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May 09, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers force Game 7 in Toronto with dominant win over Raptors

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With the basketball universe ready to stick a fork in the 2018-19 Sixers, they delivered a devastating performance in a do-or-die Game 6 in Philadelphia. They will head back to Toronto with a chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals this Sunday, following a 112-101 victory over the Raptors on Thursday night.

This was a comprehensive performance from the home team. It took contributions from each of their stars and a pair of their most reliable bench players to get it done, and they will need each and every man who showed up on Thursday to deliver once again on Sunday.

Here's what I saw in Game 6, with more to come.

The Good

• When you're facing elimination in a home playoff game, the worst thing you can do is get off to a bad start. The excitement in the crowd quickly turns to nerves, and the advantage you're supposed to have at home can disappear real quick.

The Sixers made sure to give the home crowd something to cheer about early. It was Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris leading the way in the early going, in the different ways they go about the game. Butler's rugged, physical way of getting to the rim helped break through some physical Toronto defense, and Harris' shot finally reemerged at a time when they needed it the most.

Philadelphia paid them the respect they deserved with a standing ovation after a strong first quarter, and it was obvious that both sides lifted each other up on Thursday.

• If you want to credit one person for Philadelphia's torrid start to the game, Butler was the star of the show for Philadelphia. The Sixers felt the minutes Embiid was off of the floor the most on Thursday, but when they had all their best players on the floor, Butler took the game by the horns and never let go.

The offensive contributions spoke for themselves. Butler finished with 19 points in the first half alone, and he abused every mismatch the Raptors were kind enough to hand him. Kyle Lowry? Just shoot over him. Patrick McCaw? Thanks for affording him a free path to the rim.

Butler created his own separation time and time again, and when the shots didn't fall, he was the first man after the offensive rebound, outmuscling Toronto with some spectacular plays in mid-air.

His defense was just as important. When Ben Simmons got into early foul trouble, it was Butler who was asked to take on the Kawhi Leonard assignment, and Butler played some of the best individual defense he has played all season on Leonard. After bothering his shot throughout the first half, Butler picked his pocket to put an exclamation point at the end of the first half, going coast-to-coast to put the Sixers up 15 at halftime.

When the Sixers traded a couple of beloved role players for Butler last November, this is what they signed up for. Butler has proven many times over he is built for this sort of moment, and he has been their undisputed best player in this series, in a matchup that was always going to demand him to be at his best. Job well done.

• The man who has taken more heat than anyone in this series, Ben Simmons, was in fine form on Thursday night. With the season on the line, Simmons came out of the tunnel like he was shot out of a cannon, and it made all the difference in the world for Philadelphia.

Anybody who wants him to turn into a volume shooter is probably never going to get their wish. But Simmons is still totally capable of dictating the tempo of the game, and he did that against Toronto in Game 6. He didn't let Kawhi Leonard's presence deter him from driving, he didn't slow down when they tried to wall him off in transition, he just went full speed ahead as often as possible.

When Simmons is in freight train mode, that draws the attention of the opponent regardless of how many shots he attempts at the rim. There is a big difference between this version of Simmons and the one that gets caught in mid-air, unsure of whether he's going to attempt something at the rim or fling a pass to the perimeter. I mean this sincerely — one of his best plays of the game was a missed dunk he was fouled on in the fourth quarter. He didn't have a lot of room to take off, but he didn't care, and he exploded to the rim the way he should be doing numerous times per game.

A Simmons that plays with purpose is dangerous. The Sixers will not win a title unless they get this version of him, and with the stakes considered, this is one of the best games of Simmons' young career.

• Stop me if you've heard this before: Joel Embiid did not have his best stuff on the offensive end of the floor against Toronto in Game 6. Marc Gasol continues to give him fits when he tries to post up, which has taken Embiid out of his usual rhythm and neutralized his ability to get to the line.

And yet the Sixers were somehow a +30 in the first half with Embiid on the floor, and a +40 through three quarters. That is how important he is on the defensive end of the floor, organizing the Sixers from the paint and making sure everyone gets where they're supposed to be. 

Whenever he's not on the floor, the Raptors have hunted whatever poor sap the Sixers put in the game to replace him, and it has been a disaster all series. So Embiid did what the great ones are supposed to do, and he kept his butt on the floor as much as humanly possible, and he found a way to impact the game even with his shot not dropping.

The Sixers dominated the points in the paint battle, and the disparity felt representative of his impact on the game. Embiid made sure everyone was reminded that he's one of the game's best, and he did it without having to fill it up on offense. Having a healthy Embiid in Game 7 might make all the difference in the world for Philly.

• Tobias Harris cooled off after a hot start to the game, but I thought this was one of his better all-around performances since joining the Sixers. 

He finally seems comfortable with what he's supposed to do and where he's supposed to be on defense, and it has helped the Sixers come together as a unit these past few weeks. It helps that Toronto doesn't have a lot of players who can punish Harris' lateral quickness weaknesses in space, which is where he got burned against the Nets in round one.

On the offensive side of the ball, Harris didn't allow himself to get turned into just a spot-up shooter. He attacked closeouts hard, and even though he came up empty on a few of his trips to the basket, he never stopped coming, and he was able to punish Toronto collapsing on him with a couple of well-timed passes to other shooters on the perimeter.

If he starts hitting shots, Toronto is in trouble.

• Mike Scott may be the most beloved role player that a team acquired at the trade deadline in the history of the NBA. He is such a perfect fit with this fanbase that it's a shame he didn't up here sooner — the guy is tough as nails, and that gives him the confidence to knock down tough threes and take whatever defensive assignment the game brings him on a given night.

A role player on a heater can swing elimination games. Scott is a great candidate for that honor in Game 7, where the Sixers will need every last man they can get.

• Another game, another series of glue-guy plays from James Ennis. His offensive night was nothing to write home about, but he was part of the brigade that slowed down Kawhi Leonard.

The Bad

• The Sixers are going to go into Game 7 with absolutely no idea what they're going to do at the backup center position. And that's the case, mind you, despite the team theoretically having four options to go to beyond Embiid. When the guy who has been sick as a dog and below his usual standards can't be taken off of the floor, that's a bit of a problem.

The Ugly

• Going back to Boban Marjanovic in Game 6 was not the worst idea in the world. Greg Monroe has been terrible the last two games after a good early period in the series, and giving the Raptors something to think about is defensible.

It officially became indefensible after the first run with Boban on the court, when the Raptors chipped into Philadelphia's lead. And it got a hell of a lot worse from there — the Sixers were up 17 when Embiid hit the bench midway through the second quarter, and Brown decided to go back to Boban after the bad early run. The Raptors went on a quick 10-0 run, and the fans booed when Brown finally called the timeout they were begging for.

There are not perfect options to turn to. But with the season on the line, I think one brutal stretch of Boban was enough to see he wasn't changing the series. Brown made it worse by not calling a quick timeout when it started to spiral.

• If the flagrant foul the officials called on Embiid does not get rescinded, I have absolutely no idea what the league is doing. As it stands, he's now one flagrant foul point away from a one-game suspension for a play that looked like nothing more than jostling for a rebound to this observer.

There were some fans who were upset Embiid was even out there to pick up this foul in the first place, to which I say: did you see how they looked without him on Thursday? 

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