Wob & Moore: Answering 5 Questions on Raptors-Sixers and Where They Go from Here
Photo credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Kawhi Leonard after buzzer-beating Game 7 shot
- The Philadelphia 76ers were sent packing early again, while Kawhi Leonard exorcised Toronto's playoffs demons with his buzzer-beating Game 7 shot.
- What happened to the Sixers? Where does Kawhi rank among the NBA's best now? What should we expect from Kawhi vs. Giannis?
- Matt Moore and Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) dive into the five most interesting questions following this dramatic series.
Kawhi Leonard sent the Toronto Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals in dramatic fashion with the NBA’s first ever series-ending buzzer-beater.
There are many questions after that thrilling ending. What happened to the Sixers? Is Kawhi the best player in the NBA? What should we expect from Kawhi vs. Giannis? Matt Moore and Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) get together to answer the five biggest questions following this crazy series.
1) What happened to the 76ers offense?
Wob: I’ll come out and say it: I haven’t seen an offensive philosophy, tactical scheme or just general flex set get blown into smithereens like we just saw at the end of Game 7 in Toronto. There were four straight possessions there between five minutes remaining and two minutes remaining where the 76ers didn’t even get a legitimate shot off out of a halfcourt set.
One of them: Jimmy Butler passed the ball to Joel Embiid in the corner with his back turned to the rim. Another: They ran handoff screen-and-rolls 35 feet from the rim not even looking at the basket, and they got BLOWN UP by Raptors swingmen with Inspector Gadget arms.
I’m trying really hard here to not be a prisoner of the moment and say, “this team just doesn’t work” or “Brett Brown was out of his league,” because they’ve proved the opposite so many times, but how … HOW did this meltdown happen? Was it an internal failure or is the Raptors’ ability to switch every screen seamlessly with Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol just that good?
Moore: Well, a few things happened. One, Jimmy Butler, as he is wont to do, held the ball too long. With 2:30 to go, you don’t need to be in clock management mode. Get into your sets.
When he initiates here, he does so with 12 on the clock; he’s already in debt to the time. Then, look at him look off Embiid. Embiids’ got a clear roll to the rim. Feed the big fella!
Then here … this is just incredible defense from Siakam. They’re trying to run a hand-off with Harris, and Siakam just detonates it — and again, they’re too deep in the clock to do anything.
In the end, a lot of these problems were consistent throughout the year, and it’s got nothing to do with Brett Brown’s schemes or anything else. It’s decision-making.
The Sixers’ biggest drawback was what the Sixers consistently chose to be. They have too many guys who seem to operate in their own sphere of influence and too little pieces of chemistry. We never talk about the Butler-Embiid pick-and-roll or even the Simmons-Embiid pick-and-roll or the Redick-Embiid DHO. They’re all just pieces trying to do things, and that works if the other team is caught off guard. Toronto wasn’t in Game 7.
2) Did Kawhi’s buzzer-beater cleanse the Raptors’ troubled past?
Wob: The Raptors NEVER win these games in the past. I mean, it was the damn 18th anniversary of Vince Carter’s shot rolling off the rim against the Philadelphia 76ers. We’ve seen them on the other side of that ending more times than we can count, and you’re lying if you didn’t think “here we go again” as soon as Kawhi missed that free throw and Jimmy tied the game at the other end.
The name on the front of the jersey has always been the same, but this year — the names on the back have experience that their forefathers did not. I know it’s only the second round and not the Conference Finals, but is it safe to say Kawhi’s shot not only killed off the demons of Raptors past — but maybe even his own when he missed that free throw in Game 6 a couple years ago?
Moore: No, and it’s because we still don’t know where he’s going. Until he puts ink to page and commits to the Raptors, they’ll carry that burden. Because if Kawhi comes in and carries them — not only with this shot and this game but throughout the playoffs when they’ve hit lulls — then the Raptors didn’t rise above… Kawhi did.
We knew Kawhi could step up and deliver. The only reason he didn’t bring hell with him in 2017 vs. the Warriors was that he got hurt. And the second round was emotional and cathartic and a wonderful Toronto moment. But in two days, they go in Fiserv vs. the baddest team in the East, with the MVP and a team that plays together much better and is deeper. Maybe this was a step towards clutch healing, but the road’s got miles on it.
3) Where do the Sixers go from here?
Wob: Is it just me or did it feel like the Sixers were just NEVER winning this series? I’m not even including the fact that they were dogs chasing cars in regard to game score and series count, but with their bench COMPLETELY nonexistent, they needed their stars to not only play 42-45 minutes a game — but to their maximum ability and performance.
I seriously cannot believe my eyes that the only two guys they could trust off the bench were James Ennis and Greg Monroe. GREG MONROE. Boban Marjanovic’s inability to guard the perimeter was exposed from the jump. GREG MONROE!!!!
