If you’re an NBA fan, this is going to be a phenomenal Mother’s Day — let’s just hope mom likes breaking down the intricacies of the pick-and-roll. We’ll get two Game 7s with trips to the conference finals on the line, and enough star power to fill out the cast of “Space Jam 2.”
In the first game, Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers will take on Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. Then Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors will host Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Based on the way both series have gone, we’re likely in for a couple of close games with plenty of intrigue along the way. Here are some things to watch in each win-or-go-home Game 7.
Trail Blazers vs. Nuggets
Lillard’s 37-footer to send OKC packing in the first round gets all the attention, deservedly, but it’s not like this is something rare. According to ESPN, Lillard has gone 9-for-13 on 3-pointers from 30 or more feet this postseason. As a point of reference, the rest of the league has gone 8-for-84 on those shots in the playoffs. Yeah, this is a real thing.
With Denver pressuring Lillard as much as they have, you can expect to see Lillard launching from deeper and deeper in Game 7. And once he makes a couple, it will extend the defense so far that it will open up all sorts of offensive opportunities for his teammates.
What to do with Jokic?
Nikola Jokic has been one of the most dominant players in the postseason, and the Blazers have tried everything in the book to stop him, without much success. With Enes Kanter banged up (not exactly a defensive stalwart when he’s healthy, either), Portland threw Al-Farouq Aminu on Jokic for stretches of Games 5 and 6. The 7-foot Jokic poses such a problem because if you double-team him, he’ll quickly dissect the defense with his elite passing ability. If you play off of him, he’ll either hit jumpers or use the room to barrel into the lane, creating a shot for himself or others. There’s likely no secret sauce that Terry Stotts has been hiding for six games, but it will be interesting to see if there are any other wrinkles they can throw at Jokic in a win-or-go-home scenario.
Oh, the chippiness
Whether it was Jokic getting into it with Mason Plumlee, Will Barton sticking his finger in Seth Curry‘s face, or Kanter taking to Twitter to highlight an apparent cheap-shot elbow from Jokic to Kanter’s injured shoulder, this series has seen its fair share of altercations.
With tensions heightened to an absolute maximum on Sunday, it’s safe to assume there will be a lot more chippiness on the court. As a result, the refs might look to call the game a little tighter early so things don’t get out of hand.
So far in this series both teams have gotten consistent production from their stars (Jokic, Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap for the Nuggets, Lillard and CJ McCollum for the Blazers), but several games have hinged on an unexpectedly strong bench performance. Rodney Hood, Seth Curry and Zach Collins have all had their moments for Portland, while Will Barton and Malik Beasley have been key players for the Nuggets at times. With so much attention being paid to the stars in Game 7, it could be one of these unsung bench heroes — or a new one like Evan Turner or Monte Morris — who ends up turning the tide.
76ers vs. Raptors
This is exactly why the Raptors traded one of the most beloved players in franchise history for Kawhi Leonard. While you never knew if you could rely on DeMar DeRozan, or to a lesser extent Kyle Lowry, Leonard has been as cold-bloodedly consistent as they come in this year’s playoffs — his Game 4 heroics may have saved the Raptors’ season. Now he’ll more than likely have to do it again in Game 7, with the Sixers trying to make anyone on the court beat them except for Kawhi. Easier said than done.
Which Simmons do we get?
In Game 6 we saw what a difference an engaged Ben Simmons makes to the 76ers, as the second-year All-Star was a physical force while putting up 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists. It was the most points Simmons has scored since Game 3 of the Sixers’ opening-round series against the Nets, and his performance clearly swung the game in Philly’s favor. Toronto coach Nick Nurse said that the Raptors’ early missed shots allowed Simmons to get out in transition, so we’ll have to see if Simmons can put his stamp on the game even if Toronto is making shots. If so, he could be the X-factor in a tight Game 7.
Embiid vs. Drake
It’s been a strange series for Joel Embiid, who’s surrounded two great performances with four lousy ones. But, given his social media and personality history, we can assume that if he has a big game and pulls out a series win over the Raptors, the first person he’ll go after is Drake. The music and entertainment mogul conspicuously joined the Scotiabank Arena crowd in mocking Embiid’s airplane celebration toward the end of Game 5, so you know Embiid is just waiting to get his revenge.
Embiid already fulfilled his promise to come back to Toronto for Game 7, and he’ll be ready to shove it back in Raptors fans’ faces if they can pull out the win.
The Raptors have a new look, but the playoff history is staring them in the face. Despite brilliant regular seasons over the past few years, Toronto hasn’t advanced to the conference finals since 2015-16, when they lost in six games to LeBron James‘ Cavs. The Raptors won two Game 7s that postseason, but haven’t played in one since, and the fans have to be nervous that their team will once again fail under pressure. This is where the home crowd can sometimes be a detriment — if the Raptors start off slow in Game 7, the anxiety of the crowd will be palpable and could trickle down to the players. But with a win, the Raptors can prove that their reputation as playoff underachievers is truly a thing of the past.