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For the 76ers, who had NBA title hopes, one other early playoff exit results in uncertainty

BOSTON — The Philadelphia 76ers have received a bunch of video games since Joel Embiid stepped onto the ground for the franchise. The situation is that none of these wins have come after the center of May, that are the victories that every one 30 NBA franchises covet.

Since Embiid’s second season on the ground in 2017-18, the Sixers have a regular-season report of 300-173. They received 54 regular-season video games, the franchise’s highest quantity because the magical 2000-01 marketing campaign. Embiid, who was voted the NBA’s most valuable player this season, has been on the heart of that sustained success.

And but, the story ends the identical means each season: The Sixers earn one of many prime seeds within the Eastern Conference with 50-something wins, and like clockwork, they lose within the second spherical. After a humiliating 112-88 loss to the Boston Celtics at a jubilant TD Garden on Sunday, the Sixers have made the second spherical of the playoffs in 5 of the previous six years … and have misplaced all 5 instances.

And now, maybe greater than ever throughout this stretch, it’s clear that Embiid isn’t precisely an harmless bystander to all of the playoff flameouts.

“I’m not gonna overreact,” Embiid mentioned after the Sixers season led to Boston with a Game 7 loss within the Eastern Conference semifinals. “I gotta be better, I guess that’s on me. If you want to call me the best player on the team, every failure and every loss, no matter what, I guess you can put on the best player.

“I’ll take it all and it’s all on me. It’s hard to win alone, but it’s all on me. I just got to be better and I will be better. And every time I say it, I always find a way to get better.”

Perhaps Embiid didn’t present a ton of emotion after the Sixers have been run off the ground by the Celtics. It definitely was nothing just like the tears strolling off the court docket in Toronto in 2019.

While the Sixers have crashed and burned on the identical a part of the calendar for the final half-decade, it’s reasonably exceptional how they discover methods to take action. Let’s overview their three Game 7 losses throughout that span.

In 2019, there was the impossible, four-bounce buzzer-beater by the eventual champion Raptors that despatched them house abruptly.

In 2021, there was the agonizing, slow-motion choke job at house in opposition to the Atlanta Hawks.

And now in 2023, there’s the deflating blowout loss to this period’s greatest tormentors. Ben Simmons, the goat of the Sixers’ final Game 7 loss, who has two years and $78 million left on what is perhaps thought of the worst contract within the NBA, trolled his former crew from his sofa.

“It doesn’t matter when you lose, you don’t get a trophy for being second or third or fourth or fifth or sixth,” Embiid mentioned. “It doesn’t matter if you lose in the first round (or) (NBA) Finals, there’s only one team that wins. And if you didn’t accomplish that, are you going to be happy for being second?

“I know I’m not. So to me, if I don’t finish first, it is a failure. The rest doesn’t really matter.”

Embiid referred to as the Celtics the most effective crew within the league a number of instances after the sport. This was not your run-of-the-mill second-round opponent that the Sixers took to seven video games.

The Celtics are the betting title favorites shifting ahead. They had the most effective regular-season internet ranking within the league. They had the most effective regular-season report of the ultimate 4, which suggests Boston has home-court benefit via the NBA Finals. And but, these issues would have been true for the Sixers had they superior.

A no-show efficiency in Game 7 mustn’t overshadow what an unimaginable missed alternative this was for a franchise that’s ravenous for a breakthrough. The Sixers misplaced within the second spherical once more, however with a nod towards Embiid’s “title or bust” feedback, this additionally might need been their greatest likelihood at an NBA title.

While Sunday’s recreation was not shut, this sequence was definitely there for the taking. Jayson Tatum admitted that the Sixers had the Celtics “on the ropes” on the finish of Game 6, which is definitely true. The Sixers had the ball with a two-point lead with 4 minutes, 30 seconds left in a closeout recreation in entrance of their raucous house followers. After a dominant Game 5 efficiency in Boston, they’d the chance to close down TD Garden till the autumn.

But the Sixers didn’t reap the benefits of their alternative. Game 6 will go down as a haunting loss. Not solely would the Sixers have superior, however in addition they would have averted the ignominy of a Game 7. This was an all-or-nothing sort of sequence.

“We almost pulled it off,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers mentioned. “Game 6 will be something we’ll think about; Game 7 will be something we think about. But as far as our guys’ fight, against everybody who picked against us, they didn’t care. They thought they could still win this series.”

