• It’s rare to watch something unfold in real time and declare it to be the “greatest” anything. There’s too much time and too many possibilities to definitively call any one moment the height of achievement. Sunday night gave us an opportunity to throw convention out the window.

    Kawhi Leonard’s series-winner is the best singular play in the history of the Raptors, with four bounces providing some extra theater.

     

    It wasn’t always pretty — especially as the offense ground to a halt in the third quarter, leaving Leonard to shoot 4-of-14 in the frame — but in the end he proved too dominant for the Sixers to contain for more than a few minutes at a time. His presence loomed over the entire series, with each game tilting dramatically whenever he left the court.

    Game 7 was more of the same as Leonard bent things to his will on both ends of the floor. The Sixers tried to send aggressive double-teams in an attempt to make Leonard a playmaker, emptying the bag to force literally anyone else into making plays. It limited him to three assists and four turnovers, but it wasn’t quite enough.

    Leonard was able to read the pressure and attack into space, creating good looks for himself.

     

    Even when he wasn’t scoring, the pressure didn’t preclude him from making the proper reads. Leonard draws attention from four Sixers on this play, eluding the original double-team and passing around the rim protector to give Marc Gasol an easy layup.

     

    Defensively, Leonard was a menace. He was tasked with multiple assignments throughout the series and did exemplary work in each matchup.

    Ben Simmons drew the bulk of the attention and was basically erased from six of the games, posting 33 points, 15 assists and eight turnovers in 222 possessions against Kawhi in the series.

    Jimmy Butler’s clutch play attracted the Leonard matchup in Game 7, and he was limited to five points on 1-for-7 shooting in 45 possessions. On the whole series, Butler was 4-of-11 for 15 points in 107 possessions against Leonard and shot about half as frequently as he normally would in that time.

    Leonard was also able to lock down his secondary matchups, with Tobias Harris going 2-for-12 in 73 possessions and J.J. Redick hitting 2-of-3 in 38 possessions. The only player who shot more frequently than usual in Leonard’s coverage was James Ennis. That’s an outcome that the Raptors were happy to see.

    Per the NBA’s matchup data, Leonard clocked in with a Deterrent Factor of 78.1 or below on all of the Sixers’ starters. Deterrent Factor measures field-goal attempts per 100 possessions relative to a player’s average. In layman’s terms, a Deterrent Factor below 100 means that you’ve got the offensive player shook.

    Leonard’s “worst” mark came against Harris (78.1) but he was below 70 for all the other prominent Sixers, including a sterling 52.1 mark against Butler. Not only was Leonard forcing the Sixers into tough shots, he was preventing them from shooting at all.

    It’s hard to mentally account for shots that aren’t taken, but Leonard came through with enough big plays to alert even the most casual observers, whether that was reading the play:

     

    Or creating plays out of thin air:

     

    Ultimately, Leonard’s abilities left him a cut above everyone else on the floor. There was an air of assurance despite the franchise’s history of disappointments. Never before had they been a true favorite in a series of this gravity; against a team with so much talent, no less. They’ve also never had someone of Kawhi’s magnitude to stack the deck in their favor.

    His stretch of 13 straight missed threes in the series felt like a glitch in the matrix. The ball finding its way back to Leonard on this play felt less like good ball movement and more like fate consuming the game whole. He would only miss so many.

     

    With Leonard at the helm, the Raptors are no longer a paper tiger or a plucky stepping stone for the true contenders. This is why Leonard was acquired and why the team was willing to let him manage his load all year. Leonard was built for moments like this; an inevitable force of nature that carried the team over the hump by going 6-of-9 for 15 points in the fourth quarter of a Game 7.

    For all of the things that went into this series, it boiled down to the best player on the court taking over.

    A long and winding road brought that player to Toronto, and each step of the journey revealed its payoff on Sunday night.

    *****

    The first time that Masai Ujiri really went for it was five years ago.

    It wasn’t going for it in the traditional sense, but rather an unloading of an expensive player in order to reshape the roster according to Ujiri’s own vision.

