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June 19, 2021

The Sixers' complete franchise history in Game 7

Staving off embarrassment for at least another day, the Sixers came up with a massive road win in Atlanta on Friday night to bring the series back to Philadelphia. The energy in the building Sunday figures to be off the charts, with the home crowd lubed up after a full day of drinking anticipation. These are the moments you fight for when you push for the No. 1 seed during a grueling regular season, and the Sixers cannot wait for the opportunity to play one in front of their home crowd.

"I'm excited, you know, this time around it's at home," Embiid said Friday night. "That's why we worked so hard in the regular season to get the homecourt advantage. Playing in front of our fans, I know we blew that lead last game, that's something we should have never done. But tonight we just kept telling each other 48 minutes, you got to be focused for 48 minutes. That's what we have to do and we'll be fine."

Embiid, who still believes his team would have won their 2019 battle with Toronto if they'd played it at the Wells Fargo Center, might have a point. If you scan through franchise history, the difference between living and dying has often come down to where Game 7 is hosted. Let's take a stroll down memory lane, and take a look at how Sixers players have fared with everything on the line.

Franchise record: 6-10 all-time (1-9 on the road)

2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals @ Toronto — Loss

All I need to say is the words "Kawhi Leonard" and many of you are going to get PTSD flashbacks to the bouncing shot heard around the world. It is such an iconic NBA moment that it has wiped away lots of other memories from that game, like Jimmy Butler stalling out on multiple crunch-time possessions, or Serge Ibaka going 3-for-5 from deep, or Greg Monroe being a -9 in under two minutes of action.

Okay, so most of you haven't forgotten about that last part, because Embiid's plus/minus figure in that game and across the series is one of the first things that comes up every single time the game is discussed. Being in the arena for this game is something I will never forget, and though it's a painful memory for you all, perhaps that pain will make victory that much sweeter when the Sixers eventually climb the mountaintop again.

2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals @ Boston — Loss

Truly one of the weirder Sixers seasons in recent memory. After upsetting the top-seeded Bulls following a career-altering injury to Derrick Rose in Round 1, the Sixers and Celtics traded wins back and forth every game, and Boston happened to be on the right side of the scoreline when the final whistle sounded.

The belief in this team was minimal, which is why they were broken up starting with the Andrew Bynum trade in the summer of 2012. Playing for the right to lose to the Miami Heat in 2012 wasn't much to play for, though Boston did end up forcing us a narrative-shifting performance from LeBron James in Game 6 of that series. Maybe Philly would have been a part of history had they won.

2001 Eastern Conference Finals vs. Milwaukee — WIN

This is the forgotten Game 7 from Philadelphia's run to the NBA Finals, and on some level is the forgotten series from that year. Allen Iverson's battle with Vince Carter in the previous round tends to stand out in your memory a bit more.

But this one featured a pair of classic performances from Sixers players. Dikembe Mutombo nearly managed a 20-20 game with the season on the line, putting up 23 points, 19 rebounds, and seven blocks across 47 minutes in an absolutely sensational performance. It was only topped by Iverson's one-man show on the offensive end of the floor, with Bubba Chuck dumping in 44 points on 33 shots to send the Sixers to their first Finals since the 1980's.

A true classic...

2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. Toronto — WIN

The battle with the Bucks and Iverson's famous Finals stepover wouldn't have had a chance to happen if Vince Carter's shot had gone down in the closing moments of the second round. In a series that featured some huge scoring outbursts from both men, Iverson narrowly edged out Carter 21 to 20 in the scoring department of Game 7.

I am sure this game will be discussed to death in the days to come. The hero for Philly may have been Eric Snow on this day — he gave the Sixers 34 minutes off of the bench, and his +13 was a team-best mark by a mile.

1986 Eastern Conference Semifinals @ Milwaukee — Loss

A heartbreaking, one-point defeat for the Sixers in one of the last playoff series for Julius Erving in Philadelphia. The Bucks have largely been forgotten because they were the third team in a conference featuring the Sixers and Celtics in the 80's, but they consistently challenged both teams when the going got tough in April and May.

