The Sixers are not perfect, but credit where credit is due: they are never boring. The crowd in Philly was on bath salts from start to finish during Thursday night's 112–101 win. Joel Embiid throttled the Toronto offense and once again left the Raptors looking like a one-man team. Ben Simmons bounced back from two underwhelming performances to set the pace with fast breaks all night long. Jimmy Butler did Jimmy Butler things and finished with 25 points on 9-18 shooting, along with eight assists and six rebounds. The Sixers won by 11 points, but past the second quarter, the game never really felt that close.
It was an incredible night for a team that seems to have very little middle ground between franchise-validating blowout wins and the kind of alarming and demoralizing losses that leave the whole world wondering whether this team has already missed its chance to be great. I love the Sixers. Now it's onto Game 7.
"I've been fortunate to be in a few Game 7's and they're very unique," Brett Brown said after Thursday's win. "They're special, they're a life lesson opportunity."
Before we get to Sunday's life lessons in Toronto, here are three thoughts on where things stand after Thursday.
1. It's only right that it all comes down to Embiid and Simmons. So much of the drama infused in this Sixers run can be traced back to the deals for Butler and Tobias Harris, and so much of the anxiety over the future is rooted in decisions that will have to be made when those players hit free agency this summer. Was this team right to go all-in with those players? Should Elton Brand double down on this nucleus in July? These are fair Sixers questions, and what happens against the Raptors will go a long way to determining some of the answers. But if this series will inevitably be its own commentary on the Sixers' blueprint and how it's been executed, it bears mentioning the ceiling in Philadelphia still comes to the two players that have been there all along.
When Ben Simmons can fly up and down the floor and get to the rim, the Sixers become a different team. They have these stretches where they look bigger and faster and more skilled than any team in the NBA, and those stretches generally coincide with Simmons at his best, which is what we got Thursday night. "He attacked in transition," Jimmy Butler said of Simmons in Game 6. "In the [half-court], made some free throws, that's how we need him to be." It was a big difference from where Simmons had been during Sixers losses in Games 4 and 5, when he spent a lot of his time rooted on the baseline and looking lost in the halfcourt.
As for Embiid, he shut down the lane on defense and finished a +40 in plus/minus on the night. His offense is still sporadic and it's not clear how healthy he is, but even in this limited state, he's been an anchor for a team that badly needs every minute he can give. Take Embiid off the floor, and Kawhi will tear Boban Marjanovic or Greg Monroe to pieces. With Embiid out there, you'll have Kawhi Leonard getting blocked at the rim or Pascal Siakam looking terrified on the perimeter, but also incapable of getting within 10 feet of the hoop. Embiid, when he's healthy and mobile, is a big deal.
Ultimately, it feels appropriate that this is how the story might go for the Sixers. This is a series that will go a long way toward shaping how the league views the future in Philadelphia, and what we've learned so far is that focusing on trades and asset management is really only half the story. Forget Tobias Harris or Landry Shamet and the Heat pick or the Jimmy Butler contract. When Embiid and Simmons are the cornerstones they're supposed to be, the Sixers can be every bit as good and terrifying as everyone wants them be.
2. Trusting the Raptors remains incredibly complicated. After bouncing back in Game 5 and displaying all the dominant defense and balanced offense that always made this team dangerous in theory, Game 6 was a relapse into all the stereotypes that made them hard to actually trust. The offense generally died whenever Kawhi left the floor, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol struggled to find their footing, and the defense had no answers for the size and athleticism Philly was working with all night. How did this happen? How does it continue to happen?
It was only 10 days ago that Kawhi Leonard was annihilating Philly in Game 1 and Toronto looked like the best team in the East. Now here we are, neither of these teams can put together two good games in a row, the supporting cast around Kawhi looks incredibly thin, and believing in this Raptors team looks as stressful as ever.
What's funny about this series is that, at this point, I'm pretty sure observers on all sides are ready to throw up their hands and admit they have no idea where any of this is going. And after several postseasons full of hype and crushing disappointment in equal measure, maybe this is actually the healthiest place for the Raptors fan to be. If you have no idea what to expect, it's much harder to be heartbroken.
3. Jimmy Butler has been outstanding. Game 7 looms, and while his Game 1 was not great (4-12, 10 points), it has to be noted that Butler has been exactly the player the Sixers thought they were trading for back in November. His performances during the regular season were uneven. He picked his spots and paced himself in the middle of a crowded lineup, and over time, it became easy to joke about everything the Sixers gave up to get him, especially in light of what they might have to pay him this summer. Now it's harder to make those jokes.
All year long we were told that Butler was going to be the closer, and the adult in the room, and the player who would give the Sixers a chance against the best teams in the East. And, well, that's exactly what he's done. He's like a version of Kyrie Irving who actually delivers on all the promises about the playoffs. It's been very impressive. As Embiid's offense fluctuates and Simmons battles his own limits, Butler has been player who can answer every Toronto run, scrap on defense, and give the Sixers exactly the kind of stabilizing force any team needs to survive in the playoffs.
He isn't perfect, but he's not going quietly. Neither are the Sixers. Sunday should be wild.