    Out went Rudy Gay, in came a number of bench pieces from the Sacramento Kings. Kyle Lowry was supposed to be next out the door, with his departure canceled by James Dolan’s bruised ego and a sudden turnaround in the on-court product.

    A ragtag group surprised the league by taking the Atlantic Division in a year that started out as a rebuilding project. It was enough to convince management that there might actually be something at the heart of the roster.

    Ujiri spent the next two years trimming the fat, shaping the roster around its guards and bringing in potential impact players like Lou Williams, DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo. Some worked out, others didn’t, and Ujiri kept searching.

    In need of a legitimate power forward to support their guard duo, he dealt Terrence Ross and a pick to the Magic for Serge Ibaka. Ujiri would double down on his faith in the group by adding P.J. Tucker from the Suns. It was a worthwhile gamble to keep pushing the team’s ceiling upward, but ultimately meant nothing against LeBron James. The same was true last season, where the Raptors re-tooled and leaned on their deep bench to produce the best regular-season record in the league.

    Those groups were wildly different than this year’s as the Raptors had three trade acquisitions and a new-and-improved Siakam making up over half of their Game 7 rotation.

    The Raptors never wavered despite years of disappointment, running it back with fringe changes until a real, ceiling-shattering opportunity presented itself. Beyond the random chance of Leonard’s mysterious injury and San Antonio’s handling of the situation, Toronto was prepared to take the leap. Rather than bottom out to pan for gold, the Raptors continued to build and develop players in meaningful situations, creating a handful of tradeable assets in the process. Ujiri struck when the time was right.

    Lowry is the last man standing from the surprise year that kickstarted the best era in team history. Ibaka is the only other holdover that was a major contributor during the first foray into serious contention.

    In a true instant classic, it’s fitting that it was that duo who set the table for Leonard’s masterpiece. They’re the connective tissue that spans Toronto’s journey from its start to its undetermined finish; the guys that bridge the gaps from era to era. Leonard is the story, but Lowry and Ibaka are the world-building that allows Leonard to author an all-time moment.

    *****

    Both benches were all-or-nothing throughout the series, and Ibaka came through with what might’ve been his finest game as a Raptor on Sunday night.

    Nick Nurse went to two-big lineups to counter Philadelphia’s size advantage and it seemed to reinvigorate Ibaka after a slow start to his second round. It wasn’t perfect, as a dreadful Game 6 performance sticks out, but Ibaka responded with 17 points (6-of-10 shooting), eight rebounds and three 3-pointers in 29 minutes, also finishing as a game-high plus-22 in Game 7.

    Most importantly, he provided the Raptors with huge lifts in two areas where they struggled for most of the series: from beyond the arc and on the offensive glass.

    Ibaka hit three 3-pointers, his first of the entire series, in a game where the Raptors went 7-for-30 from deep. They ended up finishing the series a ghastly 68-for-228 and were the only team in the second round to hit less than 30 percent of their triples.

    Toronto went 5-of-17 on wide-open 3-pointers in Game 7, which was a fitting end to a round in which they went 44-for-138 (31.9 percent) on such shots. They were the worst of the eight remaining teams in the category, and joined the Warriors (32.3 percent) as the only teams to hit under 35 percent of their wide-open threes. For the record, those teams shot 40.9 and 40.1 percent on wide-open threes in the regular season. The Raptors desperately needed someone to hit a big shot and it was Ibaka – who shot 27.3 percent from deep during the year – that stepped up to the plate.

    His second shot of the night was a bit hesitant, and the rest of his game might not unfold the same way if it rims out, but from then on Ibaka was shooting decisively and staying in rhythm. Sometimes it takes an unlikely player taking on unlikely tasks, and Ibaka more than delivered. Who even knew that this was in his bag of tricks?

     

    Ibaka also corralled four huge offensive rebounds, helping the Raptors come away with a 16-5 advantage on the offensive glass (having been outrebounded 63-42 through the first six games) and a 12-6 advantage in second-chance points (having been outscored 75-57 in the category before Sunday).

    This putback gave the Raptors a little extra cushion heading into the fourth quarter. Ibaka charges through the lane and simply snatches the ball away from Joel Embiid (fatigue was a major factor for him in the second half), who makes no effort to box out on the play and then compounds matters by failing to contest the shot.