A tip of the cap goes to Sidney Moncrief, who was in and out of the lineup due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot but managed to rally for 23 points in the decisive Game 7, when Milwaukee needed every one of them.

1982 Eastern Conference Finals @ Boston — WIN

An important game for a lot of reasons, but three things stand out for historical purposes:

  1. This is the only time in franchise history the Sixers have gone on the road to win a Game 7. 
  2. This game was the origin of the "Beat L.A.!" chant that has since become a staple for opposing fans whenever the Lakers are good. With the game in hand late, the Celtics fans asked their Eastern Conference rivals to handle their foes to the west in the Finals. Darryl Dawkins allegedly told Boston writing great Bob Ryan, "My d*ck got stiff" when he heard the chants.
  3. This was the series that helped cement one of the greatest sports nicknames in Philadelphia history: Andrew "The Boston Strangler" Toney. He was sensational all series, and he scored another 34 to send the Celtics packing.

1981 Eastern Conference Finals @ Boston — Loss

For the second time in their history, the Sixers coughed up a 3-1 lead to the Boston Celtics to go home in the most inglorious fashion possible. This series is widely considered one of the best of all-time, with the final three games decided by a margin of five combined points. 

Boston emerged as 91-90 winners on their home floor in Game 7, thanks to Larry Bird scoring the only basket for either team in the final three minutes of the game. 

1981 Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. Milwaukee — WIN 

Prior to losing to Boston in the next round, the Sixers were on the right side of a one-point victory in Game 7. On Easter Sunday in 1981, there were 19 lead changes, 11 ties, and the Bucks nearly climbed out of a 16-point hole to win the game when all was said and done.

But Dr. J's 28 points and a big assist from Bobby Jones off of the bench was enough to see the Sixers through to the next round. It was not a well-attended game — reports from the time suggest under 7,000 people attended the do-or-die game at the Spectrum, where the Sixers were 37-4 during the regular season that year.

1979 Eastern Conference Semifinals @ San Antonio — Loss

Whoever made the decision to put the Spurs in the Eastern Conference when they joined the NBA must have been on some serious hallucinogens, but no matter. This time it was the Sixers who nearly pulled off an impossible comeback against George Gervin and Co. — the Sixers climbed out of a 3-1 hole to force the seventh game on the road, and they erased an 18-point lead during the game to give themselves a chance late.

Alas, it was not to be. Dr. J's 34 points edged out Gervin, but the Spurs got 20+ point games from Larry Kenon and Mike Green, the latter of whom would retire from basketball following the 1979-80 season. So it goes.

1977 Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. Boston — WIN

He is known more now for the colorful suits he wears to Sixers games, but what if I told you World B. Free was once the key to a Game 7 victory for Philadelphia? 

After starting the Game 0/6 from the field, Philadelphia's microwave bench scorer started cooking in the second half and dropped 27 points to earn the Sixers a win. The Sixers ended up being prohibitive favorites in the Finals that year, only to get taken down by one of the forgotten great teams in NBA history, the Bill Walton/Maurice Lucas Blazers.

1971 Eastern Conference Semifinals @ Baltimore Bullets — Loss

37 points from Archie Clark and 30 more from Billy Cunningham were not enough to overcome Baltimore, whose attack was much more balanced than Philadelphia's. The Bullets would end up representing the East in the NBA Finals, and once again, I have to question the NBA's understanding of geography, because they for some reason met the Western Conference champion Milwaukee Bucks to decide the season.

It remains wild to me that there was a franchise nicknamed the Bullets for as long as they were. Good thing there were no incidents connected to that name during the franchise's history.

1968 Division Finals vs. Boston — Loss

The Warriors losing the 2016 Finals became the meme that took over basketball internet, but the Sixers were the first team in the history of the NBA to lose a playoff series after holding a 3-1 lead. This is a part of Philadelphia's long and storied history I'm sure they'd like to push to the side.

That it came one year after the Sixers ran roughshod over the league probably made it sting even more. Philadelphia's title defense ended painfully.

