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May 12, 2019

Instant observations: Kawhi Leonard buzzer beater ends Sixers' season in Game 7

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Kawhi-Leonard_051319_usat John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (top middle) is congratulated after sinking a game-winning, series-ending shot against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.

TORONTO — The Sixers survived barren stretch after barren stretch to keep their Game 7 with the Toronto Raptors close, but in the end, they could not survive a seven-game date with Kawhi Leonard. Toronto's star knocked down an unbelievable shot to end Philadelphia's season in heartbreaking fashion, and the Raptors will move on after their 92-90 victory.

In the end, Toronto had the best player in the series, and that was enough to carry them to victory in spite of Leonard having to volume shoot his way through the game.

Here's what I saw on Sunday night, with more to come.

The Good

• The only Sixers player who showed up for the game early was Ben Simmons. A lot of his teammates appeared to be out of sorts and unable to match Toronto's physicality in the first half, but Simmons took the game right at the Raptors, and he helped them hang around in spite of some ghastly effort elsewhere.

His game was not one without risk. On one transition push, Simmons took a giant dribble through two defenders that could have easily gotten out of control or resulted in a turnover. But he used his speed to burst through the gap, grabbed the ball and drew free throws on the play, something we haven't seen him do enough in this series.

The Raptors focused a lot of their energy on stopping Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler, sending hedges and hard doubles and doing whatever they could to stop Philadelphia's top offensive options. Simmons helped make up some of the difference.

And what can you say about his defense that hasn't been said already during this series? He was part of the group that slowed down Kawhi Leonard, and he made some sensational recoveries to block Toronto jumpers, which we have slowly grown accustomed to seeing him do this year. He has had some low moments in this series, but it was a good night for him.

• If Elton Brand isn't starting to draw up the contract they're going to offer James Ennis this summer, I have no idea what the Sixers' front office is thinking. He has been absolutely essential against Toronto, and he came up big in the biggest game of the season on Sunday night.

Ennis held up excellently against Kawhi in isolation situations, doing as good of a job as any Sixers player against Toronto's leading man. He also gave them a little bit of juice offensively, creating contact on drives to the rim when the closeouts came hard and fast.

He's the perfect sort of role player for this team. Not going to demand a lot of touches, can help you a little on both ends, and he allows you to put big, defensive lineups on the floor. He should be back.

• If the Sixers had gotten this version of Tobias Harris in Game 4, they would have gotten some downtime between the start of the Toronto series and the Eastern Conference Finals. He was everything the Sixers wanted and expected to be when they acquired him — versatile, a perfect blend of aggressive and team-oriented, and most importantly, the man hit shots.

Anytime you see Harris confidently stepping into a three in transition, you know he's feeling pretty good. He was not a high-volume shooter on Sunday night, and frankly I think he would have been justified taking even more shots. His instinct to hunt great shots is not a bad one, but you're not going to get a lot of "great" shots in a physical Game 7.

(Of course, he missed a huge, open three in the corner in the fourth quarter, because as soon as I write something, it all goes to hell. Sorry, everybody.)

• The Sixers attempted to get JJ Redick going early on Sunday, despite it not being a particularly big series for him through six games. And while he wasn't perfect out there, Redick came through whenever Philadelphia went into a deep funk.

More importantly, I genuinely think this is the best stretch of defensive basketball Redick has ever put together. The switches he got torched on against Boston last year were largely avoided across seven games, and a lot of that was just about Redick working hard to make sure he avoided the worst matchups.

The Bad

• There are two ways to look at Philadelphia's horrendous start to the game. They ended up down just 6-3 at the game's first stoppage, 5:20 into the first quarter, despite starting the game 0/9 from the field. To be down three in that scenario is a gift, all things considered.

I'm less inclined to view it that way given how the Sixers looked on the defensive end of the floor. Kawhi Leonard had two or three wide-open looks from three that he just clanked off of the front rim, and those came because Sixers perimeter players completely botched rotations and switches. Tobias Harris was wandering through no man's land when Leonard tossed up one of his bricks, and he wasn't the only guy responsible for the issue.

They survived this stretch, sure, but I don't know how you come out looking that discombobulated on defense in Game 7 of the second round. Missing shots is one thing, not knowing where you're supposed to be is unacceptable. 

They were saved by Toronto's own ineptitude on the offensive end of the floor. The two teams shot a combined 10/43 in the first quarter. That is horrendous.

• There were excuses for Embiid to look out of sorts during other games in this series. Knee trouble has bothered him, illness ravaged his body for two games, and it looked like he had turned the corner after a blowout Game 6 win back in Philadelphia. He wasn't great then offensively, but he carried the team on defense to get them to this game.

