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May 05, 2023

Quick Six: The little things doomed the Sixers against the Celtics

The Sixers had a golden opportunity in front of them coming back to Philadelphia, and they squandered it in the span of 48 minutes against the Celtics, handing homecourt advantage back with a meek performance they would love to have back.

It was understandably quiet in the tunnels of the Wells Fargo Center after the game, but here's some of what we heard afterward, and what happened to cause that stunned silence.

Looking at the box score, the hustle stats don't appear to show an advantage, let alone a big one, for the Celtics in this game. Each team ended up with nine offensive rebounds, with Joel Embiid coming down with five of those by himself on Friday night. But it was hard to shake the feeling that the Sixers had gotten killed on loose balls, and that was where the head coach and best player came down in the moments following the game. 

"I thought the difference in the game from my view is they made the simple passes and we didn't, there were a ton of them for us. And then all the game-changing plays two games in a row now," Doc Rivers said. "Every time we cut it to four, we have a chance, offensive rebound or a loose ball or a charge, they did the little things better than we did the little things tonight, for sure."

"Loose balls, 50/50 balls, every single time they just kept getting them. They would make a three, and that would change the momentum of the whole game," Embiid added. "The last few games, that's been an issue. Down four, we had an opportunity to grab the ball, and we didn't go after it, Al makes a three, down seven with three minutes left. Those little things, they matter in the playoffs."

This was the play that stuck in Embiid's mind after the game, and it was a big one:

In some ways, this play is a reflection of the sacrifices Philadelphia has to make in order to juice up either side of the floor. Three guards plus Tucker gives them offensive juice, but Maxey trying to get to this ball while competing with human bulldozer Marcus Smart is the cost of that setup. And Maxey has been at the center of a few of these plays over the last few nights, with chances in front of him to make a momentum-shifting play that he simply can't hold onto.

Plays like these are why they brought in the likes of P.J. Tucker and De'Anthony Melton, to help do the dirty work around their more talented, more skilled players. And yet the Sixers still ended up helpless on these plays when it counted, watching the same guys make the same plays for the Boston Celtics after all of these years.

• The high point of the game for Philadelphia was, sadly, the pregame festivities surrounding Embiid's MVP award. In an arena charged up for their guy, Embiid somehow managed to take their energy up to another level, wearing his emotions as he thanked his parents, his son, Luc Mbah a Moute, and the people of Philadelphia for helping him reach this moment.

And it speaks to what actually matters that Embiid sat at the podium after the game and said that he wished that a moment like this was saved for the break the league has prior to the playoffs, allowing everybody to focus on basketball on the night of a basketball game.

"I thought I got into the game and let the game come to me and not force anything, not play off of my emotions, I thought I was fine the whole week," Embiid said. "I don't think it affected me, but all this attention I feel like it can be a distraction, and I just feel like this type of stuff [can] happen in another time. You got that whole week between the regular season and the playoffs, right before the playoffs you can do something like that."

"But can't take it for granted, wish we would have won tonight it would have made it even better. It's hard for me to sit in here and kind of think about winning that when you're down 2-1 and we're just trying to find ways you can help and win games."

For a guy battling an injury, Embiid looked pretty damn good most of the night, flashing the rim protection and physical dominance that have helped make him one of the best players in the world on a nightly basis. That said, he was 2-for-5 for four points in the final quarter, unable to get to the free-throw line to help boost the numbers. He was as helpless as the rest of them in crunch time, even if he had a better excuse to wear down late.

James Harden's stinker of a game was at the center of Philadelphia's story on Friday night, and getting some insight into what went wrong would have been useful. I suppose you will have to wait on that or judge from the tape yourself because he didn't have a whole lot to share with the media after the game.

While Embiid was speaking to reporters at the podium, Harden went through his interview with just a few reporters back in the Sixers' locker room. The entire availability with that small group of reporters is contained within the blockquotes below:

What do you feel like the biggest difference was tonight? 

