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May 10, 2018

Celtics 114, Sixers 112: Philadelphia's dream season ends in the hands of Joel Embiid

BOSTON — Eighteen seconds were left on the clock when Brett Brown called Philadelphia's final timeout of Game 5, the final timeout of Philadelphia's season, as it turned out. And when the whiteboard got put down and the Sixers waltzed back onto the court, they got a look you'd probably live with every time: Joel Embiid in the post with Aron Baynes on his back, the season in the hands of your franchise big man.

But like they did in more than a few big spots this year, Embiid and the young Sixers came up short. The ball eventually rolled out of bounds off Embiid after a missed attempt, and the game was effectively over with 10 seconds left to play. Those are the breaks of the game.

Embiid left everything on the floor on that last possession, including the protective mask that shielded him from reinjury to his orbital bone in the postseason. He discarded it at the last moment before the game's decisive play, and explained after the game it was his way of doing everything possible to win, risk be damned.

"The way I thought about it was like this could be the last possession of the season, so I need to be at my best. I felt like although it was against the doctors and all those guys, I kind of tossed it aside," said Embiid. "I felt like there was [some contact] on that last play, but you can't really do anything about it. But [the refs] did a great job all night."

Let no one stand here on Thursday morning and suggest Embiid did anything other than lay it on the line for his team in the do-or-die Game 5. He looked positively gassed early in the third quarter, worn down by the first long season of his career and the lack of conditioning reps most of his teammates got at the end of the regular season. Baynes was outmuscling him on offensive rebounds, and "Embiid sucks!" chants were pouring down on the center at TD Garden.

From the 6:04 mark of the third quarter on, he lifted the Sixers up on his shoulders and dared Boston to do something about it. The post-ups that weren't working for a lot of the series were suddenly producing fouls or made baskets, and when Boston finally got sick of getting assaulted at the rim, Embiid had the presence of mind to look for the open shooters on the perimeter.

(You really can't say enough about Dario Saric's effort in this game, by the way. "The Homie" came up with a monster 27-10-4 line, and those rebounds were often emphatic on both ends of the floor. He extended and ended possessions on either end of the floor, and was the one Sixers scorer who decided to rise to the occasion outside of Embiid. Credit to him for picking himself up and just going to work after a tough start to the series.)

Back to Embiid — that was the type of performance you expect to see from a star player with his back against the wall, fatigue or not. You felt every last one of his 27 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists on Wednesday evening, and watching him hoist his teammates on his shoulders despite obvious fatigue should have Sixers fans dreaming of a brighter tomorrow.

If anything was made abundantly clear in this game and in this series, it is this: those questions that pop up from time to time about who Philadelphia's best player is and who has the most potential on the team, those are nonsense. There is a clear correct answer, and his name is Joel Hans Embiid.

"I felt like I needed to take over, and it wasn't enough. But I love being in that type of environment [on the road]," said Embiid of his work in Game 5. "It was just fun."

He has proven capable of bouncing back from adversity and carrying those lessons with him time and time again throughout his second season, the first season in which he was able to reliably play from October through mid-May. Healthy heading into the summer for the first time since he has been a professional, the Sixers should be ecstatic about where they're headed with this guy at the helm.

What does the death of a dream look like?

It was, as you might expect in the locker room of a team whose season just ended, pretty somber on Philadelphia's side of things. Outside of some talk about getting some time to recover and recharge, the Sixers carried themselves like a team that let an opportunity slip past them.

And they did, certainly. This is the worst Boston will probably be in the near future, and the worst Cleveland Cavaliers team the Sixers could have hoped to face had they advanced to the Conference Finals. The Sixers' reinforcements are total unknowns at this point, while the Celtics will see Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving return to the fold next season.

So the tears shed by JJ Redick — a potential one-year warrior, a man who said his focus over the next two months would be on being a more involved father and husband — were very real. These guys know how fortunate they were to be in such a position, only for it all to come crashing down.

"It's disappointing, it's emotional," said Redick, "and I would say not every year has ended in tears, but the good ones have, unfortunately. So this is no different."

They can see the opportunities that were in their hands even within this game, knowing their season is over because they couldn't make one extra play here and there. Redick zoned in on one miss in particular, a three that ended up way short in the final two minutes, as a sore spot that will stick in his memory for the foreseeable future.

"The one that [bothers me] is when it was 109-107 and T.J. kicked it out to me. That's the one that'll haunt you. I think in 2011 my fifth year with Orlando, I had a shot in Game 6 that would have won it and sent it to Game 7, and it rimmed out," said Redick. "You still think about that shot too. Who knows if [the shot tonight] would have clinched the game, but it certainly would have given us a nice little cushion, and maybe the outcome would have been different."

