The Sixers (3-3) visited the Boston Celtics (3-3) for a do-or-die Game 7 on Mother’s Day. Both teams were fighting for the right to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. A blowout third quarter sent the Sixers spiraling to elimination, 112-88.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
All Sixers were available for Game 7.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
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.
As has been the case all season, the faster Harden moved, the more the offense hummed. It took two-thirds of the shot clock for Philadelphia to get Embiid touches in his typical sweet spots in the opening minutes of the game. Working against the clock is obviously its own issue independent of trying to score against Horford with a packed lane. So, those possessions didn’t yield good outcomes for Philadelphia. But, when Harden triggered the play early, the Sixers got great shots.
First was a corner three for Maxey. Second was a hit-ahead pass to Harris for a transition dunk. Third was a corner three for Tucker with eight seconds left on the shot clock. Obviously, there’s a line to be walked between playing the slowed style Embiid favors and the quicker pace Harden strives in. But, it becomes a work of art when the Sixers intuitively toggle between those two flavors of offense on a play-to-play basis. It took Embiid a while to get going in this game, but the Sixers found the pace balance early in the first quarter.
Speaking of Tucker, what a start for the veteran forward. Not only did he knock down a pair of corner threes, but he also scored at the rim operating within the short roll. He scored eight of Philadelphia’s first 15 points of the game, and scored 11 in the first quarter. Nothing he does now can or should make the Celtics treat him as a threat. But, that doesn’t mean he can’t make himself be a threat by capitalizing on the open looks when they come his way.
It was something of a redemptive arc for Tucker in the first quarter. He struggled to hit from the corners early in Game 6, which partially fused Boston’s death-grip start to the game. Yet, there Tucker was, knocking down three of his five attempts from deep in the first quarter. Rivers has emphasized the importance of trust, but as it pertains to teammates trusting one another. Philadelphia bought all the way into that, at both the team level and individual level. Tucker’s teammates trusted him with passes, and Tucker trusted himself to keep shooting. And Tucker trusting himself to keep shooting isn’t something that was a constant for Philadelphia this season.
A couple less-featured Sixers deserve props for their play in the first half of this game. First up is Maxey. He only got up six shots in the first half, but he contributed some important three-point makes early on. The aforementioned triple silenced a Boston run, cutting an early six-point deficit to just three to stem the tides. The other three tied the game at 44 to counter a Boston run that gave the Celtics a three-point lead.
After putting up just two points in Game 6, Harris came out and scored eight before intermission. He was aggressive in the paint, collecting a pair of free throws and a jumper after backing defenders down in the mid-post twice.
Finally, there was De’Anthony Melton, who got to the rim for four points — two of which came on a putback — and beat the Celtics to four rebounds. Melton was critical to Philadelphia’s early success on defense, contesting a handful of shots at the rim. He helped apply pressure on Boston’s drives into the paint, recording a pair of blocks for his efforts.
We’ll start with the simple one. Pretty silly of Georges Niang to grab Brown’s knee as the Celtics wing tried to get back in transition. Niang was on the bench, he had no business being involved in that play. The only reason it wasn’t free throws for Brown was that he engaged in response to the grab, causing a double technical. Nothing good comes from a player getting a technical from the bench.
Now, on to the most important matter.
This was a chance for Embiid and Harden to change the stories about their respective playoff careers. Great regular-season players, relatively significant disappointments in the playoffs. Not only was it an opportunity to exorcise every demon that this era of Sixers basketball has, but it was a chance to add a stripe of respect to each of their names.
They’re smart guys, they understand what is at stake at all times. And with that knowledge, they delivered absolute stinkers in Game 7. Embiid had nothing going early on, and his engagement on defense was absent. You could set it from the jump, Williams III sneaking around him for cuts to the rim and Embiid unable to deter the damage.
That, by itself, was extremely concerning. If Embiid wasn’t ready to be totally locked in in this moment, when would be a better time? He never got going on offense. Boston’s double-teams confused him to no end, powering live-ball turnovers. Even when he did have chances to get shots off, Embiid wasn’t willing to match the physicality Boston sent his way. He didn’t try to impose his will and size inside, sticking with low-quality jumpers for the most part. For a guy who has learned to give every ounce of his heart in the regular season, and earned his first MVP this season, this was as embarrassing an effort as anyone could’ve drawn up for Embiid. He looked absolutely demoralized in the face of adversity, and played like he was totally confused and defeated.
As for Harden, it wasn’t much better. He had a decent start to the game, as mentioned earlier. But, after that, it was the same guy he’s always been in the playoffs. Every time he tried to get downhill, Harden looked lost and completely unsure of what to do. He had no control of the basketball, coughing it up with regularity in traffic. Even when Harden did get shots off, he played to the contact more than he played to score. He instead resorted to flailing, chucking up garbage that had absolutely no chance of going in. Harden’s shooting was so unfocused that a more attainable goal would’ve been to just get the ball to miss off of the rim instead of falling several inches short of the basket altogether.
The Sixers go as their two best players go. And the absolute egg Embiid and Harden laid in this game killed any and all energy Philadelphia could muster. After blowing an opportunity to close the series out and shed all demons when the offense went silent in the fourth quarter of Game 6, the same exact thing happened in Game 7. This time, though, it manifested in a hideous, season-destroying third quarter.
The fashion in which these last two games played out will rightfully raise questions about this team’s preparation for Games 6 and 7. Perhaps that will result in Rivers being the fall man. But, make no mistake about it, this rests on the shoulders of two players, who are treated like stars, who came out and only added to legacies of futility the deeper they get into the playoffs. Embiid and Harden played like young guys who have little experience on the biggest stages. But, as the accolades and contracts pile up, the privilege of youth and inexperience dissipates. At ages 29 and 33, respectively, this display of leadership, toughness, and effort falls six feet below what you might qualify as “unacceptable”.
This season was supposed to be different than all the others. The second round was supposed to be a worst-case scenario floor for this group. Instead, this group made it just as far as any previous iteration did. You might even argue that getting smoked to the degree that the Sixers did in this game was a step backwards from their two previous Game 7 losses.
Now, the disappointment of this defeat, in the face of this season’s expectations, leaves the Sixers in a spot where they have to question everything except for maybe Maxey. And perhaps as damaging as anything, the Sixers now have to face something that they might not be able to fix until this organization’s slate — from the offices to the court — is wiped clean: fan belief and trust in the product.
When you fall short of lofty expectations, significant changes are inevitable. The unsettling thing for the Sixers and their fans is that those changes might not know bounds any time soon.