     

    Ibaka came up huge again late in the fourth, capitalizing on some terrible ball-watching from Simmons and Embiid to snare a key rebound that gave the Raptors a chance to put the game away. Though they failed to do so, a play like this is vital to any winning effort.

     

    To say the Raptors won the bench battle is a monumental understatement. But Ibaka was not alone in his pursuit on the offensive glass, nor was he alone in hitting some big shots.

    *****

    For as much as has changed in five years, Kyle Lowry has remained the constant.

    Lowry has never been the true face of the franchise despite being its most crucial member. He’s worn every hat imaginable in his time with the Raptors, sacrificing time and time again to prop the team up. It’s no accident that he consistently paces the team in most impact metrics, even as his scoring game has slipped.

    Lowry’s playoff reputation seems cemented barring something truly miraculous. Sunday was not at that level, but rather a collection of greatest hits. He’s always going to be the straw that stirs the drink for Toronto and his fingerprints were all over the victory even with a modest line of 10 points, six rebounds and six assists – to say nothing of two drawn charges (now up to 10 in 12 playoff games) and two more loose-ball recoveries, pushing his league-leading total up to 32 and 11 clear of second place.

    Foul trouble limited him in the first half, and the fact that his left thumb popped out didn’t help matters either. It could only slow him down, however, as Lowry was instrumental to everything that happened in the second half.

    First, Lowry calms things down, stopping a 16-0 run by getting his teammate an easy basket. He follows that up by setting a picture-perfect screen to produce another easy bucket, starting a short Raptors burst and easing the burden on Leonard by creating something other than a jumper.

    There’s Lowry in amongst the trees, grabbing the offensive rebound in the middle of all five Sixers as the shortest man on the floor. It leads to a 3-pointer.

     

    There’s Lowry pushing the pace, going right at Embiid and getting the tough layup to go. Then Lowry pops up with a key steal, ripping the ball from Simmons to create another easy basket:

     

    The aforementioned 16-0 run from the Sixers gives them a seven-point lead, only for Lowry to involve himself in every play until it had been erased.

    Lowry ramps it up even further in the fourth, hitting a tough shot to bail out a bad possession.

    Deep into crunch time, Lowry anticipates the play to nab another steal, ultimately finding Siakam for a layup that puts the Raptors up four with 74 seconds left.

    Though the plays referenced above all led to points, the following might be the most indicative of all that Lowry brings to the table. Lowry gets switched onto Joel Embiid with 15 seconds to go. There’s no frantic request for help, and none of his teammates react like it’s a problem:

     

    It’s literally the biggest physical mismatch that could’ve been created, and Lowry is up to the task. That Ibaka gets called for a foul in the ensuing scramble is immaterial – the Sixers should expect that Embiid can score over Lowry at will, especially with good post position established. Lowry nearly creates a steal, flipping a nightmare scenario on its head. Again, posted up against Joel Embiid with 15 seconds left in Game 7.

    To focus on Lowry’s Game 7 is to know everything that he brings, and why he’s remained a pillar through all the disappointments. He owned every nook and cranny of every margin. The Raptors needed every ounce of it. Leonard isn’t in a position to win it at the buzzer without the benefit of every detail Lowry has mastered.

    *****

    Watch The Shot again. The final buzzer is silent by the time the ball drops. It spends 3.5 seconds in the air, 1.9 of those bouncing around to the whims of fate. It’s an eternity.

    In those 1.9 seconds, everything is at stake. The game may be headed to overtime, but as the ball bounces we’re preparing to define the entire year for both teams and predict how the future changes in Toronto, Philadelphia and beyond. We’re about to hold a referendum on team-building and risk-taking; determining whether the last five years of Ujiri’s moves have been worthwhile.

    A different bounce and the teams gear up for overtime, with Butler charging and the Raptors reeling from a last-minute collapse enabled by a missed free throw from their superstar.

