You might remember the 2021-22 Sixers as a roller coaster, from the Ben Simmons situation to the James Harden deal to “Tobias Harris over me?!”. For a beat writer, the season’s biography is written from behind the basket on the visitor’s side of the court. Here were the 5 best and worst games to cover from the 2021-22 season.
The five best
Four of the five games are Sixers victories because “closely competitive” is usually the qualifier for what is deemed to be a “good” game and many of the Sixers’ best home games were decided on incredible sequences or individual performances authored by the home team.
5. November 27, 2021 vs Minnesota
Joel Embiid had missed 9 consecutive games with COVID-19. After an 8-2 start to the season, the Sixers were 10-9 and in desperate need of their best player back on the court.
Embiid struggled to open the season, at least relative to his own standard. Even before his bout with COVID, Embiid had scored 30-or-more points just twice through the first 10 games of the season. Perhaps as a product of adjusting to the NBA’s switch to a Wilson basketball, the reigning MVP runner-up was mired in a terrible shooting slump, as well.
But in his first action in 21 days, Embiid looked like his old self. The big fella scored 42 points on 12-for-23 shooting and knocked down 16 of his 21 free throw attempts. He also contributed 13 rebounds.
The Sixers might as well have overslept tip-off because they couldn’t figure anything out early, and found themselves digging out of a significant hole in the first quarter.
They didn’t make any progress until the second half, when Embiid came alive. It was a signature performance for the star big man. Embiid dabbled in his finest Kobe Bryant imitations, sinking midrange jumper after midrange jumper off of impeccable footwork. He was utterly unstoppable in powering the Sixers to a lead late in regulation.
He gave Karl-Anthony Towns fits, contributing heavily to his fouling out in the final 20 seconds of the fourth quarter. Given that Minnesota finished second in the NBA in opponent personal fouls drawn, it wasn’t a surprise that they couldn’t do anything to keep Embiid at bay. What was surprising was that Embiid had the stamina to continue to power through the fouls after such a long layoff.
The game ultimately came to its decision in double overtime. The second overtime, of course, was triggered by Doc Rivers’ decision to insert Andre Drummond so that the team’s two best bigs would have a chance on the offensive glass should Tyrese Maxey’s free throw miss its mark.
Rivers’ tactic paid off, as Drummond was there to tip the ball up and in off the missed freebie as time expired.
Ultimately, though, fatigue naturally kicked in as the game wore on. Embiid’s scoring output continued into the depths of the game. But, a late turnover – his fourth of the contest – gave the Timberwolves a 1-point lead that they would not relinquish.
Regardless of the loss, the story wrote itself. It was Embiid’s finest performance of the season up to that point. It was one of the most dominant displays of shooting and imposing physical will that he’s ever presented. You knew you were witnessing greatness, and all you could do was shake your head and laugh.
This game was also a great cover because Embiid was open about his battle with COVID. Listening to his account of the virus made the fact that he was able to walk onto the floor with little-to-no preparation and put forth such a scoring exhibition all the more special.
Clip of the game:
4. March 21, 2022 vs Miami
Some of the best games to cover are the ones that entail the most surprise. The crowd is in it. The media straighten in their chairs and watch every play more attentively. There’s more to write about. And, perhaps best for content purposes, both coach and players, alike, are warmer in press conferences. Those are the games that stick with you the most.
It was the second game of a back-to-back, the first of which the Sixers lost by 5 points to Toronto, late in the regular season. The Sixers were jockeying for playoff positioning with every possession. No Embiid, no Harden. A mostly healthy Heat team was in town coming off two days of rest. You weren’t expecting much. A betting man might’ve placed his salary on a Miami beatdown. But surprisingly, the Sixers hung tough all game long. All they needed to pull off an unlikely victory was a late takeover from anyone willing to step up.
And Maxey was to the task.
First was a pull-up 20-foot jumper over Tyler Herro’s late contest to bring the Sixers within 1 point with less than 6 minutes to play.