What I’m getting at here is trying to articulate how good the team’s stars had to play just to keep the game close. Can the 76ers ever win a championship if Ben Simmons can’t shoot? How are YOU NOT FORCE-FEEDING JOEL EMBIID ON THE BLOCK. HOW???? ESPECIALLY WHEN YOUR OFFENSE IS CRUMBLING UNDER THE WEIGHT OF A GAME 7 SPOTLIGHT? JUST PASS IT TO HIM.
Was it because Marc Gasol wouldn’t let it happen? There’s a reason why Joel’s lowest true-shooting percentage matchup of the entire season was the two games against him. Please help me.
Moore: Here’s what’s wild: Philly won the bench minutes! The Sixers bench outscored Toronto’s 143-118. Fred VanVleet was a -14. The bench bled because Philly’s starters couldn’t cover for them the same way that the Raptors starters could cover for their bench.
I think the biggest thing gets back to what I wrote above: The Sixers have to find an identity. Is it Butler’s team? Is it Embiid’s? It damn sure isn’t Ben Simmons’.
Simmons was fantastic in Game 6 because he found little gaps to slice, and when he does that and teams let him, he’s just a constant tear on the opponent. But he’s solvable. That’s the thing with the Sixers as a whole. As good as Embiid is, you can still double him or front him with a competent big like Gasol. As good as Butler is, you can force him into selfish decisions. As good as Harris is, you can neutralize him. As good as Simmons is, you can ignore him for the most part.
The Sixers have to reach a point where their players play together and exploit the decisions of the opponent to a degree that punishes them consistently. It never felt like the Sixers were hitting you from all angles; it felt like they were taking turns trying to throw Molotov cocktails on you. Sure, if one lands you’re in trouble, but otherwise you’re just annoyed more than in real danger.
4) Where does Kawhi sit in the world’s-best-player conversation now?
Wob: What level of player is Kawhi after this? First of all, just look at what he means to the team:
You can say that about most of the best team’s stars, though. But this man shot the damn ball 39 times, and I’m willing to bet every dollar I have that less than 20% of those attempts were assisted. He was expending INSANE amounts of energy to just get open.
Oh, by the way, he is required to do everything on the defensive side of the floor, too. He does things which there are no stats for: plays that win you series. It’s only provable with the eye test, but after what we saw with James Harden in Game 6 — no statistic can save an empty soul.
Is Kawhi the third-best player on Earth now? Are we at the point that he and Giannis are moving ahead of LeBron? What is the big picture of what we just watched?
Moore: The thing that impresses me is his constancy. He’s just always gaining on you. He’s Jaws; you shoot him with three barrels and he still goes under. You just can’t get enough distance from him.
Here’s what’s most exciting about where we’re at. LeBron’s no longer in the conversation. You cannot be in the discussion at age 35 on a lottery team that’s a laughing stock in the league. He’s out, for now at least.
But you’re now going to have real debates and corners about this. Kevin Durant’s going to have his corner (or at least burners that agree). Kawhi’s going to have his camp. Giannis will have his. Embiid and Nikola Jokic will have theirs.
The fact that there won’t be a clear cut No. 1 guy (unless KD leaves Golden State) makes for fascinating debates. Kawhi has taken over in the playoffs as well as any individual player. KD’s better, but you can never tell because he plays for a team that doesn’t need him.
Leonard’s team not only needs him but would have been bounced very unceremoniously were it not for him. Leonard is Most Valuable to his team so far in the playoffs, with Jokic a close second. But we’re about to see how far that can take you.
5) What should we expect from Giannis vs. Kawhi?
Wob: What should we expect from Giannis vs. Kawhi? This is Godzilla vs. Megalodon.
Moore: The matchup data suggests that Kawhi actually did a great job on him, holding him to just four points on 30 possessions defended, and the Bucks offense to 100 points per 100 possessions, which is awesome defensively.
But this Bucks team just has so many weapons. The biggest problem is that bench. The lineups at the end of the first quarter, early second are just as dangerous in some cases, and will feast on Toronto’s short rotation.
Much of it will come down to whether Milwaukee’s sustained attack can overwhelm Kawhi, because at this point he’s the only one you’re really worried about.
Which, by the way, another Jordan comp. Kawhi always reminds me stylistically of MJ (right down to that pull-up in the corner), and that’s how it felt a lot of the time. Pippen and Grant were great, but you were just trying to get away from Jordan, and he’d never let you get separation.
This is going to be an incredible battle of limbs and muscle and sinew — Giannis’ unstoppable athleticism vs. Kawhi’s inevitable shot-making. It could be one for the ages, if the rest of the Raptors can give them almost anything.