    Ujiri has blown it, trading away a beloved All-Star for a one-and-done who never wanted to be there in the first place. Kyle Lowry made little plays but still only scored 10 points in an elimination game. Pascal Siakam ends his breakout season with a whimper. It’s even uglier for Gasol, and the Raptors choked away a series where they were able to clamp down on Philadelphia’s young stars. A waste of a season that gutted the team’s future, ending with a loss on home court. Same Old Raptors.

    The Sixers will boast the best young core in the game, escaping a tough series and coming out stronger on the other side. Butler has outdueled Leonard, Embiid takes to Instagram and Philly sets the stage for a multi-year battle with the Bucks to determine the East’s top dog. The band gets back together and looks down on the standings for years to come.

    That the game-winner bounced around four times after a series where the Raptors could barely buy a bucket is a poetic detail that cannot be ignored.

    Toronto is not used to getting the bounces. But Toronto has never had Kawhi Leonard.

    Other Observations

    Game 7 clearly brought a ton to the table and there are dozens of narrative threads to tie off here, with many deserving an extended look. Alas, there’s only so many hours in the day, so we’ll just get a little lengthier in our observations.

    1 – This is deserving of its own article, but Nick Nurse absolutely nailed Game 7. Nailed it. Nurse hit every mid-series and mid-game adjustment on the board. Joel Embiid played 45:12. Marc Gasol? 45:12. Nurse abandoned a third bench player entirely, cutting Norm Powell from the rotation after he was a regular participant through six games. Anyone who wasn’t approaching the game aggressively sat on the bench for more than usual which isn’t the easiest call to make when you’re rolling with only seven players, two of whom had been hot-and-cold all series. It’s a similar template to what they used in Game 4, only Nurse went even more extreme with his moves. The Raptors won just about everything on the margins on Sunday, and Nurse deserves serious credit for that. Bonus points for shouting out all the moms out there in his end-of-third-quarter interview.

    2 – In contrast, not to say that Brett Brown has done a bad job, but there were some calls that ultimately cost Philly the game. The Sixers got obliterated whenever Embiid sat. Greg Monroe was minus-9 in just 1:42 of action. Obviously Embiid can’t (or shouldn’t be expected to) play all 48 minutes, but using a traditional center in his absence was dead on arrival. Brown shouldn’t have tried to sneak that lineup on the floor. Though in his defense, it’s not like Mike Scott fared well on Sunday either. Brown can move the pieces around all he’d like but eventually someone has to play well.

    3 – He’ll also take a ton of heat for how Embiid was used, as a guy of his skill set shouldn’t be spending so much time on the outside. It’s not an incorrect point, but it’s just the reality of putting Simmons at the dunker spot in the half-court. Spacing remains a long-term issue with that duo, and there’s only so much that Brown can do to mitigate it. This series raised the philosophical question of whether you’d prefer to have a below-average shooter move off his most dominant spot so a total non-shooter could be involved in the game at all. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. The Raptors completely locking Simmons out of the transition game also influenced that choice.

    4 – One of the recurring themes in our coverage of this series was the Raptors’ hesitancy on offense. Danny Green has to shoot when he’s open. On a night where most of the Raptors played well, there were really only two guys who stood out as passing up really good looks: Green and Siakam. Siakam has a bit more depth to his game and can produce dynamic plays out of nothing, but if Green is passing up clean looks off of curls then he’s not helping. Nurse made the right call in sticking him on the bench before the indecision bug spread.

    5 – Marc Gasol was excellent for the most part, and he was terrific in Game 7. For the few games where he’s stood out as a negative, Gasol immediately turned it around in the following contest. He took himself out of Game 6 by completely ignoring scoring opportunities, and you got the sense that it was going to be a good night for him early in the first quarter. Even though this shot misses, the quick trigger is the key. Gasol just “gets it,” with near-immediate moments that illustrate his understanding of the previous game’s mistakes. Wouldn’t you know it, he came through with a big shot in the fourth. It’s a look that was there all series for him.

    6 – Gasol defended Embiid on 74 possessions in Game 7 and held him to 6-of-18 shooting. He did about as well as anyone could ask in one of the toughest matchups in the league, and over the course of the series Embiid posted 74 points on 22-of-62 shooting in 328 possessions where Gasol was his primary defender. Beyond that, Embiid had 14 assists to 22 turnovers, committed six offensive fouls and ended up with more free throws (25) than field goals. It was a gargantuan effort for a player who’s been asked to accept a brand-new role on the fly. It’ll be interesting to see if Gasol’s play evens out against the Bucks since he won’t need to devote all of his energy to the defensive end of the floor.

