May 11, 2019
TORONTO — The Sixers have begun to form a collective identity on the basketball court, and the messages they share with the media tend to be unified. They are not always unified, however, in the way they deliver what they have to say.
Take Mike Scott, for example, who has endeared himself to Philadelphia with timely shotmaking and toughness that fits perfectly in a blue-collar town. As Brett Brown waxed poetic about the Game 7s he has been through and young guys discussed their feelings heading into Sunday, Scott had a few simple words of wisdom to share after going through this experience before.
"Some of the young guys asked me about it. I just told them we just gotta man up, grow some balls, you know — it's gonna be hostile," Scott said at practice on Saturday.
That's playoff basketball in a nutshell, no pun intended. The game slows down, and it's on you to impose your will on the other team for 48 minutes. The whistles don't come as frequently, the shots are more closely contested, and the stakes are higher than they've ever been.
Philadelphia is trying to look past all of that. For many of the Sixers' best players, this will be their first Game 7 ever. Even Jimmy Butler, their standout performer of the playoffs, has just one Game 7 under his belt, and he dismissed that as an experience to draw from when talking with reporters on Saturday. Fair enough — he was a much different player on a much different team back in 2013, and all anyone is worried about is the here and now.
There are two seasoned veterans in these moments: JJ Redick and Brett Brown. Redick has been through five of these as a player, and Brown's time as an assistant coach in San Antonio has allowed him to go through this process repeatedly with different stakes for each one. The Spurs were taken to seven in every round of the playoffs at one point or another during Brown's tenure, and he sees a connection between each of those experiences.
"I've said it before and I mean this, it's a life experience. It's for sure a sporting experience, but playing in Game 7s [is] different," Brown told reporters Saturday. "Everything is just zoomed in, it's just raw. It always gets back to, in my opinion, defense. There will be no like, oh that's a great shot. Everything's contested, lots of times you hope to just get a shot...and it incrementally increases as the clock winds down."
Philadelphia's head coach has spent parts of the last couple days studying these games and the challenges they present. On Friday night, he bunkered down and watched Game 7 of the 2005 NBA Finals, a knockdown, drag-out fight between the Pistons and the Spurs. The classic Game 7 between the Cavaliers and Warriors in 2016 also made his required viewing list, and that night is informative — two offensive juggernauts slugged it out to a 93-89 finish.
That may be exactly what we see in Game 7. With Joel Embiid healthier, the Sixers have shown they can junk up what the Raptors want to do. Toronto's defensive credentials speak for themselves, and between Marc Gasol and Kawhi Leonard, they have two defenders who have proven they can shut down Philadelphia's top offensive options when necessary.
But beyond the study of past experiences and games, the Sixers have looked to maintain some semblance of normalcy the past couple days. Brown was excited that the team could be in Toronto for the day before Game 7, allowing the team to set up shop and really dig in before having to take the Scotiabank Arena floor on Sunday night.
"It's just a matter of finding a normal pace to their life, normal routine," Brown said. "How many opportunities do I have as a coach before a team walks on a court? I would count, I got three film sessions, two walkthroughs... I got five opportunities, how are you going to spend your money? I go through it that way, and it always pivots back to, how can I not disrupt their routine?"
"So tonight everybody, they may have friends, they may [be with] family, that's the plan."
This series has been anything but routine and anything but predictable if you view it from a thousand yards above. Whenever a team has delivered a blowout, the opponent has responded with the seriousness and pride a long playoff series demands. There are unrestricted free agents on both sides of the aisle, but no one has turned a wandering eye toward the summer.
The future of two teams hangs in the balance — it could be the last time Kawhi Leonard suits up for the Raptors, triggering the start of a rebuild in the process. It could be the last time Jimmy Butler and/or Tobias Harris play for the Sixers, depending on where their interests lie this summer. There will be no games after this one where the loser can deliver a counterpunch, only speculation about signings and firings and how the puzzle pieces fit together.
If you take the Sixers at their word, they are blind to all of that. It may be the first time on this stage for a lot of them, but the game is the game.
"Obviously this game is different, but you gotta go in with the same mentality," Joel Embiid said Saturday. "You gotta win."
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