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May 14, 2023

Instant observations: Embiid and Harden complete choke job in Game 7 loss to Celtics

Joel Embiid and James Harden had an opportunity to change their legacies and instead cemented their reputation as players who can't deliver when it matters, as the Sixers were blown to smithereens by the Celtics 112-88 on Sunday afternoon.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Doc Rivers gambled on the starting lineup they've used most of the season to win Philadelphia a Game 7. P.J. Tucker's ability to make shots was going to be the center of the story to start this game, either because he helped the Celtics pad an early lead or because he finally took advantage of all the space Boston provided him.

Well, Tucker was Philadelphia's leading scorer after one quarter. How's that for a statement?

There was nothing more to this than Tucker finding his groove and punishing the Celtics for trying to treat him as a non-threat from the perimeter. With Robert Williams III frequently cheating away from him and helping around the rim, Tucker got to have a practice shot session to open this game. And it only took the first two makes for Boston to start second-guessing their approach — Tucker was able to swing a pass from the corner to Tyrese Maxey on the wing in the first quarter, with the Celtics closing hard enough on him to create a wide-open look for the best shooter on the team.

If Tucker had not been able to rise to the moment, there's a good chance the Sixers would have been out of this game by halftime. These are the games Philadelphia brought Tucker to Philadelphia for, slugfest games against hated opponents where you had to wait quite a while for the stars to actually make a positive impact on the game. You would usually say his presence was felt most on the effort plays, but Tucker made those same gritty, hard-nosed plays while cashing out from the corner.

• Of Philadelphia's top offensive options, Tyrese Maxey was the only guy who looked to have any sort of mental stability in a big moment. His decisionmaking looked no different than it did earlier this series, or than it did for most of this season. He had a great understanding of his spots, the Sixers dialed up some calls to get him open looks, and Boston showed fear of him getting loose at times, with Derrick White flying out to him from 30+ feet out of fear that he might pull a catch-and-shoot three.

You could make the argument that Maxey looked better than the big-name stars for most of the game because of that commitment to who he is and the belief in the body of work. There was no shameless ref-baiting, no tunnel vision, but a good balance of pace, space, and selflessness, with Maxey creating a couple of the early threes for others that helped the Sixers stay within arm's length.

With Harden in classic deer-in-headlights mode, the Sixers probably should have just run things through No. 0. Doubt it would have made a big difference, but might as well try something other than watching Harden vomit all over himself.

• De'Anthony Melton is a guy whose impact on a guy will usually be known within the first few minutes after he checks in. Immediately after checking in, he vaporized a Celtics fast break following an Embiid turnover, then tipped in a Maxey miss from midrange to put a couple of points on the board. The Good Melton was here, and boy, did the Sixers need it.

While Tucker is the sturdier, more reliable defender to get stops against elite talent on the wings, Melton is the guy who can conjure a turnover out of nowhere, flying through a passing lane or swooping in with late help to block somebody at the rim. He was responsible for a damn good sequence late in the first quarter, combining with Embiid for a block at the rim before springing a fast break that ended in an and-one finish for the big man.

Melton's next-play mentality can get him into trouble at times, especially when his shot isn't falling and he should probably give the rock to somebody else. But under the bright lights in Game 7, the constant forward motion was a huge asset. There was no time to fret about a missed shot or a tough Jayson Tatum make over his outstretched arms, because the next play was there to worry about. 

The Bad

• Joel Embiid has often struggled to find the line between playing with emotion and letting emotion play with you, losing sight of everyone else on the floor to settle personal battles. I thought the opposite was true early in Game 7. He came out far too casually, as if trying to suggest the moment didn't bother him, and he allowed the Celtics to get some early momentum going as a result. The bigger problem is that he never managed to pull it out of gear, looking like a man who was lost in a sea of green, haunted by his personal torture team for 48 minutes.

The first quarter was the first time when you could really question his defensive impact in this series — Embiid was not moving well and didn't have the proper level of focus early in the game, with Jayson Tatum dusting him in space and Al Horford sliding behind him on a cut far too easily. Getting beaten is one thing, but Embiid had the focus he might have shown in a mid-January game against the Detroit Pistons, making it easier on a team that doesn't need a leg up.

It wasn't much prettier on the other end of the floor, where Embiid seemingly couldn't generate separation and was forced to settle for a series of increasingly difficult jumpers with Al Horford and Co. hanging all over him. And that was only when he actually held onto the ball long enough to let shots go, as Embiid had a couple of brutal turnovers while trying to back guys down in the halfcourt.

As the first half wore on, Embiid was at least able to settle in defensively, blowing up some Celtics trips to the basket and forcing a few aimless kick-outs to avoid his length at the summit. There were momentary bits of success on offense, too, and Embiid took it personally when Boston tried to stick a smaller player on him in the post after Al Horford picked up his second foul. Embiid worked his way to the free-throw line late in the first half to try to get out of that shooting slump, slowing the game down to avoid a complete Celtics takeover before halftime.

