The past was only a distant memory as the Sixers went through their post-practice routines on Saturday afternoon, a little more than 24 hours before what could be a future-altering Game 7 against the Celtics in Boston.
Tyrese Maxey and De’Anthony Melton were in the midst of their regular shooting drill on the closest basket to the reporters huddled in the team’s practice facility in Camden, New Jersey.
All was normal. If there was any fear, the Sixers did a great job of covering up the smell.
The message, regardless of who you asked, was the same. Sure, the Sixers would’ve liked to clinch their berth in the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday. It would’ve been great, perhaps even storybook, to do it in front of a crowd that would’ve sold organs to see its team complete the upset. But, the Sixers didn’t do it. However, that certainly didn’t mean all hope was lost.
Doc Rivers showed his team 45 seconds of missed shots during Saturday’s film session. There was neither sound nor talking. When Rivers turned around to face his players, the message coming back to him was simple — “We’re good”.
The head coach was content with the way the Sixers played in Game 6 overall. He was content with the way his team approached offense against Boston’s double-big starting lineup adjustment that featured Al Horford and Robert Williams III. He was content with the shots his team got, and with the personnel taking them.
Rivers remarked that it was probably the team’s highest shot quality of the season. Tobias Harris expressed a similar sentiment. The Sixers got great looks, they just didn’t make them. As a team, they unperformed their expected points per shot by .26 points in Game 6, according to Synergy.
Still, there were some things to correct.
“We didn’t like how we played from the two-minute stretch down the stretch, and we didn’t like how many game plan mistakes we made defensively. Transition, doubling when we shouldn’t double, and not committing the foul to give,” Rivers said. “In single-possession games, they come back to haunt you. It was a low-scoring game and so they’re magnified when you make those mistakes.”
Harris and Georges Niang mentioned spacing and ball movement in the fourth quarter as areas in need of some oil.
“Obviously, go out there and win. But, at the end of the day, there’s some adjustments that we can definitely make after any loss,” Harris said of whether there are adjustments left to be made through six games of a playoff series. “I think we definitely have to make a few adjustments on certain things defensively, and offensively, as well, as we went over today and implement that in tomorrow’s game.”
On-court adjustments only matter so much if you’re not in the right head space, though. Everyone is saying the right things, carrying themselves as if they’re prepared for battle. Rivers doesn’t want his team focused on winning. Rather, he wants them to concentrate on executing and playing the correct way.
“You gotta be intense all the time,” Rivers said. “But, you really just focus on execution at the end of the day.”
Philadelphia isn’t phased by heading back to Boston for a do-or-die matchup. This is the moment they’ve been waiting for since they touched down in Charleston, South Carolina for training camp in September.
“Tomorrow will be what we’ve been trying to keep improving on. We’re tougher, and we’re going to have to be. We’re more physical, and we don’t worry about atmosphere. We play, and we’ve done that all year. And, if I’m a guessing man, I think we’re going to do that tomorrow,” Rivers said.
“You can feel the energy today. They didn’t come today thinking, ‘Ugh, we gotta go’. They came today ready to get on the plane, looking forward to it.”
The task of winning three games in Boston to clinch a series seems daunting on the surface. But, both teams are 1-2 at home in this series. Being the home team has not mattered in this series.
“A lot of us have been doing this for a long time. So, I can’t say that it’s something that first comes to mind as a distraction. Obviously, homecourt advantage is an advantage, right? But, at the same time, I think, at this point, we’re so dialed in on what we need to do that it’s just like outside noise,” Niang said.
“It’s not something that’s really affecting us. They have a great crowd, it’s going to be loud. It’s going to be a hostile environment. But, I think we’re so locked in on what we need to do to win. That’s how we’ve been all year. I know that’s what we’re going to do in Game 7.”
Philadelphia finished tied for the second best road record in the NBA this season. They don’t care for what the oddsmakers in Vegas say, or what the pundits yell at each other on television. Rivers has referred to this campaign as a ‘we’ season since day one, and that rallying cry has stapled what this team is.
“We’ve been road warriors all year. Doc has said it numerous times. This is a ‘we’ season. It’s just us. We’re all we have on the road and I think we kind of relish in that and love that, where it’s just us against the world,” Niang said of the team’s confidence on the road. “I think that’s what fuels us to continue to go harder and be those road dogs to pull out a victory and we’re going to need to do that in Game 7.”
“Obviously, we understand where we’re going with the plan, who we’re playing against,” Harris said. “But, as we have always discussed, this is about us as a whole group, collective group, coming together and playing our tails off and doing whatever we can to secure victory.”