TORONTO — If you’ve been riding the emotional roller coaster that carried the Toronto Raptors to Sunday’s Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in this Eastern Conference semifinal, you’ve had a long two weeks.
Just look at how we got here. The Raptors won assertively in Game 1, faced a mini-crisis after losing a nail-biter in Game 2 and getting embarrassed in Game 3, edged out a tough victory in Game 4, ran the Sixers off the floor in Game 5, and got out-worked, out-hustled, and out-run in Game 6.
And none of it has been foreseeable. At no point has the series’ most recent game been at all predictive of the next. Would anything really shock you in Game 7? If either team won in a blowout or on a buzzer-beater, would you be surprised?
"I expected this to be a great series, so I’m not all that surprised that we’re here," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said Saturday. "That’s a good team that we’re playing — they’re well-coached. They’ve had some great moments, we’ve had some great moments. It’s been a weird 3-3, right? We’ve already discussed that. But it doesn’t surprise me that we’re here. We’ve just got to prepare and go play."
It’ll all come down to which of these two evenly-matched teams plays better over 48 minutes at Scotiabank Arena. No one knows what’s going to happen. But here are four factors to keep an eye on as it plays out.
As reductive as it is, Sunday’s game could simply be decided by the Raptors making or missing their shots. For the series, the Raptors are shooting 34.6 per cent on shots classified as wide open by NBA.com, including 32.2 per cent on three-pointers. During the regular season, those numbers were 45.2 per cent and 40.9 per cent, respectively. It’s been a massive factor in the series.
"I’m probably most surprised that we just haven’t shot the ball better. I really believe we’ve got a good-shooting team," Nurse said. "We had a body of work where we were the best shooting team in the league from the Marc Gasol trade on. So, it’s not like I’m pie-in-the-skying it here."
The only positive to be taken from Toronto’s shooting woes is the fact they’re generating so many good looks. A remarkable 61.6 per cent of Toronto’s field goal attempts in this series have been classified as either open or wide open by NBA.com. For Philadelphia, it’s only 46.2 per cent.
Toronto’s offence is clearly doing a far better job of creating high-percentage opportunities. Is Sunday the night when they finally start converting them? If Toronto’s season is going to continue, it probably has to be.
How high does rebounding rank on Nurse’s list of concerns going into Game 7?
"Very high. It’s been a critical issue in some games, right? So, it’s extremely high," Nurse said. "I think it’s difficult enough work to get them to take some of the shots that we want to get them to take. And when we do, we can’t celebrate until we get the rebound. Because I think we’ve made them do some things they don’t want to do, or take some tough shots, or take really challenged shots. And then we’ve let them off the hook a few too many times with a put-back. I think we have to be better."
Over the course of the series, the 76ers are running away with the rebounding battle, 276-210, including a 63-42 advantage on offensive boards. The Raptors have only out-rebounded Philadelphia once in the series, and in five of the six games played thus far, the 76ers have fought their way to at least nine rebounds on the offensive glass.
"We have to be more physical in our block-outs — we have to be super-conscientious of finding bodies running into the basket, and then we’ve got to rebound like some grown men," Nurse said. "We’ve got to go up and grab them with two hands and squeeze them and hold onto them and get in a strong body position."
Toronto’s looked at its best in this series when it has forced Philadelphia into tough shots, defended its glass, and attacked quickly in transition. That’s what happened in Game 5, when the Raptors limited the Sixers to only five offensive boards and scored 33 in transition on their way to a dominant, 36-point victory.
In Game 6? The Raptors let the Sixers fight their way to 16 offensive rebounds, which limited Toronto to only 11 points in transition. Ben Simmons — Philadelphia’s 6’10 point guard — had four on his own. And the Raptors were cooked midway through the fourth quarter.
"Rebounding has been a big advantage for them and we can’t let that happen. Just can’t," Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said. "It just does a lot. I think last game they had 15, 16 second-chance points, 56 points in the paint. Things like that, we’ve got to control."
Four of the six games in this series ended in lopsided victories, so it’s entirely possible one of these two teams runs away with Game 7, leaving us to watch Jonah Bolden trying to get going in the post against Eric Moreland over the final five minutes.
But in the event it’s a highly competitive, back-and-forth affair, it’s at least safe to say that both Nurse and Sixers head coach Brett Brown won’t be shy to extend the minutes of their best players.
"I think the minutes things for both teams are going to be off the table," Nurse said. "I would expect the best players to play absolutely as many minutes as they possibly can all the way through until it’s decided."