A small applause bounced around the arena so as to commend the young guard for a job well done, but hardly anyone was moved at that point.
Second, on the very next possession, was a slight hesitation and attack to his right against Herro, followed by a layup that softly kissed the outer corner of the shooter’s square on the glass to evade a contest from Bam Adebayo. The Sixers were back within 1 point with less than 5:30 to play.
The cheers grew louder.
Third was another attack to his right, this time against Caleb Martin. Sensing Martin closing on him from the rear and Adebayo rotating over from the weak side of the lane, Maxey gently kissed a driving floater off the inner corner of the shooter’s square. Martin’s contact elicited a whistle that sent Maxey to the free throw line for a three-point opportunity.
Maxey, realizing he converted the bucket and got the foul, stood by the seats positioned along the baseline, motioning to the fans with his shooting hand in the air so as to tell the crowd to get louder.
The building woke up. Some in the press section looked around and nodded in acknowledgement that Maxey was putting together a nice crunch time performance. The Sixers took a 4-point lead with 2:18 to go. Maxey was just getting started, though.
Then came the heat check.
Maxey had Herro in isolation with 1:36 to play. 8 seconds remained on the shot clock.
Maxey took a page out of Harden’s book, taking a slight step to his right with his left foot before planting and pushing off with his right foot as he rose into a side-step triple fading to his right from the right wing. Herro made a decent contest, but Maxey saw an ocean.
Those in attendance went from standing and monotonously cheering to jumping and waking up the entire Delaware Valley. A few heads in the media section shook in disbelief.
The Sixers led by 8 points, seriously threatening to pull out a victory.
Then came the knockout punch.
Georges Niang passed the ball out to Maxey to reset the possession with 6 seconds left on the shot clock.
Maxey took one dribble as he stepped right before rising from 28 feet out. Herro’s feet were touching the arc; given Maxey’s heater, it wasn’t a good contest.
Maxey’s shot was an ambitious one; given his speed, it might’ve even been a bit forced. But, Maxey was possessed. He held his follow-through and watched the ball take its path to the basket, confident all the way.
Nothing but net.
The decibels shook the ground. In utter disbelief of the superstar-level takeover, a few in the press section sat back in their chairs, laughing at what they were witnessing. Embiid loved it.
The Sixers led by 11 points with just over a minute left. The game was decided, but not without one more exclamation point.
Martin thought he had a bucket on a botched inbound pass by Niang in the final 30 seconds of play, but Maxey was parallel to him as both raced in transition. Instead of dunking the ball, Martin let it hang for a layup. And Maxey was right there to spike it off the backboard to keep the Sixers’ lead at 6 points. The crowd let out one more jolt of electricity.
The ball went out of bounds, and Maxey pumped his right fist and flexed for his teammates.
For a youngster whose vertical athleticism doesn’t always pop and defensive aptitude has a ways to go, it was an emphatic capper to one of the best games you’ll see sans Embiid and Harden.
Clip of the game:
3. May 8, 2022 vs Miami
Philadelphia had been yearning for something resembling a classic James Harden game since the Sixers acquired him in February. With Harden unable to carry an imbalanced and flawed roster to even a split without Joel Embiid in the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Miami, the task was simple – keep your season alive by winning both games in Philadelphia.
With Embiid donning a mask to protect his fractured orbital bone after missing Games 1 and 2, the Sixers won Game 3 relatively easily.
But, Miami had much more fight in Game 4. The Sixers stayed in front for a significant portion of the game, but the Heat were threatening in the decisive quarter. Embiid was exhausted from battling with Miami’s physicality through a pair of significant injuries, Maxey had already won them Game 3, and Harris had been reduced to an off-ball fourth option. Philadelphia was in need of one final jolt of life to tie the series and breathe air back into its season, and Harden was to the task.
The trade deadline acquisition pumped in four triples in the final frame.
