5-on-5: Biggest questions before these high-stakes Game 7s

Damian Lillard leads the way for the Trail Blazers as they win Game 6 vs. the Nuggets 119-108. (2:23)

What are the biggest things to watch in Sunday’s two NBA playoffs Game 7s?

With the Portland Trail Blazers facing the Denver Nuggets (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and the Philadelphia 76ers matching up with the Toronto Raptors (7 p.m., TNT) one more time, our experts answer the big questions that will decide each series.

Who are the players to watch? Who has the most at stake with a trip to the conference finals on the line?

We break it down and predict the results.

Jorge Sedano: Ben Simmons needing six games to put his imprint on the series. I think Simmons is still only scratching the surface of how talented he is. Game 6 was arguably the best and most important game of his career. Can he duplicate that in Game 7?

Kevin Pelton: How ineffective Monte Morris (Denver) and Fred VanVleet (Toronto), two of the league’s better backup point guards, have been in these series. Morris has shot 6-of-27 from the field and missed all five of his 3-point attempts, while VanVleet is 1-of-12 on 3s and 3-of-19 overall. Both undersized players seem to have been bothered by the size and length opponents who don’t use traditional backup point guards have been able to throw at them.

Tim Bontemps: Toronto’s inability to make open shots. During the season, Toronto made 41.4 percent of its uncontested 3-pointers, good for seventh in the league, per Second Spectrum tracking. In this series, the Raptors are shooting 32.5 percent on those looks. If the Raptors had made their open 3s, this series would already be over. If they make them in Game 7, they’ll advance to the Eastern Conference finals. But the fact that they haven’t has left this team in a far more precarious position than it should be.

André Snellings: The dominance of the young Nuggets duo. I wrote last week that Nikola Jokic (age 24) and Jamal Murray (age 22) are better building blocks than Damian Lillard (age 28) and CJ McCollum (age 27), in large part due to the upside and rarity of Jokic’s game. But Jokic has been the best player out West, and Murray has exploded to average 25 points, six rebounds and five assists through six games. The future is now.

Bobby Marks: Jimmy Butler and Zach Collins, for different reasons. The 76ers guard has gone from being a third option in the regular season to a player who proved he can carry a team (25.7 points and plus-16.7 in the three wins). Meanwhile, Portland is getting a real glimpse of Collins’ potential. He has been a team-high plus-4.5 in the six games, and he’s the most consistent player coming off the bench (9.0 PPG on 53.8 percent shooting from the field).

Snellings: Will Lillard have another “Dame Time” closeout game? He is the most electric player in the series, and though he has had some strong games, he has the ability to go further into his bag and come out with a 50-point, double-digit-3-pointers performance for the ages. The Nuggets had the best home record in the NBA this season and are hosting Game 7, so it feels like a Dame classic is the Trail Blazers’ best shot to advance.

Pelton: How many minutes Jokic plays. All series, Portland has gotten the better of the stretches Jokic and Lillard have spent on the bench. The easiest fix for Denver coach Michael Malone is to extend Jokic’s minutes, as he did in Game 7 vs. San Antonio and again in Game 3 of this series, when Jokic played the entire second half and nearly all four overtimes.

Marks: The officiating. We will likely see three new officials who have not worked this series together already. How the refs allow each team to play in the first five minutes will set a tone for the rest of the game.

Sedano: Which superstar has the bigger impact on the game and drags his team across the finish line. Jokic had a triple-double in the closeout against the Spurs. We all know Dame waved bye-bye to Russ. Who stands out on Sunday is the most important thing for me.

Bontemps: Lillard’s energy level. Lillard has been carrying an insane load in these playoffs, as Portland continues to survive without Jusuf Nurkic. As this series wore on, Lillard (understandably) began to look tired. But in Game 6, he looked back to his usual self. If the Blazers are going to go into Denver and win a Game 7 on the road, they need “Logo Lillard” to be operating at peak efficiency.

Marks: The two head coaches. This is uncharted water for Nick Nurse and Brett Brown. After skating through the first round in five games, both are now in a position they’ve never faced: a Game 7 to reach the conference finals. How each coach manages minutes will be scrutinized. Be prepared for an all-out mentality, with players such as Kawhi Leonard and Butler potentially playing the full 48 minutes.

Find everything you need to know about the playoffs here.

Schedules, matchups and more
Experts’ picks for second round | Forecast
Can the Sixers win big with Ben Simmons?
Collins raises Portland’s hopes for Game 7

Snellings: I want to see if Joel Embiid is healthy enough to turn in another MVP-caliber performance. Embiid dropped 33 points on 18 field goal attempts to lead the 76ers to a win in Game 3, but in the three games since, he has averaged only 13.7 points on 38.7 percent shooting while visibly ailing from his various health issues. The Raptors are hosting Game 7, which should bode well for their role players and make things more challenging for the non-star 76ers. Embiid has to be at peak level to give his team a chance to win.