    7 – Fred VanVleet was unable to get anything going offensively this series but was rock solid in Game 7, even with his 0-for-5 from the field. He was aggressive (there’s that word again) and got to the line twice early, taking the ball right into the defense and getting rewarded in a game that started with plenty of missed jumpers. He also did a wonderful job on J.J. Redick throughout the series, limiting him to 18 points on 6-of-19 shooting in 132 possessions. VanVleet acknowledged that Redick was his only real matchup in this series and he certainly geared up for it. The Raptors spent a lot of effort trying to stop the Redick-Embiid DHO action, and VanVleet didn’t let his struggles on one end of the floor seep into his play on the other. It wasn’t always pretty but he did a great job in terms of ball denial and fighting around screens.

     

    8 – Anyone making fun of Joel Embiid for crying is lame as hell. Yeah, he invites the clapback with how much junk he talks, and the young Sixers do give off the frontrunner vibe by only talking when things are going well, but there’s nothing wrong with a little vulnerability. Everyone copes differently.

    9 – Can’t wait to hear the explanation for what Ben Simmons was doing on the final play. Why would you stop running? You can make the argument that Simmons’ pursuit won’t really affect the shot, but there’s still no excuse for him to just pull up even if Embiid cuts him off. It’s not like he went to cover an open shooter.

    10 – The Sixers now enter a summer full of uncertainty, and three members of “the most talented starting five in the East” are set to hit free agency. Jimmy Butler certainly fit right in and J.J. Redick has indicated that he’d like to come back. Tobias Harris might be a bit more hesitant to return, especially if Butler is back, since he likely (and correctly) views himself as more than a fourth option. The Sixers also have a depth problem, and sinking almost all of the cap into the starting five might leave them exposed in the second unit – especially as Simmons and Embiid get more expensive.

    11 – Harris was a disappointment for much of the series, failing to build on his limited possessions as a featured player. It’s fair to question how much of the blame falls on him (there were some open looks that found iron) and how much of it goes to his teammates. The Sixers turned to Butler as soon as things got tough, and while he certainly made play after play, it did stagnate things a bit. Harris spent most of this series being guarded by Pascal Siakam (150 possessions) and Danny Green (115), with Leonard and Lowry in a tie for third at 73 possessions apiece. It just didn’t ever feel like the Sixers tried to funnel Harris the ball despite mismatches against Green and Lowry, and it speaks to a larger point about how Philly needs to find alternative ways to keep things flowing when Simmons is bottled up.

    12 – Pascal Siakam was quiet in Game 7, though he did make some key plays late. His fastbreak layup accounted for the only non-Leonard points among the final 15 and he was fairly involved as a screener. Siakam passed his first test of the postseason with flying colors, running right through a Magic team that gave him issues in the regular season. His second was far more of a mixed bag, as the Sixers schemed to stop him specifically and his big scoring nights came on high volume, excepting Game 1. It’s been good for him to experience life as a featured player, and driving into someone other than Embiid should help him find his rhythm again. Milwaukee’s got plenty of length and it’ll be fun to see how they approach Siakam defensively.

    13 – Not much to add to this tweet from the delightful Ros Gold-Onwude. It’s just really cool.

    14 – The Raptors could’ve saved themselves some stress (but where’s the fun in having a drama-free series?) by hitting their shots, and they should feel a tad lucky to advance after seven games of terrible 3-point shooting. On the flip side, they should know that there’s another level to their game when shots are dropping – something we really only saw in Game 5. The ECF should allow shooters to take a breath. We’ll see if they can take advantage of a clean slate.

