PHILADELPHIA — It didn't take long for the Philadelphia 76ers to put some space between themselves and the Toronto Raptors in this win-or-go-home Game 6, to make clear that the Jekyll version of this group had shown up.
"In the locker room, as we went through an early shootaround, you could sense the serious side [in our players]," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the 112-101 win Thursday. "They got the moment."
Ben Simmons aggressively pushed the ball. Joel Embiid, finally healthy and spry, bounced and glided across the floor. Jimmy Butler continued to be a force on both ends.
This was the Sixers at their best, a team of stars playing like the championship contender it so desperately wants to be.
The scoreboard read an 11-point Philly win when the final buzzer sounded, but this game was rarely even that close. All evening, the Sixers looked like the bigger, faster, more explosive team—just two nights after rolling over and allowing the Raptors to do the same to them.
The result: a Game 7 on Sunday night in Toronto full of ramifications for this season and beyond.
It's been a strange series, with blowouts both ways. We've seen two players (Butler and Kawhi Leonard) raise their games. We've seen the worst, and also best of Embiid, though as great as Leonard has been, Embiid seems to the be the player who most controls the outcome.
With him at his best, the Sixers often look unbeatable. That they outscored the Raptors by an astronomical 40 points in the 36 minutes he was on the floor—despite Embiid struggling on offense (17 points on 5-for-14 shooting)—is emblematic of his impact. He is one of, if not the top defensive player in the NBA, a hybrid of Rudy Gobert's shot blocking and Draymond Green's savvy, and a player who has the ability to neutralize Toronto's secondary players.
Embiid plays better at home—he's admitted to feeding off the crowd—but he also appears to be healthy for the first time all series. With that being case, and with the way the Sixers have been able to limit Kyle Lowry this series, the Raptors could very well need 40 from Leonard to stave off elimination.
One thing to watch: How many minutes he can play and how Brown manages his rest. Brown went to the stone-footed Boban Marjanovic in Game 6 as his backup center, and the move came close to costing the Sixers their season. Toronto attacked every time down the floor, outscoring the Sixers by 18 points in the seven minutes Marjanovic played.
As a result, Embiid as forced to play 36 minutes. We know his conditioning isn't great, and there's only one day off between Games 6 and 7. How many minutes can Embiid go in Game 7? And who will Brown slot at center when Embiid sits? Will he go back to Greg Monroe, or try Ben Simmons or Mike Scott as a small-ball five? Maybe he makes sure to rest Embiid when Leonard sits? The answer could determine the series, and so much more.
For the Raptors, the stakes—aside from the right to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals—are obvious. One of the Raptors' goals this season was to convince Leonard to re-sign with them. They allowed him to manage his body how he wanted, an area that clearly helped drive the wedge between him and the Spurs. They went out and traded for Marc Gasol.
Everything for the Raptors this season has been about proving to Kawhi Leonard if he re-signed with them this summer, he'd be attaching himself to a winner. It would be hard to do sell Leonard if they drop a Game 7 at home, and a Leonard departure could trigger a full reset. We learned last summer how aggressive Raptors president Masai Ujiri is. For him, a reset could very well mean a full tear down. Maybe Kyle Lowry gets shopped. And maybe Gasol decides to decline his $25.6 million player option.
"There's obviously more on the line," Raptors guard Danny Green said in the visitors' locker room at Wells Fargo Center after the game. That's the case for all Game 7s. Few, however, possess this many storylines and feature two teams that have bet everything on the present.
As for the Sixers, Game will 7 will offer Brown opportunity to proved to ownership that he's the right coach for this team. In a press conference before Philadelphia's playoff opener against the Brooklyn Nets, Sixers managing partner Josh Harris was asked if he believed Brown would still be coaching the Sixers next season.
"He's our coach going into the playoffs," Harris said. "We're supportive of Brett. We think he's the right leader to take us where we need to go in the playoffs. I'm focused on the Brooklyn Nets, and he's focused on the Brooklyn Nets."
Not exactly a strong endorsement. It also came just about a month after Harris had told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan that it would be "very problematic" if Philadelphia didn't advance deep into the playoffs, making Brown's position with the Sixers seemingly even more tenuous.
Brown has had a strong series. He's made savvy adjustments. Slotting Embid on Pascal Siakam in Game 2 resulted in a win. He's shortened his rotation and allowed Butler to run more pick-and-rolls. If Embiid had remained healthy all series, the Sixers would likely already be preparing for the Milwaukee Bucks. But does Harris feel the same way, or would a Game 7 defeat in the second round fall under that "problematic" umbrella?
Other questions are facing the Sixers, who are on the cusp of entering one of the more intriguing offseasons in the league.
Butler (player option) and Tobias Harris will likely be unrestricted free agents this summer. Will the Game 7 result affect the Sixers' view of them or their view of the Sixers? Butler's performance has likely cemented his ability to fetch a max contract on the open market. Do the Sixers want to match that, and will they be able to say no if he leads them to a Game 7 win?
Philadelphia also has the ability to offer Simmons a max contract extension this offseason. Would a second-straight second round exit, in a series where Simmons has mostly struggled, make then wonder about inking Simmons to a longterm deal?
"I've been fortunate to be in a few Game 7s, and they're very unique," Brown said. "They're special. They are a life lesson, a life opportunity."
Both teams will have the oppurtunity to solidify their respective futures. To those of us on the outside, it may seem silly to base these sorts of decisions on a single game's result. But we're not the ones who make the decisions.