All the good, bad, and the shot seen ’round the world of two tight Game 7s.
Game 7: Raptors 92, Sixers 90
Winner: Kawhi Leonard
Free agency will have to wait. Kawhi has at least one more playoff series to go—this next one against the Bucks with a chance to advance to the NBA Finals—thanks to his dominance and the rim at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. With the game tied, Leonard’s fadeaway shot left his hands with 0.3 seconds left on the clock. As Kawhi fell away toward the baseline, his shot traveled over the outstretched arms of Joel Embiid then hit the side of the rim, then the front of the rim, then the other side of the rim, not once but twice, before trickling in. It was like watching a game of Plinko influenced by both gravity and destiny. It was the biggest shot in Raptors franchise history.
Daggers don’t get any sharper than that one, with each of the four bounces on the iron an extra twist of the knife into the Sixers’ hearts. But it was a fitting conclusion to a game and a series that have been defined by Kawhi’s supernatural abilities. He’s carried the Raptors, and their playoff-cursed city, to this point. On Sunday, Kawhi’s shot was the grand closing to a 43-minute performance for the ages. He scored 41 points on 39 shots (a career high), grabbed eight boards, and added three assists and three steals. Had the Raptors needed him to wipe the floor in between possessions, he probably would have done that too.
Kawhi’s high usage was critical, because for most of the game, no one else in Raptors garb stepped up offensively. That’s been the theme of the Raptors’ postseason. How could a team that looked like such a deep, well-oiled machine in the regular season become so dependent on their superstar they boldly traded their beloved franchise player for? Toronto was supposed to be elite because of the sum of its parts, but in Game 7, Pascal Siakam scored only 11 points, and Serge Ibaka’s 17 were the highest of any Raptor not named Kawhi.
In the final seven minutes of Game 7, Kawhi scored 13 of Toronto’s 15 points. The last two didn’t just win the game and the series—they also unlocked something even rarer than a shot that bounces four times on the rim before going in: a spontaneous show of emotion from Kawhi. He landed and bent his knees, his customary face with his tongue sticking out of the side, waited to see what happened. Once the shot fell through, he leaped, opened his mouth, and let out a scream. He held it for a few seconds as his teammates swarmed him. For a player whose game and demeanor are so often stoic, this glimpse of emotion was something new. A season that began with a viral laugh got new life with a primal yell.
Loser: Brett Brown
From the moment the Sixers leaned into the Process, no one has endured more than Brown, who was hired as head coach six seasons ago. His white hair and shaggy beard may be personal grooming choices, but they’re also signs of wear and tear from the bleakness of the losing seasons and the stress of the recent winning ones. Before Sunday’s Game 7, The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported that Brown was coaching for his job Sunday night, and that a Sixers elimination would likely result in his firing. To hinge Brown’s future on a toss-up game between two evenly matched teams is brash and unfair to what Brown has done for the franchise. But fair or not, the heat on Brown’s seat over the last two years has been hovering between warm and hot. After the Sixers dropped Game 7, it may have just caught fire.
If the Sixers were looking for a reason to let Brown go, they could do worse than looking at three possessions late in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game. Coming out of a Sixers timeout with 2:51 left in a tied game, Philly turned over the ball via shot clock violation; heaved a long 3-pointer that missed to avoid another shot clock violation; and then, with the clock running down toward a third straight shot clock violation, forced a pass to Joel Embiid at the top of the 3-point line. Kyle Lowry stole it, and suddenly, Toronto was up 4, thanks to careless mistakes by the Sixers and a half-court offense that stalled without a plan.
Brown has had to engineer plans on the fly as his roster changed countless times over the last season. He’s had to figure out a way to not just make Philly’s loaded starting lineup work, but also how to use his faulty bench, which features three backup centers but no real backup point guard aside from T.J. McConnell, who was never a factor during this series. Brown’s had an uphill battle—playing an oft-injured Embiid 45 minutes sounds like a bad idea, but he can’t afford to go more than a few minutes without his star on the floor—other options are that bad.
But the argument that Brown has yet to prove he can be the coach of a championship team isn’t wrong. For an ownership group that was reportedly going to make a decision based on only one game, that notion may be enough to force their hand.
Loser: Joel Embiid, for Now
At the end, in the pandemonium of the buzzer sounding, Embiid had the seat every Raptors fan could only wish they had—the one right in front of the game-winner. Embiid likely went from thinking he’d exerted himself to the limit to thinking he had not done enough. All he could do was bow his head in shock and head for the tunnel. Marc Gasol caught him on the way over and gave him a hug and said some words that Embiid nodded at. Then he cried in the hallways of the arena.
Embiid turned 25 in March. He has been playing basketball for less time than the average pro, and yet he’s unquestionably an NBA superstar. But so far, his two best seasons have been defined by injuries, questions surrounding his fitness, and now his team’s shortcomings. The Sixers’ shortcomings are not all his fault, but for a player as competitive as he is, it’s evident how much failure wears on him. Embiid didn’t have a great Game 7—he scored 21 points on 18 shots, dished four assists, and swatted three blocks—but it wasn’t terrible, like, say, his Game 5 was. But because of his 7-foot height and 7-foot-6 wingspan, it’s impossible to look past his one offensive rebound—a category Toronto dominated 16-5 Sunday—and not wonder whether there was more he could have done. This stat is not solely on him: No Sixer had more than one offensive board—Serge Ibaka alone had four. Given that Toronto only made 38 percent of their field goals, including 23 percent of their 3s, offensive rebounds explain why the game was so close despite the Sixers’ superior play.
