TORONTO — It bounced, and it was a stunning, sickening thing to behold. Even after the shot dropped through the net, the ball still seemed suspended in midair, perched above the rim like a bomb before impact, a frozen moment in time, hanging like the pall that would soon thicken the air of a locker room full of players staring into the middle distance.
There were 4.2 seconds left when Kawhi Leonard secured the inbounds pass, 1.6 seconds left when he got to the edge of the double team, 1.0 seconds left when he planted his feet for liftoff, 0.3 seconds when that final, fateful shot of a tied Game 7 left his hands.
From high above the court, near the arena’s rafters, you could look down upon the ball as it met the front of the rim, and you could see its fate, its final destination. It bounced dead and straight, the opposite of what geometry would suggest, and in the milliseconds that followed you could feel your mind’s predictive mechanisms furiously charting its eventual course. By the time it finished its second descent to the cup, the gravity of the situation seemed clear. The buzzer sounded and the backboard ignited and a shock wave of divergent emotions roared like a current through the opposite ends of the sideline.
The ball dropped to the court, and the Raptors were alive, and the Sixers weren’t, Game 7 of this magnificent Eastern Conference semifinal series ending in a 92-90 win by Toronto.
“It was a great play,” Ben Simmons would say later. “A great shot.”
That it ended as it did — with Leonard hitting another impossible shot, falling toward the baseline while double teamed by Simmons and Joel Embiid, the ball bouncing four times before finally going in — was as fitting as it was difficult to stomach. The Raptors had an unstoppable scorer, and the Sixers did not. That’s why the Raptors won four games and the Sixers won three. That is why the Sixers’ season is over and the Raptors’ is not.
There is no shame in any of it, of course. More than anything, the lesson of this series was that the Sixers’ biggest need is another year of development from Simmons and Embiid. Given the stakes of an evening like Sunday, and their tantalizing proximity to the realm of the NBA’s elite teams, it is easy to overlook the fact that all of these moments, while failures in the present, are also a part of a larger building process that typically progresses at an exponential rate over the early part of a player’s career. They are little slices of experience that must be lived and confronted and tested and, yes, failed, before they become a permanent part of a player’s physiological memory.
Take, for instance, a sequence in the second quarter when a fake dribble handoff left Raptors shooting guard Danny Green as the only defender between the basket and Embiid. Rather than using his size and strength to finish at the rim, Embiid attempted to get around Green with an awkward-looking Eurostep. The result was an off-balance look at the rim and a missed shot.
If Embiid is like most young players, there will arrive a point in the future where he is confronted with a similar situation and, almost instinctively, identify the path of least resistance, and convert such a play with ease.
» READ MORE: Observations from the Sixers’ loss
The march of progress is rarely set to a steady beat. As was the case throughout most of the series, the Embiid we saw in Game 7 wasn’t the player we saw so often over the previous year, drawing defenders out on an island with his deft touch and then overpowering them with his strength and his ever-improving footwork. He scored 21 points in 45 minutes, but he shot just 6-of-18 from the field and turned the ball over four times.
He was not Kawhi. He was not that rarest of NBA commodities, a player whose combination of super-positional strength/size and multifaceted scoring ability renders him virtually unguardable regardless of the opposition or the game situation.
He was not that in Game 7. Not to the extent that they need him to be.
“I feel like we had a chance,” said Embiid, who was overcome with emotion after Leonard’s shot, leaning into the hugs of Raptors players for support, including a long embrace from opposing center Marc Gasol. “A lot of things go through your mind. It [stinks]. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. It just [stinks].”
As for Simmons, the last two games of the series should silence any questions about his suitability as a key component of a franchise’s foundation. As a defender, he has the makings of a monster, the sort of game-changing force that can swing a series such as this. He was a big reason why Leonard missed 23 of his 39 shots, a big reason that last shot needed four bounces before it finally went in.
On the offensive end, he was composed, assertive, in control, much more so than earlier in the series. He scored 13 points, had five assists, hit five of his six free-throw attempts.
He just wasn’t Kawhi. He did not score 41 points. He did not take 39 shots. He did not single-handedly will his team into points on a number of possessions.
“To me, it’s simple,” Simmons said. “We’ve just got to get better.”
Against the Raptors, they gave us plenty of reason to think that they will. Sometime after the sting wears off, and the nausea subsides, the Sixers will look at the ashes of their season and see in it the evidence of their continued ascension. Two years into Simmons’ career, three years into Embiid’s, this franchise is closer to the realm of the NBA’s elite than anybody could have predicted they’d be.