    15 – The Bucks are a lethal opponent, but their roster build should give the Raptors a bit more freedom since they’re built in a similar fashion. Gasol was the only player on the roster capable of handling Embiid, and the two giants brought the pace of the game down. The Raptors were forced to stick to that center matchup, whereas the Bucks will allow them to be a bit more malleable in defensive coverages. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a nightmare but having Siakam, Green, Ibaka or Powell cover him for a couple possessions won’t be the same death sentence that Not Gasol vs. Embiid was. Perhaps the more run-and-gun game, with a little less size and a deeper bench, can get guys like VanVleet and Powell (and to a lesser extent, Siakam) back on track. It’s going to be a major stylistic shift for the Raptors, which should be a relief for a few members of the roster.

Fantasy News

  • Vlatko Cancar
    SF, Denver Nuggets

    Vlatko Cancar (ankle) hurt his ankle during Sunday's practice.

    The ankle injury may put his availability in question for opening night. An update should be coming out with more information regarding the injury, but Cancar should not be on any draft boards regardless.

    Source: Harrison Wind on Twitter

  • Rodney McGruder
    SG, Los Angeles Clippers

    Rodney McGruder (high ankle sprain) is questionable to play in Tuesday's opening game versus the Lakers.

    McGruder is noted to be progressing well, but high ankle sprains tend to be tricky and if re-injured could shelf a player for several weeks. If McGruder is healthy enough to suit up he figures absorb some of Paul George's would-be minutes.

    Source: Tomer Azarly on Twitter

  • Alen Smailagic
    PF, Golden State Warriors

    Alen Smailagic (right ankle sprain) has a chance to play in Thursday's season opener.

    Smailagic was expected to miss a decent amount of time, so him not being ruled out is somewhat shocking. There is no reason to look at Smailagic in any drafts, but him missing time could funnel more minutes to Jordan Poole.

    Source: Logan Murdock on Twitter

  • Willie Cauley-Stein
    C, Golden State Warriors

    Willie Cauley-Stein (left foot strain) will not play in Thursday's season opener.

    WCS has been cleared fr non-contact drills, but with Kevon Looney looking health it makes the call easier to take the cautious approach. WCS will be looking like Looney's primary backup.

    Source: Logan Murdock on Twitter

  • Dennis Smith Jr.
    PG, New York Knicks

    The Knicks will not announce their starting point guard until Wednesday.

    Death, taxes and Knicks head coach David Fizdale doing Fizdale-like stuff. The battle has been between Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr., while Frank Ntilikina sits in the background. It appears that after a few more days of practice Fizdale will have the sample size he needs to make confirm his starter, but for now they both remain as late-round fliers.

    Source: Marc Berman on Twitter

  • Kyle Kuzma
    PF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Kyle Kuzma (left foot stress reaction) has been ruled out of Tuesday's season opener.

    This isn't a shocker considering Kuzma has yet to be cleared for contact. He is still participating in non-contact half-court drills, but has no firm timetable to return.

    Source: Bill Oram on Twitter

  • Kevon Looney
    PF-C, Golden State Warriors

    Kevon Looney (right hamstring strain) will play in Thursday's game and possibly open as the starting center.

    Looney practiced on Sunday and looked good to go. Looney is the favorite to start, it just seems like his health will determine whether or not he does. Looney offers late-round appeal in standard leagues and remains a sleeper on most boards.

    Source: Monte Pool on Twitter

  • Isaiah Taylor
    PG, Toronto Raptors

    The Raptors have waived Isaiah Taylor.

    Taylor signed to a partially guaranteed deal back in September, but did not stand out did training camps. He had a stint with the Hawks back during the 2017-18 season and will likely get picked up by another team and relegated to the G-League.

    Source: Josh Lewenberg on Twitter

  • Paul George
    SF, Los Angeles Clippers

    Paul George (right rotator cuff and left labrum tear) does not have a timetable in which he could participate in full-contact drills.

    Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said the team is expecting to be without George with at least the first 10 games, which would put his return to mid-November. Moe Harkless looks like the most likely candidate to fill in for George during his absence.

    Source: Mark Medina on Twitter

  • Jalen McDaniels
    PF, Charlotte Hornets

    The Hornets have converted Jalen McDaniels to a multi-year contract.

    McDaniels was playing on a two-way contract before being signed longterm. This will open up another possible two-way contract for the Hornets.

    Source: Rick Bonnell on Twitter