After nearly three years, it's much easier to acknowledge how lucky and consequential Kawhi Leonard's game-winner in Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals is.
It set to motion how both the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers waded through the next few years. For Toronto, it's been goodbye ceremonies all over the place. Like good Canadians, they cordially parted ways with Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, the two players most responsible for bringing them the title.
Most small-market teams made sketchy moves post-title (think 2011 Dallas Mavericks). The Raptors, to their credit, only kept on building and developing. They turned into a young and exciting team when they could have fallen off.
The Sixers weren’t so delighted with the departure of Jimmy Butler and, most especially, Ben Simmons. From scorched earth, Philadelphia somehow emerged title contenders again with MVP frontrunner Joel Embiid and grey-beard James Harden.
This will start as a low-key exciting series between evenly-matched teams with a chance of turning into a high-key reality show. There’s more at stake for one side of this matchup and, thankfully, it’s the side with the calmest, most rational fans in the NBA.
Most compelling storyline
Is James Harden washed? He might be.
Jalen Rose described Harden’s last statlines of the regular season as “looking more like concert tour dates” than stats from a former MVP. That’s an incredible analogy for the perplexing early returns of the Harden-Philly experience.
No matter what happens, getting Harden from the Brooklyn Nets for the disgruntled Ben Simmons was a massive win when Philly would have been lucky to get Harrison Barnes and De’Aaron Fox in December.
Still, that doesn’t take away Harden’s horrendous postseason track record. From being benched in the Rockets’ comeback against the Clippers in 2015 to getting blocked by Manu Ginobili in 2017, Harden has never been great in the playoffs.
Harden has a chance to shut everyone up this postseason. Philly fans are already anxious.
Scottie Barnes might just win Rookie of the Year. He is awesome statistically and has been a pivotal piece for the Raptors this season.
He’s also Toronto’s best perimeter defender. He’s 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan who bodies up against opposing point guards. He’s going to be the Raptors’ best bet at containing Harden, as well.
From Scottie ROY to Freddie All-Star to Pascal All-NBA, the Raptors have one of the most fun teams in the NBA. They also have a collection of 6-foot-9 guys. Sure, Embiid is going to be the biggest player on the court this series, but the Raptors will confidently trot out their thicket of players to disrupt the Sixers elsewhere.
The formula for Philly is simple: get Embiid the ball. No one on the Raptors can guard him one-on-one so he’s either going to get fouled or create opportunities for teammates when he gets doubled. There’s going to be plenty of space and open shots for Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, and Georges Niang. They just need to make those shots.
If Philly gets even 70 percent of MVP Harden, they should roll over these Raptors in six games, at most. But there’s already plenty of doubt that will happen. Philadelphia also will not have Matisse Thybulle in games at Toronto due to his vaccination status – a massive loss for Philly and a slight hit towards humanity’s effort at ending the pandemic.
Toronto, luckily, is coached by a mad man. Nick Nurse has figured out schemes that have made two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo look pedestrian (Kawhi Leonard deserves at least 60 percent credit for this, at least). He should find a scheme to keep Philly thinking.
The Raptors might not have the best or even the second-best player in this series but they do have a handful of guys who can impact games and the depth to keep throwing bodies at Philly. If you’re looking for an upset, keep an eye on Toronto.