First was a pull-up off a left-hand-to-right-hand, crossover between the legs back to his left hand dribble combination in transition to put the Sixers up by 12 points with a little more than 9 minutes to spare.
The building erupted.
Second was in isolation out of a Double Drag action with Embiid and Danny Green. Harden’s original defender, Victor Oladipo, switched onto Embiid. Tyler Herro took Green, who peeled back to the corner. That left the bigger, younger, and more athletic Bam Adebayo in Harden’s way. Harden stepped forward with a slight burst and planted with his right foot. Just as quick as that plant was Harden’s step backwards with that right foot. He used the left foot to push backwards for an extra sliver of space to rise into his jumper.
27 feet out.
Fans in their seats stood up in disbelief. All net.
Thousands of arms reached for the sky. The building exploded.
The Sixers pushed their lead to 10 points with 5:33 to play.
The third came courtesy of some off-ball movement, with Harris fading towards the corner as Harden lifted towards the weak-side wing. Maxey attacked the middle of the floor to draw Oladipo just one step away from Harden too far, who took one step to his right to catch the dish from his young teammate. With less than 4 seconds left on the shot clock, Harden had to hoist from 28 feet out.
Harden held his follow-through, and the ball barely moved the net. He dropped his shooting hand and jogged back as Miami called a timeout. The Sixers led by 8 with 3 minutes left.
The building roared.
And then, the final punch.
Oladipo was on Harden until Green came up to pick for his teammate and bait a switch for Herro to take on the mercurial Sixers star. Sensing that Harden wasn’t going to turn the corner and Green wasn’t going to get very far away from the play, Herro switched back to Green and left Oladipo to take Harden.
Harden hit Oladipo with a machine-gun crossover in hopes of luring him into a lull long enough to create space with a side-step to his right. No dice, and Oladipo swiped at the ball to jar it ever-so-slightly loose from Harden’s possession. The bearded one kept his control, though, and was able to retract the ball into his shooting pocket.
3 seconds remained on the shot clock. The entire building was standing. Harden had to go.
He rose up with Oladipo right in his airspace, 28 feet away from the basket. Colliding with Oladipo mid-shot, Harden hit the floor while the ball was in the air. All he could do was watch with his right forearm bracing his fall.
The ball found the basket, the Sixers led by 11 with just over 1 minute to go, and the decibels broke through levels they hadn’t reached all season long.
Fans bounced in place, arms raised, both in ecstasy that the Sixers had regained control of the game and in relief that the season, at least for the moment, appeared alive and well.
Clip of the game:
Harden Heat Check 🔥🔥— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) May 9, 2022
5-9 from field
4-6 from 3
James finished with 31 points, first 30 point playoff game with Sixers
6 THREES, most as a Sixer & most in playoff game in 2 years
James accounted for 54 points 💥
2. April 16, 2022 vs Toronto
I picked the Raptors to beat the Sixers in 6 games in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, but no sooner did Game 1 tip off than did I start to eat my words. Look no further than Maxey for that. The fan reaction on any given night can make your memory of the game. And that’s what happened when Tyrese Maxey scored 21 of his playoff career-high 38 points in the third quarter.
With each passing Maxey bucket, the fans got louder and louder. First, there was the cross-court bounce pass from Harden to a cutting Maxey for a reverse layup. Then, there was Maxey’s difficult finish fading across the lane through a foul. With the fans in attendance on the edge of their seats as the second-year guard rode a scorching-hot quarter, Maxey came up with a 32-foot three-pointer to send the building into a ground-shaking frenzy as the Sixers went up by 20 points.
It went down in the game logs as the latest in a season of breath-taking performances by the second-year guard out of Kentucky. But, watching it in a playoff context was a different experience. Behind the basket, you can get a relatively consistent indicator of whether or not a shot will have a puncher’s chance of going in as soon as you can see it through the frame of the backboard.