The player this will make the biggest impact on for the Sixers is undoubtedly Joel Embiid. The 36 minutes he played in Game 6 were his most of the playoffs — his previous high was 35 in Game 4. Due to the bevy of injuries and viral infections he’s battled during the post-season, plus some suspect conditioning, Embiid’s only been over 32 minutes twice in his 10 post-season games.
But considering how vital he is to Philadelphia’s success — the Sixers have a team-best 22 net rating with Embiid on the floor, and a team-worst minus-17.8 with him off — don’t be surprised if he’s up over 40 minutes by the time Game 7 is through. Which would, in turn, mean a heavy workload for Raptors centre Marc Gasol, who Nurse has endeavoured to match-up with Embiid as much as possible in recent games. Gasol hasn’t cracked 40 minutes himself in these playoffs, topping out at 39 in Game 4 and averaging just under 30 per game.
Similar to the massive swing effect Embiid provides, the Raptors have played to a 15.8 net rating with Kawhi Leonard on the floor, and minus-14.9 with him off. Although Leonard’s already been up to 43 minutes in these playoffs, Nurse could stretch him even further in Game 7. Depending on how things are going, Leonard might not leave the floor in the second half.
The same goes for Lowry, who might only sit out for the first minute or two of the fourth quarter. Lowry’s on/off numbers are just as drastic as Leonard’s (a team-best 16.3 net rating when on the floor, and team-worst minus-18.7 when off) and Fred VanVleet has been extremely inconsistent in serving as Toronto’s back-up point guard.
Which gets to another question: How much time will Toronto’s bench players see in Game 7? VanVleet was nearly played out of this series in Games 2 through 4, as he struggled greatly with Philadelphia’s length and went 0-for-11 from the field. He’s shown signs of life over his last two games, but he’s still playing at a level far below his potential, and Nurse hasn’t been shy to cut VanVleet’s minutes if he doesn’t make an immediate impact.
The same goes for Norman Powell, who has played a much smaller role in this series than he did in the first round. Meanwhile, Serge Ibaka’s minutes have fluctuated as Nurse has toyed with his lineups. Recently, as Nurse has managed Pascal Siakam’s workload in the wake of calf and hamstring injuries, while also trying to match Philadelphia’s size by deploying larger lineups, Ibaka’s floor time has increased.
But if Ibaka looks untrustworthy early on Sunday, Nurse could quickly go away from him and lean heavily on Siakam, who played 33-plus minutes in each of his last two games. That’s probably the case for all of Toronto’s reserves, really. They can expect to receive their nominal stint spanning the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second. But their level of play will determine how much time they see from there. In a game of such consequence, there just isn’t room to let players figure things out.
"They get their opportunity," Nurse said. "If they take advantage of it, the opportunity becomes a little longer. If they don’t, it becomes a little shorter."
There’s only so much teams can hold back over the course of six games. The Raptors faced a fairly desperate scenario after falling behind 2-1 in the series, much like the Sixers did after falling behind 3-2. If either coach was saving any surprises for their counterpart, you’d expect them to have been deployed in those situations.
Plus, with each team’s rotations so shortened, there are only so many combinations either coach can use. Nurse has already deployed his ultra-big lineup with Gasol, Ibaka, and Siakam all on the floor at once. And Brown has shown the Raptors what his team looks like with any of Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe, and Mike Scott in the back-up centre role as he tries to steal some rest for Embiid. Any lineup that hits the floor Sunday is likely to have been seen before by its opposition.
There shouldn’t be any unusual matchups seen in Game 7, either. At this point, everyone’s had some time on everyone else. Leonard’s been guarded plenty by both Simmons and Jimmy Butler. Siakam and Gasol have each seen their fair share of Embiid and Tobias Harris. The Raptors have thrown all of their starters one through four at Butler for more than 60 possessions throughout the series. No matchup in Game 7 should feel unfamiliar.
What could change are schemes. Nurse said it was "a real possibility" that he’d throw "a couple coverages we haven’t used out there" during Game 7 in order to give Philadelphia a different defensive look. That could include some creative double-teaming, traps, or blitzes, particularly when it comes to containing Butler on pick-and-rolls.
Expect Brown to deploy some defensive strategies the Raptors haven’t seen much of, as well. Whether that’s finding new ways to throw extra bodies at Leonard, picking players up before half-court, or even using a zone defence, something the Sixers have in their back pocket but have yet to deploy, remains to be seen.
"I’m expecting a hell of an effort and a hell of a performance," Nurse said. "Each game is its own entity. No matter what you think’s going to happen, or where you think momentum is heading, or who’s on the floor, or where it’s being played — each game is its own entity. And you’ve got to bring it."