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May 12, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers end season with whimper in Game 6 vs. Heat

Sixers NBA

The Sixers got put out of their misery in another lifeless performance to end the season, dropping Game 6 to Miami 99-90 to end the season in the second round once again.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Shout out Shake Milton, who at least looked like he was interested in playing basketball when he was brought in for the second half.

• The biggest difference between the Sixers in Game 5 vs. the Sixers in Game 6 is that Joel Embiid decided to show up for the first half of the game. He was meek in the first 24 minutes down in Miami, his team following suit in that lifeless performance, and he evidently decided if they were going to potentially go down, he was at least going to go down firing. Whether he should have fired as much as he had to in the second half is another story.

In any case, he was not even a little bit shy to start this game, but he also got some jumpers to fall early, a piece of his game that has been absent as he has tried to adjust to playing with the mask. Two first-half threes were a good sign for Embiid and the Sixers as they try to unlock this physical, disciplined defense of the Heat. Sometimes, the best option is just to shoot over all of it, especially if you're tall enough that nobody can (usually) get to you at the peak of your release.

Unfortunately, those shots began to rim out or hardly get to the rim as the game wore on, and the one thing that stood out in this game (and during all his appearances in this series) was the level of fatigue Embiid had to fight through just to be out there. Embiid has taken his conditioning much more seriously the last two seasons, but at the worst possible time, he was forced to take a week off where he couldn't work on his body and keep up with the pace the playoffs demands. At every stoppage, Embiid was hunched over, trying to catch himself and then he would rise up and give it another go.

End of the day, it's hard to fault him for not having his best stuff with everything he has dealt with and played through in the playoffs. It is a shame we did not get to see him playing at full strength in the postseason, but if anything was clear, it's that he desperately wanted to be out on the floor for a team he thought could go on a run.

(On the other hand, man, does it blow that there's always something that stops Embiid from being up to the challenge when the stakes are highest.)

The Bad

• Assessing James Harden in constantly shifting circumstances has been pretty difficult these last few months. He was not brought in to be "the guy" the way he was back in Houston, but certainly a capable co-star to Embiid. At their best, that's what he has looked like, creating easy looks for his teammates and certainly for the big man. But they were nowhere close to their best in the two most important games of the season, and a lot of that falls on Harden, the guy who is supposed to be running and organizing the offense.

Doc Rivers, it's fair to say, has not exactly been diagraming masterpieces in this series. The worst criticisms you could make of the Sixers under Brett Brown came roaring back when the Sixers were cornered in this six-game set — there was a ton of wasted side-to-side movement that went nowhere in particular, the Sixers shying away from getting and going downhill with Miami playing physical defense at the point of attack.

On the other hand, Philadelphia's worst offensive tendencies have been the worst tendencies of Harden-led teams for most of the last decade. Hunt a switch you want, live in that switch, repeat. The difference between Harden doing that now and Harden doing that four years ago is that the guy four years ago was capable of beating just about anybody off-the-dribble, making him far less reliant on his step-back to succeed.

Look at what Jimmy Butler did in this series. Butler's three-point shot has fallen off of a cliff over the last five years, Butler reluctant to even put shots up for most of this season. The difference is that Butler constantly scored around, over, and through individual coverage in this series, getting to spots on the floor and scoring from all sorts of wild angles. These days, Harden is high-level scorer only when he has optimal conditions, and against a good team, you aren't getting those for all but a small handful of possessions per game.

To beat the best of the best in the playoffs, you need to have stars who are matchup proof, scheme proof, situation proof. It's not even clear that Embiid is that at this stage of his career (we could hardly learn in these conditions), and Harden certainly is not. And the difference between them is that at least Embiid can use defense as a fallback plan when the offense isn't there. If Harden falls apart as a scorer and/or playmaker, there's no making up for it. For two straight games, there were airhead turnovers with Harden on both sides of the exchange, either as the passer or the recipient that wasn't paying any attention when the ball came his way.

Whether he makes them better than Andre Drummond and Seth Curry did is a much different topic than whether they should make him the best-paid player in NBA history. What evidence is there to suggest they should pay him whatever he wants no matter what? They might not need him to be Houston Harden, but they need more than "good floor games" and one vintage performance in a series if they are going to compete at the highest levels with Embiid and Harden as their tentpoles.

This sort of performance, for the record, is why I was dubious about their chances to dig out of this hole immediately following Game 5. Harden is not and has not ever been a back-against-the-wall guy. He was simply there in his team's most important game of the year. That's not going to get it done, now or ever.

• To build off of that last point, the Sixers' defining trait in this series was a complete absence of mental toughness. They were punked on the glass, punked early in games, punked late in games, sent reeling whenever they were forced to play through a bit of adversity or step outside of their comfort zones.

Mental toughness shows up everywhere. It's part of this team's rebounding problem, frankly — they certainly have plays where they get beaten to spots by teams that are playing harder, but they also frequently have horrible positioning when shots go in the air, doomed to get carved up because of how bad their starting point is/was.

Any team with Embiid on the back end should (in theory) be a gritty, hard-nosed team that makes you work on defense and feels you for 48 minutes on the other end. That they aren't is a failure on about 100 different levels. 

• Tobias Harris sure picked a terrible time to revert to the guy we saw at the very end of last season, smoking layups in their Game 7 defeat against Atlanta. The will was there from Harris, who recognized attacking windows and beat closeouts with speed, but there were some ugly missed opportunities in must-have situations, the Sixers coming away empty-handed against all odds.