Watching Maxey finesse his way into layups was nothing new. I couldn’t actually see him shoot when he tested his hot streak. The stanchion blocked Maxey’s body, so all I saw was Shake Milton make the pass to Maxey. I knew the shot clock was winding down and something had to happen quickly. Then, I saw the ball make its way through the backboard. My first thought was that it was an airball. The shot had to be too deep. But, it stayed above the rim long enough to crash into the net. All nylon. The building ignited. Someone in the media section started rocking back in their chair and laughing, in pure disbelief that the young guard could be so hot. It was just that type of game for Maxey and the Sixers.
It seems like the “What does he do in the playoffs?” conversation is most prominent in the NBA. And that outburst carried the aura of a charismatic score-first player whose regular-season equity could be trusted to translate to the postseason.
Clip of the game:
1. January 31, 2022 vs Memphis
With the exception of Andre Drummond chipping in 16 points and 23 rebounds in Joel Embiid’s absence, this game was essentially an elite 2-on-2 matchup. Ja Morant and Desmond Bane combined for 71 of Memphis’ 119 points; Maxey and Harris poured in 64 for Philadelphia. Maxey converted a layup through contact to put the Sixers up a point with less than 30 seconds left in overtime, and then iced the game with a full-court layup at the buzzer on a run-out after Ziaire Williams missed a corner triple.
As spectacular as Maxey was – and he went toe-to-toe with Morant on some incredible plays at the rim – Memphis’ superstar guard was of a different planet.
This is the game I remember most clearly from the season. Morant seemingly had jetpacks in his calves. I’ve never seen a player change speeds and directions the way he did. He contorted himself for finishes like Derrick Rose and ejected himself above anyone in his way for powerful dunks like Russell Westbrook.
You had to stop writing or doing whatever you did during games when Morant had the ball in his hands. There was one particular dunk in which he rose above everyone like a biblical figure or a Greek god and threw down a ferocious, contested jam.
You had to take a look around the media section to make sure everyone saw what you just saw. Some had faces conveying that they couldn’t believe it, others shook their heads. A couple of us laughed at the pure absurdity of Morant’s display. It was perhaps the most incredible performance I’ve ever seen in-person.
After finishing my work for the night, I got into my car and just sat there for a minute and thought to myself, “My job is to watch that game, in-person, attend press conferences, and write about it. I’m very fortunate.”
Clip of the game:
The five worst
Game result wasn’t necessarily the make-or-break case for this list. A variety of circumstances were considered, including quality of game, quality of opponent, outcome, and whether or not the Sixers flipped the game on its head in a bad way. The last item there isn’t predicated on the game’s outcome. Rather, those games might force you to tear up your game story halfway-or-more through and dissect a blown lead. Without further ado, the worst of the worst from 2021-22.
5. January 29, 2022 vs Sacramento
If you made it to this game, you put more effort trekking to The Center through the remains of the prior night’s massive blizzard than the Sixers did in the first half against the Kings. It took a 17-point first-half deficit – and the accompanying boos from the Philly faithful – to wake the Sixers up. And they did so just in time. Tyrese Haliburton dropped 38 points with 7 assists to keep the Kings in it as the Sixers clamped down in the second half, but Sacramento died by a Harrison Barnes triple that missed the mark at the buzzer.
It was a thriller of a game when all was said and done; but, it shouldn’t have been. The Sixers should’ve blown the doors off the Kings from the start. Instead, they played around for a while and needed to be threatened to take work seriously that night.
The Haliburton outburst also gave boisterous Philly fans all the ammunition they needed to lobby for the Sixers to trade for the young now-Pacer guard with the deadline about two weeks away. It was funny in some regards; you could predict the exact nature of the fan reaction as Haliburton’s point total climbed into the 30s. Beyond the Haliburton inundation on social media over the next couple days, the Sixers’ one half of effort did not fit the white-knuckled, stiff drive to and from Broad Street in the aftermath of the snow storm.
