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August 22, 2020

The Sixers fought hard, but their 3-0 deficit is what this season deserved

Sixers NBA

You probably don't need a refresher on the stats, but I'll give them to you anyway. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win an NBA playoff series. Not once in the history of the league. It is the only North American sport with that distinction, and only three teams have even forced a Game 7 in these circumstances: the 2003 Portland Trailblazers, 1994 Denver Nuggets, and 1951 New York Knicks. 

Don't expect the 2019-20 Sixers to buck the trend. Ten months into the longest NBA season of our lives, the team "built for the playoffs" can only offer exasperated quotes about how they feel as they look up at the guillotine.

"Frustration, upset, disappointment," Tobias Harris said after Friday's loss to Boston. "I mean, everything you can imagine in losing a playoff game for sure."

"Man, it’s tough. It sucks," Joel Embiid added. "It sucks when you play super hard and you’ve got to do everything possible to win games, it’s hard when you come up short. No one wants to be in this position. I’m sure my teammates — we all hate being in this position...we can’t give up. We got to do more, I got to do more. Tonight, we got to make shots. Everybody’s got to do their job, and I definitely got to do more. I just got to come in on Sunday and do my job."

To their credit, the Sixers did not lay down on Friday night. Defensively, they were as good as they've been since arriving in Orlando, thanks in part to an adjustment of their pick-and-roll coverage on the back end. They hung around in a game they had no business being in — the Sixers shot 29.5 percent from the field on Friday night, and still found themselves with a chance to win in crunch time and the ball in the hands of their franchise center.

He, like the team, was not good enough. An errant pass and a possible foul later, the game was out of reach.  

In these moments, the pessimists are looking for someone or something to blame. Maybe Joel Embiid is not superstar material, a franchise center playing in an era where offense doesn't run through big men. Maybe Tobias Harris and Al Horford are anchors around the organization's neck, not good enough to justify their price points. Maybe Brett Brown is out of his depth, too slow to adjust and too tenured in Philadelphia to see and fix the cracks in the foundation.

The truth is, this team is simply not good enough in any measurable way. They are what the pre-series statistics say they are, a mediocre team in need of shot creators and shooters that didn't have a switch to flip for the playoffs. They are up against a good team, perhaps even a great team, top-five on both sides of the floor with a coach who can extract max value out of dangerous, versatile players.

They say the right things about wanting to carry on.

"I'm not rolling over," Brett Brown said Friday night. "I understand, I get it, everybody would assume this series is over because we're out 3 and 0. I'm not trying to be Knute Rockne with my sincere opinion. We're going to come in and play the game and get a win. To dust it off, like it is delivered for pride purposes, of course, but it's to keep a series alive. I truly mean that. That's my message to them, that's my message to my staff, and that's what I think."

They have even shown the right things. Had they rolled over on Friday night, most fans would be happy to attribute it to players giving up on a coach likely in his final days with the franchise. Without Ben Simmons, it had already been made abundantly clear the Sixers don't have the manpower to deal with this Celtics team. Losing in such soul-crushing fashion is almost crueler, the flicker of hope only surviving long enough to hurt them more.

Dress it up all you want, Game 3 was a painful reminder of why they are here. 

Tobias Harris, he of the $180 million contract, has yet to make a three-point shot in these playoffs. He has taken 49 shots to score 43 points, earned just 15 free-throw attempts, and been torched by most players who saw fit to attack him in isolation.

Al Horford, he of the $109 million contract, has yet to show he can do anything aside from play capable backup center behind Embiid. Is it his fault he can't defend wings in crunch time? Perhaps not. But the front office brought him in with the expectation he would not just "hang in there" vs. forwards, but excel against them. And the head coach, who has seen firsthand how painful his partnership with Embiid has been, saw fit to play him 38 minutes in the most important game of the season, 38 minutes that ended with Horford botching several key plays in their late-game collapse.

"He’s been in the playoffs for 12 years, he’s Al Horford, there’s a physicality I know and knew he would bring to the table, and I just trusted his résumé," Brown said after the game. "I trusted the fact that he was going to come with an adult mind and a physical presence. It didn’t take a lot of thought, truly, to go through it after you watched the series and so on. For me it was kind of inevitable, you get to this situation [in] Game 3, if we’re going down, I’m going down with him."

"Trusting a résumé" is a good shorthand for Philadelphia's current predicament. They knew Horford's résumé as well as anyone. They saw Harris blossoming in Los Angeles. They celebrate when their franchise center picks up accolades and honors, All-Star appearances, All-NBA and All-Defense selections, dominant numbers on both ends of the floor. And they hold onto moments of brilliance, like a Milwaukee blowout on Christmas, like a winter win over the L.A. Clippers, as proof of concept for the project.

It's the gaps in the resume coming to the forefront now. There's a reason Horford's former employer was happy to let him walk to a rival, why Harris has played for five teams and traded in the midst of his best run of form ever, why those high points for the team and Embiid have not turned into anything more than playoff disappointment. You can pad a resume, but you can only fake talent and work experience for so long before it catches up to you.

The franchise player, who'd worked to sharpen his passing out of double teams in the pre-playoff games and practices, has had a good defense turn the screws on him when it counts. That part of his game is so new, he speaks about it in uncertain terms.

"I've been doing a good job of — I thought I got better at passing out of the double teams, and it happened," Embiid said of the errant pass Marcus Smart picked off in the fourth. "I turned it over. That was a big mistake. That was on me. It happens, and you move on. You learn from it. It sucks, but, you know, when I'm out there I'm playing my butt off to make sure I can help the best that I can."

That uncertainty permeates through his game. Embiid has offered 30 points and 13 rebounds per game of dominance and has only been the best player on the floor in maybe one of their three losses. Simmons or not, that was never going to cut it in this series. No one will walk away wondering whether or not he was good, but the deficit shows he hasn't been good enough.

So here come the Sixers, prepping for their funeral in a Sunday afternoon showcase on ABC. Thirty-eight years since their last series victory over the Boston Celtics, they have not just watched their rivals move past them, they helped facilitate the climb. Staring down an offseason filled with trade rumors, pink slips and uncertainty about where they go from here, they are done with the bold claims about what they're capable of.

"I don't want to be swept," Embiid said Friday. "I don't want that on my résumé, so like I said, I've been playing my butt off, and I'm going to come in and do everything that I can to make sure that we win a game and take one game at a time."

He can't say it, but I will: this team is toast. And the only reason to be surprised is if you didn't pay attention in the first place.

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