The Sixers parted ways with head coach Doc Rivers after three seasons, they announced on Tuesday morning.
“Doc is one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, a future Hall of Famer, and someone I respect immensely. We’re grateful for all he did in his three seasons here and thank him for the important impact he made on our franchise,” President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey said in a statement.
“After having the chance to reflect upon our season, we decided that certain changes are necessary to further our goals of competing for a championship.”
That season, of course, fell off a cliff like Wile E. Coyote often did on Cartoon Network when the Boston Celtics took a sledgehammer to Philadelphia in the third quarter of the Sixers’ Game 7 blowout loss on Sunday afternoon.
The Cancun reservations this early in the playoffs became old and repetitive. An inevitability when you’re sitting on the couch at the same stage of the playoffs in five of the last six seasons.
Another trip before the Eastern Conference finals was never an acceptable outcome this season, the first — or maybe the one and only — full campaign with James Harden. The prospect of another May departure induced stronger and stronger nausea as the Sixers made an upgrade on the margins to acquire De’Anthony Melton on the night of the 2022 draft and signed career badass PJ Tucker in the opening minutes of free agency last summer.
But, perhaps you could’ve talked yourselves into another chance if it was only about Game 7.
The team that was favored to win each and every game of the series, regardless of the status of Joel Embiid’s sprained knee, took care of business at home. Jayson Tatum went on an absolute heater. The difference in the game was essentially one abhorrent quarter.
That, by the way, wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for Philadelphia this season. In the Sixers’ 28 regular-season losses, the blowouts followed a theme — a competitive three quarters, and one awful period to make the difference. That sort of thing happens from time to time, and you could’ve talked yourselves into that happening at the worst possible time.
Except, it wasn’t just about Game 7.
The Sixers led the Celtics by two points with just under six minutes to play in Game 6, a close-out war on their home floor. A chance to exorcise their second-round demons and send the Celtics home, all wrapped up in one grand opportunity, the Sixers logged just one basket the rest of the way. Five minutes, 51 seconds without a basket in a close-out game at home.
And, to make matters worse, the imposing double-big lineup that Joe Mazzulla pivoted towards to start Game 6 was not there to make Philadelphia’s lives more difficult. He took Robert Williams III out of the game in favor of Malcolm Brogdon with less than five-and-a-half minutes to play.
Back in February, in a close loss to these Celtics, the Sixers were in a similar situation at home. But, they played Williams III out of the game by treating him as a non-entity on offense. Boston got clogged, forcing Mazzulla to take the defense-first big man out of the game. With only Al Horford separating him from the basket for the final three minutes and 35 seconds of the game, Embiid went to work.
Philadelphia trailed by four. Embiid single-handedly catapulted his team in front with under two minutes to play.
He finished the game with 41 points, 14 of which came in the fourth quarter. It was a masterpiece. He gave the Sixers a real chance of winning the game all by himself.
It was a blueprint for the moment in which the Sixers found themselves in Game 6.
Yet, four of the Sixers’ next five shots were three-pointers. Not a single one was generated by Embiid absorbing extra Boston pressure and making a pass to an open shooter. Embiid only got one shot over the final four minutes of the game.
Rivers had three chances to talk things over with his team in that final five minutes and 25 seconds of the fourth quarter. There was no structure to set Embiid up with a clean pick-and-roll. There was no play-call to get him a touch isolated in the middle of the floor, Embiid’s shoulders squared to the basket so that he could make a decision from a position of advantage.
The offense was Embiid watches idly as his teammates let fly from beyond the arc.
Don’t get me wrong, the Sixers had excellent shot quality. You’ll live with the looks they got. Missing open shots, while painful in defeat, is simply part of the game.
What you can’t explain is having a blueprint for how to attack an opponent in crunch time and not using it. What you can’t explain is not organizing your team’s offense to get the league MVP in a favorable position to make something happen, especially when it’s obvious to everyone watching that the well has dried up.
The Sixers coughed up Game 6 because of their offense, scoring just 13 points in the fourth quarter on 5-for-20 shooting.
All was not yet lost, though. The Sixers still had one more chance to win one game and advance to the Eastern Conference finals. But, they gave Boston new life.
Whether you leave the door halfway open or just a crack open, you’re going to regret it if a gust of wind sends the door into a neighboring wall, piercing the surface with the doorknob.
Game 7 was competitive through the first half. But, a similar offensive slog in the third quarter doomed Philadelphia.
More than six minutes of game time without a bucket. 3-for-21 shooting for 10 total points. Again, virtually none of the shots the Sixers got came out of a structure involving Embiid as a fulcrum of the play.
The Sixers scored less than 90 points in back-to-back close-out games.
Philadelphia’s offense took a turn for the worse when Mazzulla adjusted with the double-big lineup to open Game 6. Prior to the final home game, Rivers told reporters that the Sixers anticipated that adjustment and worked on how to approach it in the hours leading up to the penultimate matchup.
Armed with the Game 6 tape to work with, Rivers and his staff had two days to prepare for Game 7. Yet, they largely arrived at the same result.
Losing back-to-back close-out games en route to elimination from the playoffs, especially given Rivers’ history in such scenarios, raises questions about the man at the helm in its own right.
That both losses followed the same distinct trend is even more jarring. Consecutive games with a quarter in the second half in which the Sixers were totally lost on offense. The side of the ball, by the way, where they ranked third in the league in the regular season, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Philadelphia averaged just 109.5 points per 100 possessions against the Celtics in the second round, and just 111.9 per 100 possessions in 11 total playoff games. The Sixers averaged 118.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. The offense was their identity, and it powered them to a 54-28 record.
They are sitting at home, assessing what comes next, because that identity failed them. And it failed them in spectacular fashion.
That’s why Rivers was the first change of the offseason. It’s an easy first step.
But, it’s a step that cannot absolve the other reasons for the Sixers going out in the second round with a whimper.
That’s a column for another day.