1965  Division Finals @ Boston — Loss

A game that can be summarized with just a single quote: "Havlicek stole the ball!"

This season was the first for Wilt Chamberlain in a Sixers uniform after Philadelphia acquired him in a trade with the Warriors earlier in the year. It would not be the last time the Celtics got the best of Wilt's Sixers.

R.I.P. to the great John Havlicek, by the way, who passed away recently.

1959 Division Finals @ Boston — Loss

1955 NBA Finals vs. Fort Wayne Pistons — WIN

1954 NBA Finals @ Minneapolis Lakers — Loss

I am not going to pretend I can tell you anything useful about the three Game 7's the Sixers played when they were the Syracuse Nationals. All I know is Dolph Schayes scored a lot of effing points. Seems like he was pretty good.

Current Sixers players in Game 7s

Joel Embiid — Record: 0-1 | Stats: 21.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 33/16.7/88.9 shooting splits

One thing you learn rather quickly studying stats for Game 7s is how ugly the efficiency is for a lot of guys around the league, even elite players. Nobody cares that LeBron James, for example, shot 9-for-24 in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, because he came up with a 27-point triple-double and one of the signature highlights of his career in the closing minutes. What you ask from your stars is simple: unload every bullet in the clip before the clock hits zero.

It would be hard to argue Embiid had more to give in Game 7. Playing over 45 minutes and anchoring the defense on the back end, the Sixers were 10 points better than the Raptors with Embiid on the floor in a game they lost by two. In fact, the solution to their problems may simply have been to ask the starters to play 48 minutes. The moment Philadelphia opened themselves up to second-unit contributions, they were cooked.

That being said, Embiid will have to offer much more than a 6-for-18 shooting performance against Atlanta. Marc Gasol is not walking through that door, and the big fella's matchup with Clint Capela is in his favor. Meniscus issue or not, they need his jumper to be on point and for Embiid to be the defensive savant we know he can be.

Ben Simmons — Record: 0-1 | Stats: 13.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 80/0/83.3 shooting splits

In his first Game 7 alongside Embiid, Simmons attempted just five shots all night. While that may cause many of you to draw a parallel to these playoffs, context is key. Jimmy Butler was the guy at the controls for Philly in that Game 7, and Simmons had a herculean task on his hands trying to stop Kawhi Leonard.

Simmons certainly did not stop him — the guy poured in 41 points and the game-winner, obviously — but it was a grueling, physical battle that necessitated 39 shot attempts from Leonard to get there. They are going to need him to offer similar resistance against Trae Young, and you could make a strong case that will be a tougher task. Not because Young is better, but because he's much more interested in exploiting the way the game is called than Leonard is. As the smaller player, Young can exaggerate contact believably against Simmons, who has to avoid more early foul trouble after it limited him in Game 6 vs. Atlanta. 

The biggest issue for Simmons in Game 7 vs. the Raptors was turnovers, which was a frequent problem for him against Toronto and especially against the Kawhi Leonard version of the Raptors. Frankly, the Sixers might welcome a high turnover game from Simmons if it means that he is taking more control of the offense and playing closer to the guy he looked like in the Washington series. If he could somehow find a way to go 5-for-6 from the line on Sunday night, as he did against the Raptors, I bet most Sixers fans would expect certain victory.

Tobias Harris | Record: 0-1 | Stats: 15.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 55.6/40/75.0 shooting splits 

A quick flashback to what I wrote about Harris in the immediate aftermath of Game 7 in 2019:

If the Sixers had gotten this version of Tobias Harris in Game 4, they would have gotten some downtime between the start of the Toronto series and the Eastern Conference Finals. He was everything the Sixers wanted and expected to be when they acquired him — versatile, a perfect blend of aggressive and team-oriented, and most importantly, the man hit shots. 

Anytime you see Harris confidently stepping into a three in transition, you know he's feeling pretty good. He was not a high-volume shooter on Sunday night, and frankly I think he would have been justified taking even more shots. His instinct to hunt great shots is not a bad one, but you're not going to get a lot of "great" shots in a physical Game 7.

