76ers-Raptors series shows East still isn't ready for prime time

PHILADELPHIA — The Eastern Conference semifinals were supposed to be an epic appetizer before the final four, a grouping of teams ready to stake a claim to the conference since the previous ruler took his talents to Los Angeles.

With a big enough sample size in front of us, it’s safe to say that while the series have been compelling, they haven’t been revealing, and we’re still waiting to see if we can believe our eyes and ears as the Milwaukee Bucks await their next opponent.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ 112-101 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night to force a Game 7 certainly didn’t clarify matters.

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The Bucks’ 20-point margins of victory against their first two opponents are either an indication of mismatched competition or unexpected dominance, even though the regular season numbers indicated this was possible.

The consistency the Bucks have displayed for the better part of seven months has been hard to embrace for some because of their relative lack of history — usually teams don’t come from nowhere unless there are big personnel changes — but the Bucks’ improvement has been steady and true.

Dispatching the Boston Celtics in a series many expected to be a clash of the titans can be attributed to an overall dysfunction with the Celtics and a seeming disinterest in competing against a team they figured out wasn’t flinching because the green-and-white uniform stood across from them.

The Celtics did everyone a favor by not showing up beyond the first round, a tactic many would’ve expected from the Toronto Raptors, given their recent history. But that would be shortchanging the most impressive unit in basketball, the presumptive MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and a good coach in Mike Budenholzer.

Ask yourself: Do you really believe in Jimmy Butler and the 76ers? (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Ask yourself: Do you really believe in Jimmy Butler and the 76ers? (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

For all-around star power, the 76ers could produce the best matchup in the East finals, but their performance variance makes them hard to trust. Their outward hubris is only matched by Jimmy Butler’s propensity to lie in the weeds long enough for fans to forget how damned good he is — making them so very thankful when he asserts himself, as he did in the 76ers’ three wins.

“I’m just hooping. I play to win. Right now this is what I have to do to give us a chance to win,” Butler said after pacing the 76ers with a 25-point, eight-assist, six-rebound performance in the Game 6 win. “From game to game — hell, from series to series — the role can change. I’m cool with it. I just want to win. If we win, I’m good. If we don’t, I got a problem.”

The only problem Butler should have at this point is determining which pen he’ll sign his max contract with in July after proving his worth to the franchise that traded for him earlier this season.

The Process brought the hype — and unfortunately the pressure. A Game 7 on the road should be the equivalent of house money, but the acquisitions of pending free agents Butler and Tobias Harris put the franchise’s future at stake.

76ers coach Brett Brown keeps reminding everyone of Ben Simmons’ age and that he’s made an All-Star team in his third season despite the noticeable deficiencies. Whether that’s to tamp down expectations or provide his own hide some cover is a matter of interpretation.

“He’s 22 years old,” Brown said. “And his game, as he grows his shot and tries to get a better command of his position and deals with the stage of the NBA playoffs … shame on us for thinking he’s going to be all day, every day — here he is and he’s just going to knock it out of the park. It’s just not fair.”

Fairness doesn’t enter into the playoff equation, which is often hard to predict.

Playoff series often unfold like books, with each game — and sometimes quarter — feeling like chapters that are interwoven. But with Toronto and Philadelphia, there hasn’t been a common thread.

Kawhi Leonard has re-established himself — and has perhaps become the best player in the league — with his all-around showings. Being the best player in a series and having the deciding seventh game on your home floor usually is a recipe for success, but it feels like these are the same old underachieving Raptors — making it easier for him to bolt for greener pastures whenever this run ends.

If 33.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in the series can’t lift this bunch to the conference finals, it’s time to go elsewhere.

Brown said Tuesday's Game 5 felt like a lifetime ago, an expected response considering how meekly his team performed in its last chance to take hold of the series. Responding with a resounding home court win in Game 6 didn’t answer any questions about the 76ers’ readiness for Sunday, but for some reason Embiid wanted to make his most candid statement in the series to date … sort of.

“I’ve matured,” said Embiid to wry smirks from Butler and others when speaking about keeping his airplane celebrations in his back pocket.

The only consistency lies in checking with Embiid’s daily medical report. Is he sick? Are his knees sore? It’s hard to predict which 76ers team will show up nightly, given their two biggest pieces — Embiid and Simmons — are their biggest variables.

Opportunities are in front of so many who have so much to gain and so many narratives of which to let go, but age-old theories will fly with a series loss.

Sunday’s Game 7 will not only reveal the latest conference finalist, but also the team exhibiting the most character and, presumably, the team willing to give the Bucks a sincere run for their money.

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