons was a different guy on Thursday night.


We have seen Simmons shy away from contact, refuse to go up strong, and do anything he could to avoid shooting the ball at times during this series. He had absolutely no thought of the repercussions of this play with Serge Ibaka challenging him at the rim. That is a good thing.

Whether that continues in Game 7 is certainly up for debate. On the one hand, Simmons just delivered one of the best and most important performances of his life to keep the season alive in Game 6. They do not have the opportunity to go back to Toronto if it is not for his effort on the home floor Thursday night.

On the other hand, Simmons has been a non-factor on offense for much more of this series, and the Raptors are probably going to throw their full weight behind stopping Embiid and Butler on Sunday. How will he respond with his back to the wall in a road game, when he might have to play various positions and handle an insane minutes load when all is said and done?

Simmons would do well to keep the same mentality he had heading into Game 6.

"I think it's moreso for me just going out there and doing everything I can to win," Simmons said. "The end result is gonna be the end result. Everyone had that same mentality I think, we were just going out there and playing hard and not regretting anything."

Who will be the eighth man for Philadelphia?

The Sixers' bench was a major plus for the Sixers early in the series, much to the surprise of the media on both sides of this series. Greg Monroe was a good curveball after Boban Marjanovic flunked out of Game 1, but he faltered in Games 4 and 5, and Brown decided to go back to Boban in Game 6.

It was an absolute disaster for Philadelphia. The Sixers were -18 in just seven minutes of action for Boban on Thursday night, and it honestly felt worse than that. Sixers fans booed as the Raptors went on a 10-0 run with Joel Embiid on the bench in the second quarter, begging Brown to call a timeout and put a stop to it.

This leaves Brown with a problem to solve in advance of the biggest game of his tenure.

"We've tried Amir, we played Furkan earlier, you played Greg Monroe," Brett Brown said of his search for the last man in the rotation. "There wasn't anybody that like put their hand up and grabbed that spot. It didn't help us, obviously, that was a hard four minutes for Boban. And I felt like we pivoted out of it quickly, and it could have been a tough environment. 

"But ultimately, we, me, are in pursuit of who is the eighth man?...it's not clear."

As Brown noted later, the answer may be that there isn't an eighth man to play. The Sixers have a seven-man rotation they can more or less count on between the five starters, James Ennis, and Mike Scott. If they decide to downsize and allow Scott or Simmons to play minutes at backup center, perhaps they can get away with it.

But there are downsides to this strategy. If even one of your primary players gets into foul trouble, it screws up your ability to downsize. Simmons is being asked to check Kawhi Leonard, a task that is tough to navigate without picking up some cheap fouls along the way.

The bottom line is that Philadelphia's stars are going to have to play heavy minutes no matter what. Embiid insisted he was going to do whatever it took to get the Sixers over the line in Game 6.

He will need that same attitude on Sunday.

Can Joel Embiid solve Toronto's defensive puzzle?

No one can have any doubt about the defensive impact Joel Embiid has had on Philadelphia's series against Toronto. He was +40 in 36 minutes against the Raptors in Game 6, which is absolutely preposterous and completely representative of the game we saw on Thursday night. 

But it has not been a banner series for the man who called himself the most unguardable player in the league at the end of this season. Marc Gasol has continued to make his life miserable, as he did when he was still with the Memphis Grizzlies.

We saw him try to force looks that were not there in last year's playoff series against the Boston Celtics, at times to the detriment of the team (and at other times because they had no better option). Embiid has taken a different approach against the Raptors, choosing to influence the game in a different way when the looks aren't there.

"With the way they're guarding me, with double teams or you can see it on pick-and-rolls, Marc is not helping off of me, they're really stuck to me," Embiid said after Game 6. "I can make the easier decision and get my teammates open by setting great screens, rolling to the basket, finding guys and trying to free them up."

That has allowed Philadelphia's other offensive weapons to get open shots and influence the game themselves. But it would obviously be better for the Sixers if their best player could be better than neutral when they're attacking Toronto.

Toronto has tried to chain Gasol's minutes to Embiid's as much as possible following his Game 3 explosion in Philadelphia, and that combined with Embiid's illness has kept the big man down. But he did come alive in the second half of Game 6, and the Sixers are going to be creative about attacking this problem.

"If you think you're going to go just beat up on em and pound it into somebody that's being defended by defensive player of the year, as Marc Gasol is, that's a hard way to score always," Brown said following Game 6. "So whether you ducked him in, whether you pick-and-rolled him into that honey spot that foul line area, or you want a direct post, you can pick different ways that he can get his touches."

Will Philadelphia's shooters rise to the occasion?

NBA history is littered with big shooting performances from role players swinging individual games and altering the course of NBA history. The 1995 Houston Rockets featured two Hall of Famers, but it was Mario Elie's "Kiss of Death" that pushed them past the Suns in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals. 

Two of Michael Jordan's championships in Chicago were sealed with jumpers from John Paxson and Steve Kerr. Go on and on through history, and often it is not the stars who have to hit the big shot when it matters most. Robert Horry, Mike Miller, NBA history is littered with role players who have had their moments in the sun to aid the quests of elite players.

No one should expect an offensive explosion in Game 7 of this series, so timely shooting is going to rule the day. Will Tobias Harris finally get going from deep? Can Mike Scott sustain the momentum of Game 6 into the team's biggest game of the year? Will James Ennis knock down shots, or will he simply be supplying effort plays and defensive switchability?

The Raptors have a shooter in Danny Green who swung the 2014 NBA Finals nearly by himself from beyond the arc. None of Philadelphia's marksmen can make that sort of claim. But resumes and past accomplishments go out the window in Game 7. If you can deliver in one game, it is a chance to be remembered for the rest of your life.

We'll see which team has more to offer there on Sunday.


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