PHILADELPHA – Opportunities like this don’t come around very often.
That’s what was in the air when the Toronto Raptors took the floor at the Wells Fargo Center for Game 6 of their second-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday. That’s what was on the line.
Raptors players, coaches and executives – they all knew that stepping on the Sixers when they were down 3-2 would send a signal that Toronto’s mission to advance to the NBA’s brightest stage was a serious one, being carried out by serious professionals, a team with big goals.
It wasn’t just the chance to close out a high-end opponent without having to go through the torturous stress of a Game 7 — basketball’s version of blackjack — but the chance to maximize their odds to do something that comes along more rarely in an NBA player’s career than most think:
The chance to win big. The chance to compete for a title. The chance to win a title. The chance to fight to be an NBA immortal.
And the Raptors blew it, at least for now. At the very least they’ve made their lives riskier, and introduced the prospect of having everything they’ve worked for be smashed by bad luck or a strange fluke. That’s what Game 7s are really about.
"It’s going to be a big game for us, we have to play harder," said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. "We have to do everything we need to do to win the game. It’s do or die, win or go home, really.
It really is.
That’s the real story around their 112-101 loss to a suddenly energized, confident Sixers club that tied the series 3-3. It’s not just that the Raptors have to prepare for a win-or-go-home game at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday, but that they missed the chance to make an already difficult task just a little bit easier.
"You never have these opportunities much. And when you have them, you have to throw it all out there on the line because you never know when that opportunity is going to come back again," Lowry observed before the game. "That’s why we’re going to play desperate because we know that nothing is promised."
Well, some things are more certain than others. If, for example, you shoot 9-of-36 from three, you are very likely going to lose in the NBA. Similarly, if outside of Pascal Siakam (21 points), Kawhi Leonard (29) and Lowry (13 points and six assists) your next four rotation players combine for 24 points in non-garbage time minutes, you’re likely going to lose. If you get outrebounded 52-34 and 16-9 on the offensive glass, you’re like going to lose.
"We knew it was going to be a big crash-the-glass type of game for them," said Raptors shooting guard Danny Green, who was 2-of-8 on the night. "That’s where their advantage is and we didn’t do a good job of boxing out … put the fact that we missed shots as well on top of that, it doesn’t help."
Toronto failed to match Philadelphia’s energy, failed to quiet the crowd and were sent back home needing to regroup. This all happened despite them having more than five decades of NBA experience among their top six players, with championship rings and finals appearances to draw on and the knowledge a Game 7 would mean spotting the Milwaukee Bucks a full week’s rest should the Raptors even get to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Instead of having the weekend off to reset, the Raptors have left their fate up to the whim of a bad whistle, a rolled ankle or a hot shooting night.
The Raptors were on their back foot all night. The Sixers jumped out to a 13-5 lead, and every time the Raptors advanced, the Sixers pushed them back further. Philadelphia started the fourth quarter with an 87-67 lead, built in part by a 13-4 late third-quarter run that featured Embiid emphatically. This was punctuated by a symbolic swat on Leonard, leading to a fast-break finish from Ben Simmons, who came out of nowhere in this series to put up 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists
"… It was a weird, kind of a strange game of runs where they came out and blasted us and we crawled back in and they went right back [on a run] again," said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. "There was just too many fast momentum swings, I think. We didn’t play with enough force, we didn’t play hard enough, we didn’t stand in there, we didn’t play with enough physicality."
The Sixers starters dominated the Raptors starters – Embiid was plus-40 even though he scored just 17 points on 14 shots. Toronto’s bench was nearly non-existent for the second time in three games as Nurse trimmed his rotation to effectively six players plus the odd cameo.
The series isn’t over and certainly there’s no reason to expect the Raptors can’t prevail. Two days rest should help Leonard, who looked a little heavy-legged after three games in five days. His 29 points, 12 rebounds and four assists were – remarkably – a shade under the standards he’s set for himself in what has been an epic series.
But it’s hard to overstate what is at stake here. And that’s without getting too caught up in Kevin Durant’s strained calf and the increasing vulnerability of the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
Think about it: Put aside third-year forward Siakam, and five of the Raptors top-six rotation players have been in the NBA for a total of 52 seasons, yet they have two NBA championships and three NBA Finals appearances among them.
That’s it. That’s all they collectively have to show for more than five decades worth of NBA experience. All-star teams, all-NBA teams and even league-wide awards – there’s plenty of that kind of recognition.
But winning in the NBA is like summiting Everest – the conditions have to be right. It’s all so very fragile, and let’s not overlook the blood sacrifices the Raptors made to put this team together and that Green and – how could we forget — Leonard are heading to free agency this summer.
The time is now, because in the NBA the time is always now.
And league-wide? Perhaps for the first time in nearly a decade, maybe more, the league’s pool of potential champions seems deeper than “do you take your coffee with milk or cream?”
The Raptors aren’t favourites, but they aren’t long shots either. They have a chance, a real chance. But it would have helped to get past the 76ers with some efficiency.
Still, a win Sunday will make Game 6 feel like ancient history rather quickly. As Sixers head coach Brett Brown said Thursday, Game 5 "felt like a thousand years ago" before the ball went up. Time moves fast in the post-season.
So the Raptors’ opportunity remains. They can still get to where they want to go. But there are no guarantees, so every advantage that can be earned – some extra rest, avoiding risk of an unlucky injury – helps. Teams that play long series are like dogs that chase cars – eventually something bad is going to happen.
After years of running into LeBron James, the Raptors – if they advance — will now have to contend with the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who at age 24 is the favourite to win the league’s MVP award and could be every bit as immovable as James if he’s not already.
If they don’t advance? If they blow two swings at putting away the Sixers? They’ll have to contend with even bigger questions.
But for now, the Raptors still have a chance to do great things. The opportunity remains. But they have made their lives that much harder.