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May 07, 2019

If the Sixers lose Game 5, history says they're in big trouble

But Brett Brown's team may be uniquely qualified to make a little history of their own.

TORONTO — As a general rule of thumb, players and coaches loathe the idea and general discussion of what we on the outside call "must-win games." No matter how many times they're asked about it, you're going to get the same general sentiment in return — the Sixers treat every game like a must-win game in the playoffs. They have echoed that belief time and time again.

That does nothing to change the facts in front of them heading into Game 5 in Toronto. If they do not come out of Toronto with a win on Tuesday night, history says they are unlikely to win the series.

Most of this rests on how hard it is to win a Game 7 on the road in a playoff series. After Denver's victory in Game 7 of their first-round series against San Antonio this year, the record for home teams in Game 7's stretched to 105-28 all-time, good for a .789 winning percentage for teams playing at home. You don't have to be a genius to see how daunting that is for any team, let alone a Sixers team that was assembled on the fly this season.

And even those numbers don't do justice to the task, because recent results have been driven by some of the game's all-time greats. Dating back through the 2016 playoffs, road teams have gone 4-8, a number that outpaces the traditional win rate. But two of those victories belong to LeBron James, one of the five greatest players to ever live, and another to the Golden State Warriors last season, where perhaps the greatest lineup in the history of team sports needed the Houston Rockets to miss 27 consecutive threes to earn their victory.

(The other victory in that group? A surprise win for the Utah Jazz in 2017, against a Clippers team that was perpetually unable to get over the hump. Sound like a team in this series?)

These numbers all reflect a pretty obvious fact — if you are the home team in a Game 7, you were the better team across 82 regular season games. The Raptors were comfortably better than Philadelphia in the largest sample we have to judge them on, for reasons that are easy to explain (continuity, experience) and hard to dismiss as the Sixers stare down a tall task on the road.

The Sixers will point out this doesn't necessarily apply in this series. If they had their current roster for the entire season, is the gap between them and Toronto as large as it ended up in the standings? Perhaps not, and maybe the Sixers are playing Game 7 at home. At the very least, they have proven that the lopsided season series between the two teams wasn't worth a whole lot, with the Sixers picking up a rare road win in Toronto and a beatdown of the Raptors at home in the span of four playoff games. 

This much is true — the Sixers' high-end talent is unique for teams going on the road in a Game 7. It's a team with a high ceiling and a slowly-forming identity to point to, despite their occasional sputtering.

And as much as their recent history in Toronto looks bad, I am on the team's side on this issue. You can basically throw all that out. We knew plenty about individual matchups coming into the series, but their inability to win in Toronto during the Process era has no connection to how they perform now. We already saw them gut out a big win on the road in Game 2.

There is nothing special about this Toronto team or their home arena. The Sixers have proven that already. Large chunks of the arena showed up late for each of the first two games, and the noise never climbed above a dull roar for most of those first two meetings.

But home/road splits are what they are for the Sixers. They were very good on their home floor and a middling team at home all season, before and after their big trades. That is not unique among NBA teams and underlines the point here — it is difficult to win NBA games on the road in general. Against a playoff-caliber team with a top-five unit on both ends of the floor? An even taller task.

Against another team and with a healthier Joel Embiid, perhaps you could suggest the Sixers would have the one player on the floor capable of going out and taking a Game 7 for himself. At times, we have seen that from the big man, and he owned the gym in Philly's dominant Game 3 win.

But as illness and a stout Raptors defense have slowed the big guy down, Kawhi Leonard has reminded everyone he may just be the best player in the world, to say nothing of his importance in this specific series. Philadelphia has tried to slow him down, they've contested his shots, they've forced him into looks you're willing to live with in many cases. It has not mattered. He is inevitable.

You can't say that about any of the Sixers' players on a game-to-game basis. The Raptors have done a good job neutralizing Embiid for most of this series. Ben Simmons neutralizes himself with his own limitations. Tobias Harris is prone to poor shooting spells and doesn't have yet have the playoff resume to trust him on this stage. Jimmy Butler may be their best bet, and even his contributions have a ceiling, with the Raptors able to stick Leonard on him if things start getting away from them.

These Sixers have a bright future, assuming they stay together. But they remain behind in ways that tend to impact games with these stakes; their stars are mostly inexperienced, their bench is thin, and they have not yet developed the reliable counters teams need when pressure mounts and the game gets tight.

Each game is its own individual battle. Game 5 will not decide the series regardless of who wins. But it will loom large, and the Sixers could use a big performance in Toronto on Tuesday night.

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