They needed more from him on offense in this one, however. It is notoriously hard to score in a Game 7, and that's when your star talent really needs to shine through and deliver. Marc Gasol shadowed Embiid all night, and he got absolutely nothing going, looking out of sorts and disengaged at times. Kawhi Leonard absolutely blindsided him on a slow-developing post play in the second quarter, and Embiid looked stunned that help defense had come, which seems strange.

(One area where I'll give him credit — he made a lot of good reads out of double teams and kept the ball moving on offense. He has grown in that area, refusing to get sucked into hero ball.)

The Sixers still ended up on the positive side of the ledger with Embiid on the floor most of the night. He played 22 first-half minutes, a career high for him. No one could accuse him of holding anything back. But he has to be better when it's all on the line, because it's what he is expected to do as the franchise player.

• Jimmy Butler did not pick a good time to get lost in the Toronto wilderness. He was missing shots in every way imaginable — Butler airballed a runner, front-rimmed a three in transition, sent a layup attempt flying off of the glass, he was a mess on offense. In short, he was a mess.

The problem when Butler doesn't score is that he is not advanced enough as a playmaker to keep teams on their heels. Those two parts of his game feed into and rely on one another, and with Butler's ability to score flying out the window, the Raptors were not scared of getting carved up by Butler as a playmaker.

If you were simply box-score watching, you would barely have known he had played in the game in the first half. It often felt that way watching the actual game, too.

(Hey, once again, let me reiterate that as soon as I write something, it all goes to hell. This time it was in a good way — after Kawhi Leonard missed a critical free-throw with 10 seconds to play, it was Butler who took the ensuing rebound and went coast-to-coast, allowing the Sixers to tie the game with precious little time left. Sports!)

• This game basically came down to bench play, with the starters on both teams playing to a relative standstill for most of the night. In the shocker of all shockers, the team that came into the series with better players on their bench ended up winning this fight.

• If there was an overarching story of the game, it was Philadelphia's inability to finish defensive possessions with a rebound. More often than not, they were forcing the Raptors into tough looks that wouldn't go down. But they let Toronto escape far too many bad possessions with terrible instincts on the defensive glass.

There's really no reason for this to happen with the lineups the Sixers are playing. They took the only small player in their rotation out of it when they benched T.J. McConnell after Game 1 of the first round. But time and time again, the Sixers tried to charge toward the rim on misses that would soar back over their heads, or hang back on shots that were then collected around the rim. They had zero feel for where the ball was going to end up, and it's hard to figure out why.

Those extra possessions were enough to make up the margin of victory for Toronto. And they are quite disspiriting from a defensive perspective — you do all that good work, and it unravels in the end.

• The Sixers called a timeout with 3:13 to play and the game knotted up at 85. I thought that was the right move with Embiid running on fumes, and the Sixers had every opportunity to seize the game from there.

What happened after that was an absolute travesty. The Sixers looked like they had absolutely no awareness of the shot clock, with Butler, in particular, dribbling the clock down aimlessly and then sending everyone into panic mode when they realized they had to get moving.

The game was there to win for Philadelphia, and no one stepped up to lead them through the game's toughest stretch. You can put as many stars on the floor as you want, somebody has to rise to the occasion. 

The Ugly

• Most of this basketball game was ugly, frankly. Those offensive efforts set basketball back at least 10 years.

• I have harped on this for months, but it wouldn't feel right to stop now: it is absolutely insane that the Sixers effectively have five centers on the roster, and only one that is playable in a playoff setting. The Sixers had to run Embiid into the ground to try to work around this problem, and there's no way they should be this screwed whenever Embiid hit the bench.

It says a lot about the roster construction that Embiid was as ineffective on offense as he was on Sunday night and the Sixers still could not afford to take him off of the floor. Every time they tried to buy him some rest, the Raptors would go on a run. It didn't matter if it was small ball or Greg Monroe out there, it was only a matter of time before Brett Brown had to summon Embiid from his spot on the bench.

It was clear they didn't have any better options in this game. Getting to this point with that being the case reflects poorly on their roster management.

(That being said, I didn't understand Brown throwing Monroe in with 35 seconds left in the first half, which is a scenario where the other team is obviously going to hunt a 2-for-1. When the pace is very obviously being pushed, logic says you go to the guy who can actually move, and that's not Monroe. He picked up a foul and put Lowry on the line, and those sort of small decisions mattered big time in a close game.)

• I'm not sure how Marc Gasol dodged a flagrant foul for doing almost the same exact thing Embiid did in Game 6 in the fourth quarter on Sunday. Since the league didn't rescind that one, I can only assume they believed that to be the correct call. Changing that because it was a Game 7 is, well, pretty dumb.

• You are not going to find a more painful way to lose than the way the Sixers did in Game 7. They scratched, they clawed, and then Kawhi Leonard was just a little bit better when it counted. Those are the breaks.

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