Clip of the game:
4. January 21, 2022 vs Los Angeles
Remember what I said about having to scrap your game story and dissect a blown lead?
This is the “Would you ask Pop that question?” game in which the Sixers blew a 24-point second-half lead in a home loss to the Clippers, who were without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
I touched upon the infamous exchange with head coach Doc Rivers in my letter reflecting on my second season on the Sixers beat. So, I won’t get into that here.
There’s usually one thought that permeates in your head when you watch the Sixers play down to totally inferior competition or slowly blow a lead – they wouldn’t actually cough up this game, would they?
You’ll turn to the writer next to you and whisper that question. But, you cover the Sixers. You know the Sixers major in doing the unthinkable. And their answer to that question is not to dismiss it as an improbability. Rather, the response is to nod and acknowledge that these are, in fact, the Sixers and nothing is out of the question.
I remember sensing a confidence that they’d simply outlast the Los Angeles comeback. But, Philadelphia just couldn’t finish possessions in the fourth quarter. The Clippers did a fantastic job of executing defensive adjustments and generating live-ball turnovers. The Sixers were a putrid transition defense; suddenly, the Clippers were stepping into open triples or getting shots at the rim while Philadelphia reeled to recover from empty possessions.
Then, Nicolas Batum buried a three to bring the Clippers within 2 points of tying the game.
Wow, they really might collapse.
Boom, Marcus Morris Sr. knocked one in from deep to tie the game with under 2 minutes to go in regulation.
All that sweat equity, gone.
I had stopped writing for two or three minutes of game time to just watch what was unfolding. I looked at my screen and started to scroll through my game story, paragraphs up in flames.
At least three other Sixers beat writers and I prefer to publish game stories as close to the final buzzer as possible in hopes of attracting fans looking to relive victory or read criticism after defeat.
Others prefer to take notes during games, write deep into the night, and publish the next morning. Some don’t do game stories as part of their regular content, at all.
The primary drawback of my preferred style is when games like the January 21, 2022 loss to the Clippers happen. I leaned back in my chair and rubbed my eyes, unsure of where to start changing my story from a positive assessment to a negative tale.
Then, just a few real-time minutes later, Tyrese Maxey’s floater caught the crease between the backboard and the rim to sentence the Sixers to a salty defeat.
Sometimes you have to scrap significant chunks of content when those huge meltdowns happen. As you get more experienced, you learn to focus your game stories on why things happened rather than what happened.
That game and the Sixers’ loss to the Hawks in Game 5 of the 2020 Eastern Conference semifinals were valuable learning experiences in that regard. Still, having to drastically alter the fundamental nature of your game story at the last moment is brutal.
For that reason, this game makes the list.
Clip of the game:
Chess match. Sixers know the Clippers are switching so they have Embiid screen for Maxey to attack Coffey. Clippers have never been afraid to give you the switch and then trap immediately (see Mavs series). Batum comes right away, gets a steal, Clippers score in transition. pic.twitter.com/uVA6J2I6Zx— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) January 22, 2022
3. March 20, 2022 vs Toronto
An 8 PM, Eastern time, tip-off on a Sunday. Between two teams in the Eastern Conference. And it wasn’t even the playoffs. No one was rushing to clock into work that night.
The Sixers came out firing and built a 16-point lead in the first quarter, only to take their feet off the gas. They had a chance to win the game on the final possession. But, James Harden was called for a questionable flagrant 1 offensive foul to cement the defeat.
It was a 93-88 final score; enough bricks to build a new arena in Center City.
Clip of the game:
ICYMI: This was called a Flagrant 1 in last night’s Raptors-Sixers game.— Bet Any Sports (@betanysportsEU) March 21, 2022
Agree or Disagree?pic.twitter.com/4Gi2C7zh96
2. December 15, 2021 vs Miami
What are the Heat without Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro?
