The progress report for how the N.B.A. is coping halfway through its first postseason in 14 years without LeBron James is promising — provided you enjoy Game 7s.
Sunday delivers two of them: It’s the Philadelphia 76ers visiting the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference and the Denver Nuggets hosting the Portland Trail Blazers in the West.
There could have been three Game 7s on the same day in this conference semifinal round of the playoffs — something that has happened only once before in league history — but Houston could not force Golden State into a win-or-go-home game as the Rockets did last season. After surviving the first six-game series in league history in which each game was decided by 6 points or fewer, Golden State has joined the rampaging Milwaukee Bucks in the N.B.A.’s final four.
Let’s break down the two Game 7s that will determine which teams fill the other two slots:
Portland’s Damian Lillard has already delivered one soul-crushing elimination in these playoffs.CreditTroy Wayrynen/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets
Sunday, 3:30 p.m. Eastern, ABC
You are hereby warned: Ignore the least hyped of the league’s four second-round series at your peril.
Portland’s Damian Lillard already delivered the most dramatic moment of this postseason with his walk-off 3-pointer from 37 feet to eliminate Oklahoma City in Game 5 of the Trail Blazers’ first-round series win over the Thunder.
The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, on the other side, has been the most impactful player in the Western Conference playoffs not named Kevin Durant. Jokic has four triple doubles, and after enduring years of jibes about his conditioning and physique, he logged a remarkable 65 minutes in the Nuggets’ Game 3 defeat. It was the most dramatic game in these playoffs.
Behind Jokic and the streaky Jamal Murray, Denver overcame that loss — the league’s first four-overtime playoff game since 1953 — to regain home-court advantage in the series.
The Nuggets, remember, have already won a Game 7 this spring. In the only first-round series to go the distance, Denver outlasted Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs after missing the playoffs the previous five seasons.
Filling the LeBron James void certainly requires a deep cast, but the N.B.A. drama — at least so far — has stretched coast to coast in this second round. Brace yourself for something else wild when the likes of Lillard and Jokic are the headliners.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Toronto Raptors
Sunday, 7 p.m. Eastern, TNT
One of the most enjoyable elements of this season, LeBron James’s first in the Western Conference, was the way various East contenders, liberated from his ominous shadow, were aggressive in their attempts to build rosters worthy of the N.B.A. finals spot that belonged to James-led teams for eight consecutive years.
Toronto rolled the dice in a big way in July by trading for the marquee free-agent-to-be Kawhi Leonard, then acquired the former All-Star center Marc Gasol at the trade deadline. Elton Brand, Philadelphia’s rookie general manager, countered Leonard’s arrival in Canada by swinging deals for two more desirable future free agents: Jimmy Butler (in November) and Tobias Harris (in February).
This matchup thus stands out for fans and pundits more prone to focus on how this spring’s postseason results will shape the future of the league than on the actual playoff implications.
Leonard has been the most dominant and complete player in the post-LeBron Eastern Conference playoffs. Yet Toronto’s chances of keeping him in free agency figure to take a major hit if the Raptors cannot secure a spot in the conference finals for just the second time in franchise history — especially with Game 7 on their floor.
The Sixers, meanwhile, will be swamped with what-next questions if they don’t advance.
Beyond the uncertain fates of Butler, Harris and the sharpshooting J.J. Redick, rumblings in league coaching circles have grown louder by the day that 76ers Coach Brett Brown needs an N.B.A. finals berth to keep his job. Brown, I’m told, has little chance of surviving a second-round exit.
So maybe it’s not the spectacle that another Game 7 featuring Golden State and Houston would have been — but it has plenty of appeal as a nightcap.