The Sixers (3-2) hosted the Boston Celtics (2-3) in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Thursday. Philadelphia wanted to finish off the Celtics and advance to its first Eastern Conference finals since 2001. Boston wanted to stave off elimination and force a decisive Game 7 back on its home court. A terrible fourth quarter doomed the Sixers, 95-86.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
The Celtics were without the services of Danilo Gallinari, who is out for the season as he recovers from a torn ACL in his left knee.
Joe Mazzulla started Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams III.
All Sixers were available for Game 6.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
Maxey was the one and only reason the Sixers weren’t boarding their flight back to Boston at halftime. He stopped the bleeding for the Sixers multiple times, ripping three-pointers off the catch, pulling up to punish the Celtics for going under screens on him, and off quick movement. Beyond that, he was pretty much the only Sixer to find success at the rim. There were a couple attempts on which he went up so fast and so strong that he basically shoved the ball into the hoop.
Tucker has to get some credit for not just being a DHO partner every time he caught the ball in the first half. The Sixers’ first score of the game was an open triple from the 38-year-old forward, the Celtics willing to give him that shot all night if it meant taking away scores from bigger threats. Beyond that, he attacked the baseline aggressively for a layup at one point in the first half. Simply being willing to catch and drive aggressively is something we haven’t really seen at all from him this season.
It took a long time for Embiid to find any degree of rhythm on offense, and that would’ve taken him out of the game entirely in previous seasons. But, his maturity was on full display through three quarters. He didn’t pout or become disinterested because things weren’t going his way on offense. Rather, he challenged himself to be dominant in other ways.
Boston felt him on defense all night long, the big man rotating around the basket to deter white jerseys in the paint and reject shots. Embiid also made a handful of hustle plays, diving on the floor for loose balls or making miraculous plays on the ball at the rim to thwart would-be scores inside. He did eventually find some groove on offense, getting inside for scores at the basket and striking jumpers just outside the elbows as the second half wore on.
Georges Niang was one of the biggest reasons the Sixers rallied from down 16 points to take the lead in the second half. He knocked down a a pair of threes in a momentum storm third quarter, one to bring the Sixers within two points and another to give the Sixers a four-point lead. Not only was his shooting timely in a game where the Sixers struggled mightily from beyond the arc, but his defense was also quite good. He stopped Tatum in isolation and bothered Malcolm Brogdon into missing a layup, all in one stint in the third quarter.
This game started out totally inverted from the trends of Game 5. Philadelphia made the right reads in the drive-and-kick game, Harden finding Tucker for a corner three to get the Sixers on the board in the first quarter. Embiid made the right read out of some early pressure, delivering Harden a great look at a catch-and-shoot three from the top of the arc. But, aside from that, the ball movement really didn’t stretch the Celtics the way it did in Game 5. It was a lot of one-pass-and-go offense, the ball sticking to whomever was the recipient of the first touch.
On the other side of the floor, the Sixers gave into everything the Celtics typically want. They collapsed at dribble penetration, granting shooters the space to relocate and wait for excellent looks when their teammates kicked out against Philadelphia’s buckling coverage inside. There was none of the connectivity on defense that set the tone for Philadelphia in Game 5. The off-ball switches were crisp in that game, making it very difficult for the Celtics to break free coming around screens. Boston countered by starting their actions to bring players into the flow wider, giving them a running start coming around with staggered screens. It was extremely difficult to stop dribble penetration from the get-go, and that really opened up Boston’s three-point game.
The Sixers did a great job of absorbing Boston’s first run, trimming a very early 12-point deficit to three points and forcing the Celtics to take a timeout. But, Philadelphia’s counter punch wasn’t sustainable without making easy shots. Simply put, the Sixers had no touch in the paint. Some of that is undoubtedly Boston’s defense. I was skeptical of Mazzulla going with the double-big starting lineup, but it really pumped up Boston’s defense. If the Celtics didn’t spike Philadelphia’s layups into another dimension of the world, the size did enough to make the Sixers miss on their own.
And it wasn’t as if Boston’s defense was solely focused on smothering the interior. They applied great pressure on the perimeter, too. Philadelphia struggled to get good looks from the outside because of Boston’s discipline and heightened pressure. But, things weren’t any better for the Sixers when they got dribble penetration. And, of course, every miss with the backdrop of poor floor balance means the Celtics are running in transition.
The Sixers ultimately lost this game — and perhaps their chances of winning this series — in what was basically a six-minute stretch in the fourth quarter. They did not make a field goal during that span, missing nine shots in a row. Embiid only got two shots in that stretch. Now, we can say that he has to get the ball more and that that volume of attempts is simply unacceptable. And that’s a true statement. We can also say that he is the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season, having smoked the rest of the field to win the prestigious honor. When you earn the right to be in that company, and then exist as a bystander as a critical game begins to slip away from your team, you earn hard criticism.
In my mind, the only logical explanation for him not getting more shots down the stretch is that he simply didn’t want to be in that position. Now, I cannot get inside Embiid’s head. Only he knows what was going through his mind. But, there are two logical root causes. First, he was far too deferential, electing to let his teammates go to work or making passes instead of being aggressive. Second, he didn’t want to be in that position. He didn’t demand his teammates get the ball to him so that he could go to work. Demanding the ball from one’s teammates isn’t selfish when you’re by far the best player on the team. You have the cachet to issue such an edict when you’re the two-time reigning scoring champion. So, whichever way you choose to go, he rejected the biggest moment of his career to date.
That’s unacceptable. You can say he was exhausted. The evidence — hands on knees and keeled over during stoppages — would point to that being the case. But, the bottom line is that “I’m tired” is no longer an acceptable excuse when you win MVP. Everyone is exhausted. It’s the playoffs. You’re fighting for your season, whether it be to stay alive or move further down the road to a championship. Now, can we say that Embiid might be more tired than most because he had to sit idly for a week to nurse a sprained knee? Sure. But, most everyone else is battling an ailment one way or another, too. When you win MVP, your responsibilities are more significant. You graduate to a new level. And with that comes new pressures and obligations.
So, regardless of who you want to blame for Embiid only getting two shots over a six-minute span, it all comes back to the man, himself.
We can point to Harden, too. He got up a number of shots in the fourth quarter, all of which missed the mark. The bottom line is that he’s done his job in this series, having won two games for Philadelphia already.
It really is a shame that the Sixers blew this game. First, obviously, it was a chance to get to the Eastern Conference finals and now they have to play a do-or-die Game 7 in hostile territory. Second, it was the biggest bite of re-affirmation that all of their doubters could’ve asked for. They came up small in the biggest six minutes of their season. All of the big moves Philadelphia made last summer set up massive expectations. A full season of a healthy James Harden under the belt. This was supposed to be the year that they finally broke through.
And, perhaps it still will be. This series is not over yet. But, for the next two days, everyone who refused to buy into them is going to puff out their chests and say that they were right, that this season was no different than all the others. And if they do succumb in Game 7, those nay-sayers are going to let everyone know they were right all offseason.
The reality is, whether they make it out of this series or not, this season has been different. One bad quarter doesn’t change that.
The Sixers (3-3) will visit the Boston Celtics (3-3) on Sunday for Game 7. Tip-off and television network will be announced at a later time.