It turns out they’re Gabe Vincent’s team. He and Duncan Robinson combined to knock down 11 of 23 three-point attempts.
The Sixers, on the other hand, had all of Embiid, Maxey, and Tobias Harris. To their credit, Maxey and Harris played quite well. But, Embiid was hardly his best self in a 5-for-13 performance en route to 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 assists.
First, the Sixers had no idea how to beat Miami’s zone. It wasn’t like the turnovers were plentiful, either. Philly just wasn’t comfortable shooting the ball. All Miami had to do was run off the misses to take advantage of a laughable transition defense.
While the Sixers searched for the instructor’s manual on beating a zone, Vincent doused his right arm in gasoline and lit a match. He was totally unconscious, even when the Sixers made legitimate efforts to contest his shots. He reached the heat check point of just tossing the rock in the direction of the basket under duress with just enough arc to stay airborne until it smacked into the net. Vincent powered the under-manned Miami Heat to a 23-point lead in the affair.
Some in the media section laughed at the shock of what was happening. The Heat missed two all-stars and a future Sixth Man of the Year, and the Sixers were the ones seemingly cowering in fear. Descriptors from that night included “pathetic” and “embarrassing”.
It was a classic case of the Sixers not taking an opponent seriously and asserting themselves from the jump. You didn’t really know whether to start your game story with the farce that was the team’s zone offense or the lack of urgency they showed in putting out Vincent’s fire before the game got away from them.
Clip of the game:
GABE. VINCENT. 💧— BasketballNews.com (@basketbllnews) December 16, 2021
– 26 PTS
– 3 AST
– 7/12 3PT
– 1 DAGGER 🗡
Heat beat the Sixers in Philly 😳pic.twitter.com/81XPphzKxh
1. December 23, 2021 vs Atlanta
The Sixers’ worst home game of the season came just 8 days after that horrendous loss to the Heat.
Atlanta was without Trae Young, Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, De’Andre Hunter, and Lou Williams.
The Sixers were without Danny Green and Andre Drummond.
Even with the clear disparity in offensive firepower, the Hawks punched the Sixers in the mouth to the tune of a 19-point lead. Philly fought all the way back and took a 4-point lead with less than 5 minutes remaining in regulation. For a moment, you thought the Sixers might escape embarrassment.
That was until Bogdan Bogdanovic woke up.
He put up an 0-for until the last 4 minutes of play. But in those clutch minutes, he knocked in 4 consecutive shots and a technical free throw for 10 Atlanta points in a row. The final punch was a stepback jumper to give the Hawks a 6-point cushion with 85 seconds to play. It was an impressive display to cap off an otherwise horrendous night for Bogdanovic.
Equally impressive was the Sixers finding a way to dig a 19-point hole despite only committing 8 turnovers all game long, fight all the way back to take a lead, and then cough it up to a depleted version of the team that sent them home in the previous season’s playoffs.
Few things in sports compare to watching a guy who struggled all night long bury the opposition with a surprising outburst in the guts of the game. I remember watching the ball travel from Bogdanovic’s hands to the basket on each shot, thinking each shot was going to miss its target. But, the ball kept running my eyes into the nylon netting on the basket. Given the night through which Bogdanovic had suffered prior to his fourth quarter showing, I thought to myself, “He’s going to be the one? He didn’t do a thing all night long and this is how the Sixers go down?” With each bucket, it became more obvious that the Sixers had played with fire for far too long yet again.
Some way to head into Christmas.
Clip of the game:
#NBAxCDNDeportes: Bogdan Bogdanovic anotó 10 de sus 15 puntos en los últimos 3:44 minutos, para ayudar a que unos mermados Hawks de Atlanta superaran 98-96 a los 76ers de Filadelfia el jueves.#Hawks 🏀 🆚 🏀 # sixers #NBA75 #NBA💎 pic.twitter.com/mIC1gGjURX— CDN Deportes (@CDNDeportesRD) December 24, 2021