As misses like those reverberate in the brain of Redick, the young core members who will definitely be here have much bigger fish to fry. The problems caused by Ben Simmons' jumper (or lack thereof) became crystal clear in this series, with Boston walling off access to the paint and making his life miserable for the entire series.

Talk is cheap, and if Simmons doesn't return next fall with something resembling a credible mid-range jumper — to say nothing of a three-point shot — the critics will be out in full force. But it seems as though Boston's exploitation of his game has had a tangible impact on how he views things, and Simmons heads into the summer with clear goals in mind.

"The feeling right now, I didn’t want to be done. I feel like I had a lot more to go, but you have to look at the positives and the negatives and you got to keep moving forward," said Simmons. "I’m just learning. This is the start for me. I have a long way to go. The second series and I’m learning. There’s a lot of things this series I’m learning that I didn’t against Miami. That makes me a better player, so I’m grateful for those opportunities.”

Questions raised that won't go away anytime soon

The Sixers' players will face the music for the final time in a while on Thursday morning during their exit interviews, and the same goes for Brett Brown and GM Bryan Colangelo on Friday. There will be lots of cliches spewed about summer vacation and becoming better than ever, no doubt, but not everyone will be allowed to go quietly into the night.

Losing a coaching battle to Brad Stevens is not anything to be ashamed of, but the people who believe Brown is a good coach and ultimately not the guy to take you over the top have a little more ammunition after this series. He was slow to turn to T.J. McConnell despite productive minutes early on, only gave Justin Anderson a token chance midway through the third quarter despite other wings being ineffective, and never seemed to be able to dial up the right things when his team desperately needed guidance.

“I always feel incredibly empty. You wake up in the middle of the night tonight you’re like, ‘No! ’You’ll do the same tomorrow, it doesn’t go away easy," Brown said of the defeat. "You learn at the stage that I am at with age and experience, that I hate losing more than I love winning. That is a fact and it inspires me to really study what just happened.

Everyone's favorite player to criticize, Robert Covington, also had a clunker of a series outside of a brilliant performance in Game 2. He hit a big three during Philadelphia's fourth-quarter push in Game 5, but Covington managed to shoot just 25 percent from three on almost five attempts per game against Boston. The sort of early-clock shots you're okay to live with in a January game against the Pistons aren't going to cut it in a knockdown, drag-out fight against an elite Celtics defense, and he certainly justified criticism about his basketball IQ in his lowest moments.

All eyes turn to this summer for Colangelo, who will be tasked with completing the teambuilding process with uncertainty surrounding the project. Markelle Fultz was acquired to become the third member of a future big three, but the Sixers almost have to go into their summer as if they will get nothing from him moving forward. Their cap space will shrink with each passing summer, and their opportunity to grab a major free agent may never appear again. If they are complacent and he never figures it out, their ceiling is effectively capped.

The Sixers desperately need a perimeter player they can draw a play for in crunch time, one who can either take the shot a team needs to win the game or attack the closeout off the dribble if defenses cover the initial look well. An offense that lives and dies on Embiid posting up, talented as he is, is going to end up on the wrong side of the results board more often than not in a playoff setting.

Focus now, as it used to for the entire season during the rebuild, turns to the NBA Draft and potential targets in free agency. Sixers management has no time to rest on their laurels, not with so much planning and pitching and straight up work to do in the time between now and July 1.

Philadelphia has some of the best potential in the league. But they don't give out trophies for potential, and if the Sixers want to cash in on all their promise, they need to take a long, hard look at exactly what they have and don't have.

2017-18 was the first big step. But the escalator provided by holdovers from the last regime has stopped before reaching the top, and it's up to the current regime to walk out the rest.

A brief note of thanks

To those of you who have been following along with my Sixers coverage at PhillyVoice this year, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who has stuck with me as I've chronicled everything going on with this team.

When I started here in September, I was unsure of my plan to carve out a space within a talented and suddenly crowded Sixers beat now that I was on the case full-time. With some feedback from you all and a little bit of work in the old noggin, things were figured out along the way, and my hope is if you're reading this you found what took place on this site to be entertaining, insightful, and worthy of your time.

Being able to do something like this for a living is not a privilege I take lightly, and I owe you all my appreciation for helping to make that possible. As always, if there are things you're looking for more of or earnest feedback you have about what you're interested in down the line, my inbox is always open.

For now, the work continues on the next story and the next days ahead for this team. Here's hoping there are many more exciting years ahead for all of us.

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