It’s a high stakes Sunday for the NBA.
Two Game 7s with much more on the line than trips to the next round.
Toronto and Philadelphia both went all-in on winning this season, gambling on big time free agents to be who could put them over the top, and if they did then those stars may want to stay. The Raptors have Kawhi Leonard, Philadelphia has Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Plus, Sixers coach Brett Brown may need to win to hold on to his job.
Denver and Portland see themselves as the teams who have got next in the West, franchises poised to rise up as Golden State fades away. A trip to the Western Conference Finals would be validation, fall short and there will need to be some soul searching.
The NBA has got the drama on Mothers’ Day, but what is it going to take to win those games? Here are three things to keep an eye on.
1) Will the Raptors knock down their threes and give Kawhi Leonard some help? Leonard has been the best player in the East this postseason, a beast that justifies both the Raptors gamble on him and the way they managed his minutes — or, more accurately, let him manage his own minutes — during the regular season. Leonard has averaged 33.7 points with a 67.7 true shooting percentage, plus 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game against Philadelphia this series.
Toronto’s defense has more and more been to throw multiple defenders at Leonard, trying not to let him beat them.
Which puts the pressure on everyone around Leonard — Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and Marc Gasol. Philly’s defense is willing to give up threes, and when Toronto has hit them it has won. The above foursome has shot 38.3 percent from three in Toronto’s wins and 26.2 percent in the losses (on almost the same number of attempts).
For all the crazy things that can happen in a Game 7, the goal is still simply to put the ball in the basket. If the Raptors can do that from three, they will win. If they miss, particularly early on, it could lead to….
2) Will Ben Simmons get some early transition buckets, start playing downhill, and be a force in Game 7? Joel Embiid is the lynchpin for everything in Philly — he is +80 through six games in a series where his team has been outscored by 17 points overall. Embiid is the Sixers’ rock. Jimmy Butler has been Philadelphia’s best player and their go-to pick-and-roll ball handler in this series, and he has been brilliant (and endeared himself to Sixers fans).
However, Ben Simmons may be the bellwether. He got early opportunities in Game 6 in transition where he is most dangerous, that got him confident and aggressive, and from there he went on to 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting. He led the blowout Game 6 win.
“We just missed so many shots early and they were just playing off the rebound so often,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after Game 6. “They were getting the rebound and pushing it out on us, and we didn’t do a great job in transition.”
Jared Dudley was not wrong, Simmons can fade into the background in the halfcourt. With Butler dominating the ball, Simmons slides into the dunker position and can see very few touches from there. Then he gets passive on offense, and it spirals.
If Simmons is getting out in transition early and being aggressive, it’s an excellent sign for Philadelphia.
3) Is Rodney Hood the third scorer Portland needs to win? Damian Lillard is going to get his, he’s one of the best scorers in the sport — and he’s clutch. He was made for Game 7s. Which is why Denver is going to work to get the ball out of his hands, and this is why C.J. McCollum has been so critical for Portland in this series.
However, Portland will need scoring from a third source to win on the road, and that may be Rodney Hood. He had 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting in Game 6 and was the MVP of the night. He’s had a few games like that these playoffs, having found a role on this Portland team that eluded him in Cleveland and Utah last season.
If Hood gets going again, Portland has a chance.
Denver vs. Portland has been the tightest of second-round series and what separates the teams in this game — Paul Millsap having a good night, Nikola Jokic diming guys up, Lillard going off, Hood having a night — may come down to the slightest of things. This has been the most entertaining second-round series, in part because neither team can really stop the other, but if one side finds just a little defense that may be the deciding factor.