Embiid is in a fascinating position as a young player with an elite skill set. He’s not on a team that is slowly trying to build toward a title, but rather one that wants to win now. Unlike Denver, which has seen success with its youth at the forefront, the Sixers tried to supplement that youth with Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. That plan brought pressure and expectations Philly couldn’t meet. What happens with Harris and Butler in free agency could define the next five years in Philly, but the fact that the Sixers have someone who is as talented and competitive as Embiid is something they can continue to build on.
Game 7: Trail Blazers 100, Nuggets 96
Winner: CJ McCollum
The Blazers love playoff moments. They seem to will them into existence during the most crucial parts of a close, high-stakes game. Maybe that’s recency bias, given that we just saw Damian Lillard punctuate a series with one of the best shots in playoff history, but maybe it’s just what the Blazers backcourt does. On Sunday, with the series hanging in the balance, it was CJ McCollum who put together a heroic, wire-to-wire 37-point performance that sent the Blazers to their first conference final since 2000. A matchup with the defending champion Warriors awaits. There was no game-winner this time, but with the season on the line, McCollum put Portland on his back and made all of Game 7 his own playoff moment.
With the Nuggets putting on a clinic on how to stifle Lillard—who struggled (3-of-17) save for two 3s in the fourth—this game was better suited for McCollum’s shape-shifting style. McCollum is an expert at finding the spots on the court where no one expects him to pull up and shoot, doing so with a kind of herk-and-jerk that leaves defenders lost without Google Maps. Denver was prepared for everything but the tricks McCollum kept pulling out of his bag, and it showed. The Blazers, meanwhile, needed every bit of McCollum’s god-level play. The Blazers were down 17 at one point in the first half, and it seemed like the game was teetering toward a blowout. But McCollum was cooking, and that was enough to cut Denver’s lead to single digits, even though Portland had made only one of its 14 first-half 3s. McCollum sank as many shots as the rest of his teammates combined. His skewering of the Nuggets defense continued in the second half, and, to go with his titanic point total, McCollum finished with nine rebounds, one assist, and this LeBronlike, game-altering block:
LeBron was watching. And by the time Portland sealed the game, every Blazer—on the bench, on the court, even Lillard himself—had to do nothing but stand by and watch as McCollum went to work in isolation, mano a mano, no screen necessary. He had carried his team to this point, and he was going to finish what he started:
McCollum took four shots from that spot on the court. He made all of them. Memo to Jennifer: The man didn’t just win a playoff game; he won a series.
Loser: Outside Shooting
Shield your analytical eyes, Daryl Morey. This Game 7 was not for those allergic to bad 3-point shooting or midrange jumpers. If the Blazers and Nuggets were playing 2K, then in Game 7 they turned off their players’ abilities to make shots from beyond the arc. The result was an ugly affair that didn’t look like it belonged in the playoffs: Portland shot 4-of-26 from deep, and Denver 2-of-19.
Think those numbers are bad? The Blazers finished the first half 1-of-14 from 3. When Meyers Leonard entered the game for Portland, he botched two wide-open 3s so badly that when the Nuggets left him open and he called for the ball like he was Ray Allen with the hot hand, his teammates didn’t even look to him. The Blazers’ second 3-pointer of the game did not come until a minute into the final quarter, when Zach Collins (who seemed to grow facial hair Sunday when he gave Portland a valuable 23 minutes, during which he was a plus-5) hit one from the right corner.
Somehow, the Nuggets fared even worse. They made only two 3s, and at one point missed 17 straight shots from deep. For all the talk about how the role players and bench play better at home, Denver’s reserves took four 3s and didn’t make a single one. Perhaps the most mind-blowing detail of them all: Nikola Jokic made both 3s—in the first quarter. He shot just 30.7 percent from behind the arc during the regular season.
The lack of outside shooting wasn’t just an aesthetic affront to modern basketball, it also set the tone for the game. In the first half, Denver balanced out its poor shooting by playing inside often, ultimately outscoring the Blazers 58-50 in the paint. But when Portland got back in the game, it became a grind. These types of contests are won by the teams that have shotmakers on the perimeter. No matter how bad each side shot (40 percent from the field for the Blazers, 37 percent for Denver), each needed a player to create and make shots when it mattered most. Lillard, who also grabbed 10 boards, hit the essential two 3s in the fourth quarter, and McCollum did his thing. Meanwhile, Denver’s guards couldn’t find the bottom of the net. That was the game.
Loser: Jamal Murray
This isn’t exact science, but if someone were to show me what Murray’s stat line would look like in a game I hadn’t seen, I bet I could predict whether the Nuggets won or lost based on that alone. For Denver, this is just how these close and competitive playoff games go. Nikola Jokic shows up (he had 29 points, 13 rebounds, and two assists Sunday), Gary Harris and Torrey Craig play exceptional defense, Will Barton makes some shots, and the rest of their players contribute in small fashion; it all comes down to Murray’s performance.
When Murray has scored at least 20 points during these playoffs, the Nuggets have gone 6-2. When he’s scored 17 or fewer, they’ve gone 0-5. Murray had exactly 17 points on Sunday, and a whopping nine of them came via the free throw line. He shot an abysmal 4-of-19 from the field, 0-for-4 from 3. Those four misses from deep were the most damning. Had either of his two 3s in the second half gone in, he may have been the hero. Instead, he’s likely the easy scapegoat who will carry the sour taste of this loss all the way until next season.
Murray has invited this kind of critique, both because he has shown plenty of flashes as a great scorer all season long and because he has a tendency to be a gunner. That aggression makes him great, but it can also be his downfall. The upside for him, and for this entire Denver team, is that he has youth on his side. Murray is only 22, and the rest of the Nuggets’ core is under 25 years old. Despite the loss, the future is bright. Though Murray shot himself out of Sunday’s game, in another playoff run, his aggression could be the trait to win Denver a future Game 7. But for now, the Nuggets will have to go home and wait.