May 12, 2023
And here we go again.
As the Philadelphia 76ers pushed themselves into a corner by melting down late against the Celtics, they created a bubble of pressure around them — the likes of which this city hasn’t seen in over 20 years. No other basketball team outside of Allen Iverson’s trip to the NBA Finals had more pressure on them to win than this year’s Sixers team — in Boston, for Game 7.
We’ve reached a point where it’s way more than just Tobias Harris, Doc Rivers, P.J. Tucker, James Harden, and — however doubtful — even Joel Embiid being on new teams next season. This is an era-defining moment for everyone involved, be it Embiid and his new hardware down to guys like De'Anthony Melton who find themselves caught up in this in Philly.
This series has been carried by the strange and bizarre far more than any normal matchup. While we’ve seen some things we are used to, the revolving trajectories of Embiid and Jayson Tatum in Game 6 were as telling as it gets. Before you start pointing the finger and dishing out blame, let’s just look at the magnitude of it all.
Again, this was a monster opportunity for Embiid and the Sixers team to be better than all of the other teams before them. A chance to exercise demons or ghosts or anything else of that nature, all in the name of moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals. This was all to be done at home, mind you.
The game is defined by another ridiculously slow start by Jayson Tatum, yet Boston still finds ways to be in it. They come back and then it gets crazy. The fourth quarter of the sixth game of this series is defining in so many ways, one of the biggest being leadership. Rivers called it a “lack of trust” following their debacle of a loss. Be it trust or faith, or simply lack of awareness, the Sixers saw their opponent rise to the occasion by doing the opposite.
It was leadership. The Celtics saw their leader rise from the dead and take over when it was most important. The main hero of the story, near-death, being carried by the supporting cast until that final moment of the battle. Tatum woke up, popped a can of spinach, and destroyed the Sixers.
But hey, at least the Sixers countered each time with their own heavyweight, the MVP of the NBA, Mr. Twitter himself, Joel Embiid, right?
Nothing from Embiid over the final four minutes, during a stretch where the other superstar was carrying his team to a W. Go ahead and line up whoever you want to blame. Embiid for being too passive, James Harden for YOLO-ing this game away — couple of key misses and a turnover in that time, Tobias Harris for not living up to his contract, Rivers, Daryl Morey, Josh Harris. It doesn’t matter at this point.
The Sixers were without a playmaker in the final stretch but more importantly they were without a leader. How in the world is this possible with an MVP, a former MVP, P.J. Tucker, Doc Rivers — NBA champion coach, and guys like Harris who have lived through years of disappointment here with this team?
Which brings us to Game 7. The entire weekend will be consumed with this and rightfully so. Your Mother’s Day plans will now revolve around this game and what you will do for it. Everything boils down to this one game.
Nothing is sealed as you ponder over the edge of the cliff, wondering if the Sixers will take flight and survive or fall to their demise. But that also means the Sixers have one more chance to change history. To alter the past that seems to be repeating itself once again. Embiid can rewrite the past by changing the future on Sunday. Harden too. Everyone involved in that inexcusable meltdown can all but remove it from our collective memory, so long as they win on Sunday, in Boston, for the third time in this series.
The season isn’t over, but if it does happen to end this weekend, remember the final four minutes of Game 6. Keep that lack of leadership, communication, cohesion — all in your mind as you watch this team fizzle away key components to the NBA market.
It’s a tough balance to come away with much positivity following such a devastating loss, but there’s still life on the table. We use the term teaching moments and maybe this is one of them, but those moments only work if there’s a willingness to grow. Let’s all hope this team has a bunch of fast learners.
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