But even the positives came with caveats/negatives. Sure, he got his against Marcus Smart in the post a couple of times, but he also had some horrific moments where he didn't see or feel double teams, leading to costly turnovers. Al Horford was able to mess with Embiid enough that shots he hit with ease all season were second-guessed over and over again in this series, leading to sequences where Embiid turned clean-ish midrange looks into tougher shots with Horford invading his air space.

This performance is exactly what people have worried about with Embiid for so many years, supporters and critics alike. The missed shots are one thing, but he looked completely shaken and unprepared for this moment just days after saying out loud that this was a "fun" opportunity. It's easy to paint him as a frontrunner — a guy who is as good as good gets when things are rolling, but can't be counted on to pull the Sixers out of tough situations. There was no fight from him when they needed it, no extra effort on the glass or toughness befitting a star player who was in this moment. 

Over the last two games of this series, Embiid had a chance to quiet all the doubts about his personal legacy up to this point. The criticism he has received — whether it has been in good faith or as part of useless MVP debates — will grow louder locally and nationally, and he can't blame anyone for that other than himself. This was simply not good enough for the best player on a team hoping to win a title.

It will take a long time for his reputation to recover from this game, but the bigger question will be if it ever does. We're deep enough into his career to ask whether this is simply where the road ends for a team led by Embiid. Short of supplying him with an ass-kicker as his co-star, which they had in Jimmy Butler back in 2019, the evidence is stacked against this guy as a title-winning leader.

(And let's be clear — Nikola Jokic has his flaws as a basketball player, but there is no shot he would submit this type of performance in the biggest game of his team's season.)

It would be hard to make up a performance that would have been as disappointing as this game was for Embiid and his team. And it could get much uglier from here because anyone who has backed his case as a fan, a reporter, or just someone who enjoys basketball will find it hard to go to the mat for this guy moving forward. All of the extra things that people have found endearing — the banter, the trash talk, and so forth — will be treated as the flailings of a guy who can't back it up on the floor. 

• However bad or lethargic you thought Joel Embiid was at times in this game, James Harden was several levels worse than that. Harden wasn't just bad but spent most of Sunday's game actively undermining the Sixers as the rest of the group did their best to try to make up for the putrid efforts of the stars.

It was a version of the same Harden stinker we have seen in so many big playoff moments in the past, whether they came in Philadelphia, Houston, or Oklahoma City. After this game, I would bet you that Harden will trot out some version of saying that he focused on making "the right basketball plays" to work around the fact that he actively opted out of trying to score for long stretches of this game. That will land well with the group that still considers themselves Harden fanboys, but everyone else can see that Harden ducked the responsibility of being a perimeter leader when it counted.

The pivotal swing moment of the first half came when Harden went up for a transition layup that ended with Jaylen Brown laying under the hoop in pain. A replay review showed Harden losing the ball and then flailing into Brown, which Scott Foster would eventually determine warranted a Flagrant 1 penalty:

After Brown made the free throws, Robert Williams scored two points on a lob, Maxey turned the ball over, and what looked like a calm, winnable game for the Sixers descended into anarchy that favored the home team.

That's part of what Harden doesn't get in these moments, why he has so often come up small in these moments — you simply cannot win a title by just exploiting rules and hoping that you get the right whistles for four straight rounds. He takes himself out of games and out of the playoffs by hoping he can run to an adult every time there's even a marginal rule break. Most of the time, you are going to have to deal with the problem yourself. He has cried wolf so many times that nobody wants to listen, and worse yet, he ruins his own flow and his team's flow on the floor by trying to win the rule-understanding competition before anything else.

He has done a mountain of good for the Sixers since joining the team and had what I thought was an underrated, very good season leading this team. But when push came to shove, he was who he has always been in these moments, watching as stars built for this moment send his ass to the offseason.

• Doc Rivers is the easiest fall guy for this disaster, as moving a coach in or out is the most painless way to say that you did something, and I'm not going to sit here and argue that he should escape scot-free from this mess. If I were handicapping it, I'd say he's not long for this town. But the faults of the coach had very little to do with his two leaders choking in an absolutely miserable fashion.

• There are other things that we could pick apart from this game, and Tobias Harris' gigantic expiring contract is the big mystery piece of the offseason coming off of a horrible series for their starting forward. But it's not really worth getting into them in this space.

The Ugly

• Georges Niang's grab of Jaylen Brown from the bench in the second quarter is one of the dumbest things I have seen a player do this season, and the Sixers somehow emerging from that situation with a double-tech for both parties was an act of god. 

• As always, I appreciate everyone for riding with me all season, at times when things felt bleak and at times when it felt this team could finally break through. Your support is treasured, regardless of what crimes these basketball bozos commit every May. We will have plenty to talk about in the months to come.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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