Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard bounces Sixers out of playoffs, into uncertain offseason
The Sixers' Eastern Conference Finals drought stretches all the way back to 2001. Now, they'll have to wait another year.
TORONTO — Wow!
Kawhi Leonard’s 15-foot fadeaway jumper at the buzzer lifted the Toronto Raptors to a 92-90 victory over the 76ers in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series Sunday night at the Scotiabank Arena.
The All-Star small forward was originally guarded by Ben Simmons until Joel Embiid left Pascal Siakam and cut Simmons off. Leonard dribbled to the corner and fired up a shot over Embiid as time expired. His high-arcing shot hit the rim four times before dropping into the basket. Leonard was immediately mobbed in front of the Raptors bench.
Meanwhile, Embiid was crying on the court after the first buzzer-beater in a Game 7 in league history. He had to be consoled by Raptors center Marc Gasol.
“I don’t know Game 7, losing the game that way,” Embiid said of what was going through his mind. "Last shot after a hard-fought game. I feel like we had a chance.
“A lot of things go through your mind and it [stinks]. … I can’t explain it. It just [stinks].”
Leonard said he had extra motivation to make the shot after missing a foul shot that led to Jimmy Butler’s layup to knot the score at 90 with 4.2 seconds left.
“He’s taller, longer than me,” Leonard said of the 7-foot-2 Embiid. “So I end up finding a spot that I like that I work on. … So I knew I had to shoot it high. "
Said Butler: “He hit a tough one. You tip your hat to that. He’s an incredible player. We all know it. Ain’t too much you can do about it.”
The victory advanced the Raptors to their second Eastern Conference Finals appearance in four seasons. They’ll face the Milwaukee Bucks. Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is set for Wednesday night in Milwaukee.
But what’s next for the Sixers? That will be the question over the next couple of months.
Now the Sixers head into the offseason with unfulfilled expectations and uncertainty.
Reaching the conference finals was the Sixers’ season-long goal. There was talk that coach Brett Brown’s job might be in jeopardy if he failed to reach that round.
So the immediate question is: Did Brown’s game-to-game adjustments in the seven-game series do enough for him to keep his job?
If not, who’s going to be the next coach? And who’s going to be on the roster?
“The club can respond to that,” Brown said when asked about his job security.
» READ MORE: Observations from the Sixers’ loss
Leonard finished with a game-high 41 points to go with eight rebounds and three assists. Embiid paced the Sixers with 21 points and 11 rebounds while playing a career-high 45 minutes, 11 seconds in a regulation game. However, he made just 6 of 18 shots.
JJ Redick added 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting (4 of 8 on three-pointers) while Jimmy Butler had 16 points while making just 5 of 15. Two starters — Tobias Harris (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Ben Simmons (13 points, eight rebounds, five assists) — rounded out the double-digit scoring.
Rookie general manager Elton Brand should get strong consideration for NBA executive of the year after the team’s blockbuster in-season trades for Butler and Harris.
Now the question is: Will he be able to re-sign them in free agency? If so, will both of them receive five-year maximum salaries for $188 million?
Folks were excited about Butler, Harris, Embiid, Redick, and Simmons being the league’s second-best starting lineup behind the Warriors. However, Embiid and Simmons are the only two starters under contract past this season.
Not having all five starters back next season could hurt the franchise more than people think.
Butler was asked about free agency following the game. “I am not worried about any of that right now," he said. “We just got done losing. I don’t want to talk about anything else but basketball.”
But Simmons talked after Sunday’s game as if they were returning.
“We haven’t been together for a while with this group,” he said, "but it’s got a lot of potential. The guys that we have brought over — Tobias, Jimmy, everybody, Boban [Marjanovic], Mike [Scott], James [Ennis]. Just everybody that we have now, we grew a lot in the last few months of being together.
“So I’m proud of my guys.”
But on Sunday, the Sixers were hurt by turnovers, Leonard and the Raptors’ offensive rebounds. The Sixers committed 17 turnovers and Toronto had a 16-5 advantage on the offensive boards.
One of the keys to a Sixers victory was to get Harris involved early. That didn’t happen, as the power forward had only two points in the first quarter after making his lone shot attempt.
As a team, the Sixers made only 5 of 19 shots (26.3 percent) en route to trailing 18-13 after one quarter. The Raptors shot 20.8 percent (5-for-24). Toronto, however, had a 5-0 advantage in offensive rebounds and committed five turnovers, which led to eight points in the first quarter.
Embiid (1-for-6, two points), Redick (1-for-5, three) and Butler (1-for-4, two) combined to shoot 3-for-15 for seven points in the opening quarter. Simmons, who didn’t have a shot attempt, had two points.
The Raptors had a little scare early in the second quarter. Kyle Lowry sprained his left thumb at the 8:19 mark. He ran to the locker room to have his thumb taped and reentered the game with 6:02 left in the half.
For the most part, the Sixers shot better in the second quarter. They shot 42.1 percent (8 of 19). Harris scored eight points in the quarter. However, Embiid and Butler continued to struggle, as Philly trailed, 44-40, at intermission.
Embiid missed three of his four second-quarter attempts en route to scoring seven points in the first half on 2-for-10 shooting. Meanwhile, Butler missed both of his second-quarter shots and had two points on 1-for-6 shooting.
The Raptors opened up a 50-41 lead 2:32 into the second half. Brown called a timeout and the Sixers responded with a 16-0 run to take a 57-50 advantage with 4:59 left. That’s when the Sixers took Embiid out and Serge Ibaka and Leonard scored on consecutive possession to make it a three-point game.
The Raptors took a 67-64 lead into the fourth. The lead seesawed back and forth before the Raptors build a five-point lead. Butler’s foul shots with 4:34 left closed the gap to 85-82.
Then Redick knotted the score at 85 on a three-point play with 3:29 left. Leonard’s jumper with 1:41 left put the Raptors up two. Then a turnover led to Toronto’s next basket. Lowry stole Harris’ bad pass to Embiid. Lowry then assisted on Pascal Siakam’s layup that gave the Raptors a 89-85 lead at the 1:14 mark.
Butler split a pair of foul shots to pull the Sixers within three points (89-86) with 59 seconds left. Then after Leonard missed a foul shot, Butler raced down the court and knotted the score at 90 with 4.2 seconds remaining.
But Leonard won the game moments later. As a result, Sixers came close a repeat performance.
Their last conference finals appearance came against Milwaukee in 2001. Back then, they needed seven games to defeat Toronto in the conference semifinals. At that time, the Sixers escaped with an 88-87 Game 7 victory on May 20, 2001. Vince Carter missed a desperation jumper right inside the three-point line before time expired.
The Sixers went to defeat the Bucks in the conference finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
But this time, the Raptors made the last-second shot.