May 15, 2023
This year was finally supposed to be different, but even though total disaster hadn't struck just yet, the Sixers went into halftime in Boston on Sunday and you just knew this wasn't going to work out.
Jayson Tatum was hitting everything for the Celtics, while Joel Embiid and James Harden were struggling to make their way to the rim.
Then the third quarter happened, Boston seized momentum and pulled away, and in Game 7 – the biggest moment, when you need your best players to show up the most – the Sixers' two stars were nowhere to be seen.
They lost, 112-88. The season's over, and even though it looked like they finally had the Celtics on the ropes after all these years, with two golden chances to close them out, the Sixers couldn't do it.
The second-round wall still stands, devastatingly stronger than ever, and a fan base that exhibited all the patience in the world over the past decade is left exhausted with this team and pondering all the "what ifs" that could've made for a better outcome.
But the reality, as our own Kyle Neubeck put it, is this:
The Sixers have one of the best basketball players on planet Earth, and cannot be confident that said player will be prepared to lead them at the time they need him most. And Doc Rivers summed up this problem while showing sympathy for Joel Embiid, almost pleading to the universe to give the big man one fully healthy playoff push to prove his worth.
"The kid deserves a break, he really does," Rivers said following the Game 7 loss to Boston. "He deserves one shot to just be 100 percent throughout. I don't know if we would have won the series, but I would just love to have him one time where we don't have issues. I haven't had that opportunity and Joel hasn't had that opportunity, and it sucks for everybody."
Though Philadelphia doesn't have much sympathy itself for that last part right now.
This year was finally supposed to be different. It probably should've been, but instead, the Sixers are no further from where they were in 2018 or even that aberration of a 2012 run that would set up for the start of "The Process" a decade ago.
And there seems to be no good way forward either.
Here's what they're saying about the Sixers after yet another second-round exit:
No one's getting away blameless for how the Sixers' season ended.
Not Harden, who had nothing for Game 7 after two monumental performances to keep Philly in the series. Not Doc Rivers, who hasn't gotten past the second round in a decade and may be at the end of the line as the Sixers' coach. Not Daryl Morey, who constructed a roster that can't seem to function unless everything's going perfectly. And not even Embiid, who finally earned that MVP award but couldn't play like one when the Sixers needed him to the most.
And that miserable performance might be the part that sticks the strongest.
Nobody took a greater individual hit with their Game 7 performance than Embiid. The series began with him returning not 100 percent and accepting the MVP trophy in front of his fans, a triumphant moment. It ended with Embiid laying an egg in a spot where a player of his caliber shouldn’t: 5 of 18 from the field, two assists, four turnovers and his worst defense of the series. After snuffing out drives and playing excellent defense for the entire series, he was lit up in pick-and-rolls in Game 7.
There have always been qualifiers attached to Embiid’s lack of postseason success. Some of them are legitimate: He gets injured every spring, including this one. Embiid has consistently played through injuries in the postseason, which is an admirable quality. He returned weeks early from an LCL sprain this postseason, and the debate over how much his injuries affected him is unfortunately again a talking point.
Sometimes, his teammates have been the bigger letdown (Harden last season, Simmons the season before). But Embiid is going to turn 30 in March, and he’s one of the league’s best players, so he has to find a way to breakthrough.
Embiid will have to own his Game 7 performance. He’s the MVP of the league and has upped his game every season, but in the biggest spot of the season, all those improvements were nowhere. He played frenzied and undisciplined basketball. Embiid said when you lose might not be important, and even if that is true, how you lose certainly is. [The Athletic, $]
And the how will stick in Sixers fans' craw for a long, long time.
Made worse was Tatum on the other end of the floor just tearing the Sixers up on the way to 51 points and a spot back in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Tatum struggled this series, and Boston's confidence both in him and the Celtics as a whole was incredibly shaky.
But the moment arrived, Boston's best player rose to the occasion, and they're still playing. Embiid didn't, and the Sixers, once again, are going home.
The difference in sheer will was impossible to ignore.
Tatum is just 25 and probably can still do some growing in that regard, too. But it’s impossible to dispute that he’s ahead of Embiid. From shaking off his horrible first 44 minutes of Game 6 with those four late three-pointers to torching the Sixers on Sunday, he was everything that the centerpiece of a championship-caliber team is supposed to be. Everything that Embiid wasn’t.
“It was definitely on my mind that I had played as bad as it could get,” Tatum said. “To be honest, they had us on the ropes in Game 6 — end of that third, going into the fourth, the crowd was into it. They had us, and we figured out a way to win.”
The Celtics didn’t figure it out as much as they relied on their best player to bail them out. Sometimes, that’s it. Sometimes, there’s no grand strategy that a coach can employ, no magic move that inspires a team. Sometimes, it’s just that simple: Our greatest player met the measure of the moment. Yours didn’t. Our guy was tougher and better when it counted. Your guy didn’t touch the ball for a close-out game’s final four minutes. We’re going to the conference finals. You’re going to Cabo. Enjoy. [The Inquirer, $]
The Sixers ran it back with Embiid and Harden and fell short again, which puts them in an incredibly difficult spot on where to go next.
Do they keep Harden on board, possibly with a max contract, and try to keep bolstering the depth? Do they let him, and his production, walk and try to find someone new for Embiid again? Do they dare cut their losses entirely and blow it all up?
It's going to be an incredibly uncertain summer for the Sixers, likely the heaviest in a long time, and at least initially, Harden seems like the biggest tipping point – with rumors of a potential return to Houston conveniently popping up again.
Wrote Tim Bontemps on what's immediately known right now:
Since ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Dec. 25 that Harden could entertain the possibility of returning to Houston this summer, the thought of it has clung to Harden and the franchise. Though multiple team sources admitted Houston is a viable option, there is a belief Harden will return to the 76ers next season.
A potential Harden exit would leave Philadelphia with little means to replace his production. The franchise would have only the full midlevel exception -- now north of $12 million -- to bolster its roster.
Harden said after the game that he hasn't begun thinking about his decision this summer.
"I just want to have a chance to compete. ... I mean, we're only one year in," Harden said of the 76ers' currently constructed roster. "We played against the team who's been together for quite a few years now. They were in The Finals last year, so you kind of know what it takes to get back there."
For his part, Embiid said he and Harden have an "unfinished job."
"Having the chance to close it out at home, which we didn't do ... I still believe we got the chance to win. We got what it takes to win." [ESPN]
But the more things change, the more they frustratingly seem to stay the same.
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