Sunday will be the fifth Game 7 of Kyle Lowry’s NBA career. It’ll be the fourth for Marc Gasol, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Serge Ibaka. Norman Powell will be playing his third. The only Toronto Raptors regulars who haven’t faced that do-or-die scenario before are Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet.
Among Philadelphia 76ers regulars? JJ Redick will be playing his sixth game 7. Jimmy Butler and Mike Scott will be facing their second. Everyone else will be playing their first.
Whether or not you believe there’s anything tangible to be gained from experience, the advantage clearly lies with the Raptors.
When the ball goes up a little after 7 p.m. ET Sunday night, and the Raptors and Sixers each try to play their best 48 minutes to keep their seasons alive, Toronto’s rotation will have the clear edge when it comes to simply having been there before.
“It’s good,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I think some of those guys were not pleased with their play in the last game, starting with their effort and next I would say their execution offensively and defensively. And then their performance, right? And again, usually what makes these guys so good, these experienced guys so good, is they always find a way to turn that stuff around.”
The execution Nurse is talking about largely comes down to Toronto’s starting lineup, which has been a tremendous positive for the team over the course of the playoffs. Raptors starters have a 24 net rating for the post-season, but faltered in Thursday’s Game 6. For one reason or another, the offence just wasn’t clicking.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s was. And, as it turns out, the only starting lineup to outperform Toronto’s during the playoffs is Philadelphia’s, which is just edging out the Raptors with a 25 net rating.
So what will we get in Game 7? Will Toronto’s familiarity with desperate situations be the edge? Among the 10 starters in this series, the Raptors have 13 Game 7’s to Philadelphia’s six. And, more broadly, 375 total playoff games to the Philadelphia’s 217. It has to be helpful on some level. But what’s all that experience really worth?
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“I don’t know. To me, I remember being a younger player with Memphis and facing Game 7’s — and it didn’t really matter,” said Gasol, the Raptors centre who’s played 70 NBA playoff games. “I think it’s more to do with character and the way you’re built. If they’re in the Eastern Conference semifinal, that means they’re pretty strong mentally. They have a really good, talented team with size. You can’t take possessions off.”
You ought not to do that in a Game 4, 5 or 6, either. But it happens. We saw it Thursday at Wells Fargo Center. Players have off nights. Maybe their shot isn’t falling. Or their energy level’s low. Sometimes, really important players get gastroenteritis. Weird stuff happens in NBA basketball games all the time. And there’s really nothing anyone can do to prevent it from happening Sunday, regardless of experience. That game is going to play out as it will.
Early foul trouble for anyone from either team’s starting lineup could change everything. A foot just out of bounds during a possession, or a toe on the line for a three-point attempt, could be crucial. A hot or cold shooting night could be the difference.
It might not even be up to the players. Over only four quarters of basketball, the whims of chance and randomness of luck — a bad bounce, a ball that goes in and out, a slip on a wet spot on the floor — can swing a result one way or the other.
With such a minuscule, 48-minute sample responsible for such dramatic, season-altering consequences, it’s almost pointless to analyze the data and trends the first six games of the series have produced and look to them as predictive of what might happen next. It’s one basketball game. Anything can happen.
“Sometimes, you know, you get unlucky. You miss shots, long rebounds, things like that. The ball just bouncing off the rim wrong,” Leonard said. “We’ve played them six times already. Now, it’s going to be who wants it more. The 50-50 balls, who’s going to win that? Rebounding. And then just making shots. The things you can control.”
The problem is so much of it is uncontrollable. Players don’t know if they’re feeling it or not, if things are going their way or not, until they get out on the floor and things start to happen.
In Game 5, Green was 5-for-7 from distance; in Game 6, he was 2-for-8. You can bet he felt just as confident going into each game. Gasol picked up only three fouls while playing against Joel Embiid in Game 3; he had five in Game 4. It’s not like he was guarding him any differently. Siakam was 12-for-15 from the field in Game 1; he was 9-for-25 in Game 2. The shots he was taking came from the same areas of the floor.
Good nights happen, and bad ones happen, too. Professional athletes are meticulous about their routines before, after, and between games because they believe they’ve found patterns and habits that can encourage them to have the good ones more often than the bad. But that doesn’t stop the bad ones from happening. And what if Sunday is one of the bad ones for two or three of Toronto’s regulars? What if an ankle turns, or the ball slips out of a hand, or a shot catches just a little too much rim? What if luck isn’t on Toronto’s side?
And maybe that’s where the experience comes in. If the Raptors win Sunday, it’ll have a lot more to do with execution. Do they shoot better than their current 32 per cent rate on wide-open three-pointers? Do they hold Philadelphia to single-digits in offensive rebounds, as they have only once in the last three games? Do they play effectively in transition, winning the fast-break points battle as they did in the victories of Games 4 and 5, and didn’t in the loss of Game 6?
When it comes to managing the unexpected, processing the uncontrollable, and staying grounded through good luck and bad, there’s something to be said for having done it before. For having a steady hand and mind. The Raptors feature a number of veteran players in crucial roles who have been experiencing the league’s inevitable adversity for years. Game 7’s are a rare occasion when that mettle is truly tested.
“We’ve got to show growth tomorrow. And the next day after, too. Growing, it’s not always on your terms. You’ve got to continue to grow whether you like how it’s going or not, whether things go your way or not,” Gasol said. “It’s especially when things don’t go your way that you show your growth.
“I think this team faced, especially after Orlando, Game 1, a little bit of adversity. How we responded, I liked that. When we were down 2-1, I liked how we responded to that as well. And now we’re 3-3, and ahead of Game 7. So, I like to see, obviously, every time we get a challenge we’ve come out and responded. And controlled what we can control. I think that’s going to be the key. Those little details mean so much in a basketball game.”