Only one of the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers will be headed to the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday.
The Game 7 battle between the East’s 2- and 3-seeds is scheduled to go down on Mother’s Day at 7 p.m. ET in the Scotiabank Arena on TNT, and will end what has bizarrely been both a highly combative and noncompetitive series. Here are seven questions that we’ll be looking for the answer to.
1. Just how good can Kawhi Leonard be?
If there has been an MVP in this series so far, it’s Kawhi Leonard, full stop. The small forward is averaging 33.7 points on 56.8 percent shooting with 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, his best numbers ever in a single series.
Leonard has quickly endeared himself to Toronto fans and made the Raptors look very, very smart for taking the massive gamble that was trading away DeMar DeRozan for Leonard and Danny Green.
This could be Leonard’s sole season in Toronto, but his addition turned the Raptors into bona fide contenders and taking them to the Eastern Conference finals and beyond would cement his status as the second-biggest free agent in basketball this offseason.
2. Will Joel Embiid ever crack Pau Gasol?
Speaking of taking a gamble with trades, the Raptors’ midseason acquisition of center Marc Gasol has been worth it simply because of what the Memphis Grizzlies great has done to the Sixers star this series.
No player had guarded Embiid more effectively than Gasol in the past, and Gasol’s presence has led to a 37.8 field goal percentage with 4.0 turnovers per game for the center. Embiid has cracked 20 points in a game just once this series: Game 3, a 21-point Sixers win. If the Sixers want to advance, they may need a similar effort from Embiid.
3. Can we have one more game that isn’t a blowout?
The last two games of this series have been one massive Jump to Conclusions mat. First, the Raptors eviscerate the Sixers with a 31-point win in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead and move the Sixers to the brink. Then, the Sixers respond with a runaway win in Game 6 to force a Game 7 and cause Philly fans to believe again.
However the momentum shifts, hopefully we’ll get one more game that doesn’t feature a decisive advantage at halftime. A Game 7 blowout would sure be deflating for whatever promising season comes to an end.
4. Which team will make its 3-point shots?
Funnily enough, who blew out who in Games 5 and 6 pretty much came down to who was making outside shots. The Sixers shot only 6-of-24 to the Raptors’ 16-of-40 in Game 5, then the tables were turned when the Raptors (9-of-36) fell short of the Sixers (10-of-28) in Game 6.
Whoever wins could just come down to which of Green, Pascal Siakam, J.J. Redick, Tobias Harris and more are feeling it from deep early.
5. Can the Toronto bench put up a respectable effort?
In the span of a year, we’ve gone from “Dominance of Raptors ‘bench mob’ is getting ridiculous” to “Raptors won’t go much farther with their unplayable bench.” Thanks to thoroughly inconsistent efforts from the likes of Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell, the Raptors basically have to hang on for dear life when any of their vaunted starting five comes out.
Outside of Ibaka, the Raptors’ bench didn’t score a single point in Game 6 until the losing effort was well into garbage time. That probably isn’t going to fly in Game 7.
6. Can Ben Simmons keep Sixers fans happy?
Does any player have more personally riding on this series than Ben Simmons? A season after winning Rookie of the Year, Simmons’ lack of shooting has basically progressed to meme territory and he’s broken 20 points in a game just three times in four career playoff series.
The Sixers are going to need Simmons to take that next step to superstardom if they ever want to become a true East power with their current core. A Game 7 win would be a great start, while a Game 7 loss could trigger some tough questions for the team this offseason.
7. Which free agency decisions are we going to talk about?
Between Leonard, Butler and Harris, both of these teams are going to have their futures decided in free agency this offseason. The losing team will immediately be subjected to speculation over whether or not they can retain their current star power.
The Raptors have as good a shot at retaining Leonard as anyone expected them to, but can they really hold off the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers? The Sixers pushed almost all of their future chips into their current core of Embiid, Simmons, Butler and Harris. Losing one or both of Butler and Harris would be a significant step back.
Whoever wins on Sunday doesn’t have to reckon with that for another few weeks.
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