Bontemps: Will the Raptors besides Leonard make shots? We know Leonard will show up; he has arguably been the best player in the playoffs thus far. Pascal Siakam likely will, too. How this game plays out will likely come down to how the rest of their teammates — specifically Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Danny Green and Serge Ibaka — play. If they hit shots like they did in Games 1 and 5, Toronto will likely win comfortably. If not? Things could get awfully interesting.

Sedano: Can Gasol continue his impressive effort against Embiid? Gasol is a veteran of playoff battles. He has been a huge X factor on both ends for the Raptors, initiating offense from the high post and doing excellent work defensively on Embiid. No one has limited Embiid offensively in the past three seasons quite like Gasol has in their matchups.

Pelton: Toronto’s 3-point shooting. The Raptors, sixth in the NBA in 3-point percentage during the regular season at 36.6 percent, are hitting just 30.8 percent of their 3s in this series. Per Second Spectrum data, Toronto has had the better shot quality, as measured by qSP (quantified shot probability, which factors in the location and type of shot as well as distance of nearby defenders and the shooter’s ability), in all six games of the series. The Raptors’ 3-point misses are a big reason they’ve had the better effective field goal percentage in just three of the six games, all Toronto wins.

Pelton: The 76ers. Win or lose, the Raptors’ future is in the hands of Leonard this summer. Philadelphia, by contrast, has more choices ahead. The Sixers must decide whether to stick with Brett Brown as head coach and how much to offer unrestricted free agents Butler (who, like Leonard, has a player option he’s sure to decline) and Tobias Harris. Should those decisions be made on the basis of a single game? Of course not, but given the high expectations from Philadelphia ownership after loading up with Butler and Harris, that might prove the case.

Marks: Portland. Despite Lillard and McCollum being under contract for the next two seasons — possibly more if they agree to extensions — Game 7 represents an opportunity they might not have in the future. Because of upcoming financial restrictions, this could be a drastically different team next year, one that might be without Al-Farouq Aminu, Enes Kanter, Seth Curry and Rodney Hood. There’s no guarantee that the Blazers get back here.

Bontemps: We’ll cheat and say both teams in the East. With huge roster decisions ahead this summer, the clock starts immediately for the loser — and that team will lose the chance to make a run to the Finals that could influence those decisions as well.

Snellings: The pressure is all in the East, especially in Philadelphia. Both Butler and Harris could leave as free agents, and this postseason has made questions about Embiid’s health and Simmons’ lack of jump shot more concerning. The 76ers made moves this season consistent with a team going all-in to win, so another second-round loss has the potential to trigger organization-wide changes, with no coach or player guaranteed to return next season.

Sedano: I’ll go slightly off the board and say Brett Brown. I find rumors of his alleged uncertain job status to be silly. However, the rumors exist. I think he has done a fine job and deserves to continue as the head coach. A win in Game 7 can go a long way to solidify that.

Bontemps: Portland will win in Denver because I’ve grown to expect Lillard to come up big on occasions such as these. He has proven it time and again. Meanwhile, the Raptors will win because they have the best player (Leonard) and home-court advantage. More than anything, though, here’s hoping we get two great Game 7s, which are always the best things in sports.

Snellings: I’m taking the Raptors in the East matchup. They have been the better team all season, they have home-court advantage, and they have experience in these moments. The West is essentially a toss-up, but the Nuggets are hard to beat at home, especially with how well Jokic has been playing. Add the Nuggets’ big size advantage, and they should be the favorites to advance.

Sedano: The Raptors and Blazers. The Raptors have home court, Leonard has been insanely good, and as I mentioned before, Gasol has done an excellent job in this series. In the West, Dame and CJ can carry the scoring load for Portland. The Blazers’ bench has been ignited by Hood, who is averaging 16 points on 60 percent shooting. Plus, Collins has been a gem off the bench. The Blazers have outscored the Nuggets by 22 points in 113 minutes with Hood and Collins paired on the floor.

Pelton: Since 1984, the average home-court advantage in Game 7 is 6.3 points, so the home team should almost always be favored to win unless there’s a key injury (as was the case last year, when the Golden State Warriors beat the Houston Rockets without Chris Paul in a road Game 7). I don’t see a compelling reason to pick against the home teams here.

Marks: The home teams. On paper, the better roster is Philadelphia, not Toronto. However, do we know what 76ers team will actually show up for a Game 7? Will we get MVP-level Embiid? In Denver, we have seen that the moment has never been too big for this young Nuggets team. The Game 7 win over the San Antonio Spurs proved that.