Notably, Harris missed a wide-open three in the corner late in this one with the game hanging in the balance. I had forgotten the exact play and wanted to go back and take a look at it, and I have to say, I was struck by how crisp the Sixers looked this deep into a Game 7:

Between having Butler at the controls in a pick-and-roll, Simmons' movement, Embiid being ready to pass, and the shooters in both corners, this is as good as it gets for a late-game possession. 

Seth Curry | Record: 1-0 | Stats: 0.0 points, 0.0 rebounds, 0.0 assists, 0/0/0 shooting splits (16 minutes played)

This is a reminder of just how far Seth Curry has come in a fairly short amount of time. His biggest contribution to Portland's Game 7 victory over the Nuggets in 2019 was the use of five fouls during his 16 minutes of action. It is also forgotten as one of the few clunkers Damian Lillard has ever played on a big stage, with CJ McCollum carrying the Blazers to victory and a Western Conference Finals appearance.

Needless to say, the Sixers will need more from Curry on Sunday, and I suspect they'll get it rather easily.

Dwight Howard — Record: 2-0 | Stats: 14.0 points, 15.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 64.7/0/60.0 shooting splits

There have been many calls for Dwight Howard to get bumped from the rotation in favor of small-ball looks. I'm not even saying that's wrong, but he is one of the few guys on the team with positive Game 7 experience.

Here's a twist — both of Howard's Game 7 wins came against teams coached by Doc Rivers. In 2009, Howard and Hedo Turkoglu led the Magic past the title-defending Celtics (admittedly without their most important player) in a road victory up in Boston. Running that pair through pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, Orlando grinded out a win and would eventually make it to the Finals that year, surprising the East-leading Cavs in the Conference Finals.

The other defeat Howard handed Rivers is from one of the most infamous series of the coach's career. After his Rockets pulled off a stunning Game 6 comeback down 19 points in the third quarter, Houston would finish off the Clippers in Game 7, completing a comeback from being down 3-1. L.A.'s bench, including sixth man Jamal Crawford, got absolutely skewered in the loss, something the 2021 Sixers will hope not to repeat with their own bench mob.

George Hill | Record: 5-2 | Stats: 13.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 45.3/28.6/92.3 shooting splits

Hill's first loss in a Game 7 came as a member of the Pacers way back in 2013, an Eastern Conference Finals battle between Indiana and the LeBron-era Miami Heat. He would eventually end up alongside James for a pair of Game 7 victories in their 2018 run to the Finals.

Here's the thing that stands out about Hill's performances in Game 7s — he has found ways to produce and get involved even without shooting particularly well from the field. On two separate occasions in 2014 and 2018, Hill made up for missing all his threes by getting to the charity stripe nine times in a game, shooting a combined 18-for-20 across those games. There are going to be moments in every Game 7 where players have their first, second, and third options taken away, and being able to manufacture offense (including at the stripe) is a huge part of emerging victorious.

Hill is a guy who has proven he can figure it out on the fly. It might be time for Tyrese Maxey to play that role now, but perhaps Hill will finally have his first moment in the sun as a Sixers player.

Mike Scott — Record: 0-2 | Stats: 8.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, 35.3/30.8/100 shooting splits

Scott was Atlanta's lead reserve during their first-round series against the Indiana Pacers in 2014, but he went cold from deep in the lone Game 7 he started in. If he is for some reason forced into action, the Sixers would take a repeat of that 15-point performance and feel like they hit the damn lottery, at least if he could do it at a more efficient clip.

But let's be honest, if he sees the floor, something has gone horribly wrong.

(A closing note here: Danny Green has four different Game 7s worth of experience to fall back on, one of the many reasons it's a shame he is out with a calf injury right now. But you never know which version of Green you're going to get — he was terrific in a first-round series against Doc Rivers' Clippers in 2015 and instrumental in a win over the Mavericks during the 2014 Finals run, but he laid a 1-for-12 egg in the 2013 Finals and was invisible for most of the 2019 Game 7 he beat the Sixers in. Nature of the beast.)

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