Games like these in big spots are why a lot of people have trust issues with Harris even after he goes on a long run of two-way play, the way he had over the last month or more. When the lights shine the brightest, when the chips are down, when the Sixers need him to dig down and be more than just a piece of the machine, he can't find ways to be more than that. And that would be fine if he were merely a mid-level player who could get by with better players carrying him. But at his price point, he needs to be more than that. 

And that's why, even after an excellent run to start the playoffs, Harris' name will likely get tossed around in rumors during the offseason. He has shown he can be a valuable two-way guy in the best of times, but they need more reliability and more production in big spots.

• It's hard for most teams to replace a dependable starter when they lose them three minutes into a do-or-die playoff game, but it really drove home how thin this Sixers team is when they had to cope without Green. They do not have enough good players on this roster. When Doc Rivers can have one of four different bench guys come in to groans, the problem is not who the coach decides to play, it's that the options all mostly stink.

Furkan Korkmaz is a shooter who hasn't made shots the entire year. Georges Niang is a shooter who hasn't made shots in this series and is playing on a bum knee, even worse on defense now that he's not fully healthy. Shake Milton has (I guess) been the most reliable bench guy in this series, and that says it all, because a lot of nights he has simply been out there and waiting to make something happen, not contributing much to the occasion.

All of those guys, though, are guys everyone sort of knew were either bad or unreliable. You can plan around that. Matisse Thybulle has been treated as a fairly important piece of this team, given constant starting nods before the vaccine situation threw his availability into doubt. The writing was on the wall long before these playoffs — Doc Rivers pretty consistently took him out and benched him in games this year when his floor-cramping impacted the game — but there was no real contingency if he struggled to stay on the floor.

• I went into this series basically thinking there was no way Doc Rivers could do a poor enough job to put his job on the line after this series was done. Without a full-strength Embiid, they had a built-in excuse to lose, and they did an excellent job to even the series at 2-2 once Embiid returned.

Everything that happened from there might not be his fault individually, but the Sixers carried themselves like a team waiting for a mercy kill in Game 5 and Game 6. That ultimately falls on leadership, starting with the star players and the head coach. Erik Spoelstra's team was prepared to rise to the occasion and switch up their coverages in the biggest spot of the season, and the Sixers were a team that had no answers, no ability to adjust to a curveball or a change in circumstances when the opponent presented them with alterations to the gameplan. Hell, Miami played without Kyle Lowry and with a compromised Kyle Lowry, and either outright won or had chances to win in both circumstances, in part because they spent their regular season developing a style, an identity, and a set of players who could adapt in the moment. A $90 million player hardly saw the floor in this series for Miami, and they were better for it. That's a reflection of what they actively worked to accomplish in the regular season.

To be fair to Rivers, he is not exactly working with a loaded deck here, as we acknowledged with the role player analysis above. But even if we go away from the X's and O's and the tactical nuances that help teams win at this level, it's hard to get around the fact that Philadelphia showed no urgency to win and compete when things go tough the last two games. They wilted in the face of a better-prepared team. And Rivers didn't respond with proper alterations or a plan to help get somebody, anybody going, but by simply taxing Embiid more, playing him as many minutes as possible with no plan aside from hoping the big man would pull them out of it.

Stars are going to have to pull you out of the fire in the playoffs, for sure. But they also need a coach who is prepared to put those out himself. Once they lost the talent gap that helped them win the first-round matchup with Toronto, the coaching matchup became a lot more important. And Rivers was beaten soundly in the games that mattered. If not for a Harden shooting barrage in Game 4, this one may well have been over in five games, with Rivers having minimal impact on the final outcome. 

The Ugly

• I can't claim that I had any useful foresight in the offseason where the Sixers signed Al Horford. Insofar as they had a choice — and Jimmy Butler's sights always seemed to be set on South Beach — I can't sit here and tell you I would have chosen Butler over the then ascending star in Simmons, even with warts that were apparent back then.

But there hasn't been a more consequential fork in the road moment since then. Butler sent their asses to summer vacation and was the best player in this series by a comfortable margin. There were a lot of jokes about his decision to "retire to Miami" when he left town. Nobody is laughing except for Butler right now. 

• I can tell you one thing the Sixers certainly wanted to avoid in the opening minutes of this one — more injuries and health issues. It has been hard enough to cope with Embiid operating at less than 100 percent,  and the Sixers aren't deep enough to overcome anyone else being limited. It only took three minutes for the Sixers to outright lose another player, and an important one at that, with Green suffering what looked to be a pretty ugly knee injury after Embiid's weight came down on his leg.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed what a lot of people were thinking when they saw Green go down — this might be a serious injury, and serious injuries are not easy to come back from at his age:

It's not outside the realm of possibility that this is the last game Green plays, though obviously, you hope that ends up being far from the truth. At the very least, he might have a long road back to being the impactful player he has been for most of his career, and that is a bummer in and of itself.

Looking forward for the Sixers, it puts them in a tough spot. They are technically not on the hook for Green's salary next season if they don't want to be, but they have no real ability to use the money they wouldn't be paying him. If it's a long-term injury with a long-term recovery timetable, Green becomes a much less attractive piece to flip for someone who might help take them up another level, and he's also not bringing you any immediate production until/unless he recovers. Given how late in the season this happened, next season could (heavy emphasis on could) might end up being far too ambitious.

It's a devastating injury. I'll be hoping for the best for Green, but prepping for the worst.

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