Scoring, we didn’t score the basketball. We didn’t play well offensively, simple. 

How much do you think you could have taken some looks inside the paint that you passed up? 

I don’t know, I got to watch the game, but I’m pretty good on basketball instincts, I know when to score and I know when to pass. So I’m pretty sure a lot of them was the right play. 

Was there anything Boston did to impact you? 


Doc said you guys need to get Tyrese more involved, do you think that would benefit you guys? 

Yeah, we would love that.

Doc Rivers wasn't really willing to dissect Harden's performance, either, deferring to the tape he said he would watch later.

"I'm going to go watch it," Rivers said Friday. "I just didn't think we had any pace. We had stretches in the game where I thought we went downhill with speed and force, we made the right plays, and then we had stretches where we just didn't. So I'd rather watch the game first and then I'll answer that question."

Around here, we don't necessarily have to wait that long in order to answer the question. Harden stunk it up, and worse than that, he lost sight of the rim for stretches of this game.

There was no better example – or worse example, I suppose — of Harden's rim allergy than this moment in the third quarter, when he was rightfully skewered by the broadcast crew and groaned at by the home fans:

As we wrote in the instant recap on Friday night, there were shades of Ben Simmons in this performance. I can only imagine the PTSD shivers that went up the spines of Sixers fans, having to watch this nonsense from their lead guard in yet another playoff series.

The Sixers aren't winning anything with this version of Harden, and frankly, there's not much more to analyze if they get whoever this point shaver was in Game 3.

To be fair to No. 1, this was a total team failure on offense. Tyrese Maxey shot 4-for-16 from the field and looked overwhelmed by the moment, never finding the right amount of aggressiveness the entire night. Tobias Harris was in foul trouble all night and could never find the proper level of aggression as he battled through it, ending with just seven points on six shots. Between Harden and Harris — and factoring in a big-money extension for Maxey at some point in the near future — your big-money players of the present and future gave you just about nothing in this game. 

On the role player front, De'Anthony Melton was one of their better performers and had a decent game off of the bench, but needed a very good outside shooting night to offset some wild, unmakable shots inside the arc. P.J. Tucker and Georges Niang had two of the best offensive outings of any Sixers role players, and both guys looked like they might wind up out of the rotation entirely at points in this game/series. 

But this is why you're supposed to build a roster around stars in the first place. The Celtics didn't have to think much about Malcolm Brogdon and Marcus Smart shooting a combined 9-for-29, because Tatum and Brown combined for 50 points and Horford shot the lights out (and in fairness, Smart made a ton of the gritty plays that really mattered in this one). Maybe you can shake the rotation up with Shake Milton or Danuel House Jr., but the frontline guys have to be better for Philly.

For now, Embiid is remaining patient with his co-star, perhaps because he's aware that he dropped 45 points in Game 1 to steal their only win. Or maybe it's simply because piling on Harden is counterproductive, as they need Harden to snap back in order to have a chance in this series.

"You just talk to him and you just tell him to keep shooting, be aggressive, that's why you can't get too high and you can't get too low. Some nights you're going to make a lot of shots, a lot of tough ones, and some nights you're not going to make them," Embiid said. "It's about finding other ways to impact the game. For example, for myself If I'm not making shots, I know that I got to take another step defensively, I got to become Bill Russell defensively to kind of like add it and have a bigger impact."

"It's up to him to figure out how to best help us, but I think it's fine....we made a lot of shots in Game 1, the last few games it hasn't been going in, I have the trust in him to just tell him to keep being aggressive and keep shooting."

Hey, the good news is that the Sixers have to play an afternoon game at 3:30 on Sunday, after playing Embiid 39 minutes in a double-digit loss on Friday night. Surely, the shorter recovery period won't impact their best player, or their guard who has shown no ability to snap back quickly from a physical perspective.

Things look dire right now, to say the least. What the Sixers show in Game 4 will tell us a ton about their growth this season, and whether it was all a mirage or not.

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