Those issues are true. The Sixers did give the Celtics extra of a scare than anyone thought coming into the sequence, myself included. But at this level of “The Process”, after all of the painful exits, coming nearer than anticipated affords no comfort. Yet once more, the Sixers didn’t get it performed.

Perhaps no person defines this period of the Sixers-Celtics rivalry greater than Tatum, who former Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo famously handed on to draft Markelle Fultz. If the Sixers closed out Boston at house on Thursday, Tatum and the Celtics would have confronted a ton of scrutiny heading into the offseason. Perhaps it might not have been as a lot because the Sixers will now endure, however it positive wouldn’t have been fairly. Even with an unimaginable closing kick in Game 6, Tatum shot 5 of 21 from the ground together with his crew dealing with elimination.

On Sunday, Tatum got his redemption and then some: 51 factors on 17-of-28 taking pictures, the very best particular person scoring Game 7 in NBA historical past.

“He was fantastic tonight,” Embiid mentioned. “I told him after the game he was pretty inefficient the whole series, and he chose a great night to have that type of game and make shots.”

Of course, this Tatum recreation didn’t need to occur. When the Celtics allowed the Sixers to shut them out, Philly wasn’t as much as the duty. Tatum made them pay for it like nice gamers are inclined to do, however there’s greater than that. He and the Celtics play their greatest basketball in Game 7s, whereas the Sixers don’t. Their current data in do-or-die video games spell that out.

As James Harden went on this sequence, so did his crew. The future Hall of Famer reached highs over the previous two weeks that only a few gamers can relate to. Harden’s Game 1 and 4 performances have been each masterpieces painted in troublesome circumstances. Those shouldn’t be forgotten, however sadly, they most likely might be. Harden additionally managed the tempo completely within the Sixers’ dominant Game 5 win. But in opposition to an elite protection, he couldn’t simply summon another above-average effort. For Harden, it was increase or bust.

In the sequence’ closing two video games, Harden morphed into the worst model of himself: inefficient, foul-seeking and turnover-prone. In the second quarter of Sunday’s recreation, he had an open fast-break layup that may have put the Sixers up 10 factors. But as a substitute of scoring, Harden couldn’t squeeze the ball and smacked Jaylen Brown within the face. He picked up a flagrant foul and the Celtics have been off to the races.

“I’m very disappointed, very frustrating,” Harden mentioned. “It’s a lot I want to say, but it’s frustrating.”

He performed at an All-NBA stage this season, and the Sixers don’t have a lot of a recourse to switch him. Harden has a participant possibility this season and has been linked strongly with the Houston Rockets, his former team.

After the sport, Harden mentioned that he hadn’t considered his potential free company. He spoke extremely of his partnership with Embiid and mirrored that he was a part of a “really good team” in Philadelphia, emphasizing that he desires an opportunity to compete shifting ahead.

Harden took a $15 million pay reduce to bolster the crew this season. The aim was for them to win a championship, and even when they got here shut, that sacrifice didn’t advance the Sixers any additional than final season. Harden was the primary particular person to confess that.

“We lost,” Harden mentioned. “We’re in the second round, so it’s no different.”

Nobody took a better particular person hit with their Game 7 efficiency than Embiid. The sequence started with him returning not one hundred pc and accepting the MVP trophy in entrance of his followers, a triumphant second. It ended with Embiid laying an egg in a spot the place a participant of his caliber shouldn’t: 5 of 18 from the sector, two assists, 4 turnovers and his worst protection of the sequence. After snuffing out drives and taking part in wonderful protection for the whole sequence, he was lit up in pick-and-rolls in Game 7.

There have all the time been qualifiers connected to Embiid’s lack of postseason success. Some of them are respectable: He will get injured each spring, together with this one. Embiid has persistently performed via accidents within the postseason, which is an admirable high quality. He returned weeks early from an LCL sprain this postseason, and the controversy over how a lot his accidents affected him is sadly once more a speaking level.

Sometimes, his teammates have been the larger letdown (Harden final season, Simmons the season earlier than). But Embiid goes to show 30 in March, and he’s one of many league’s greatest gamers, so he has to discover a approach to breakthrough.

Embiid should personal his Game 7 efficiency. He’s the MVP of the league and has upped his recreation each season, however within the greatest spot of the season, all these enhancements have been nowhere. He performed frenzied and undisciplined basketball. Embiid mentioned when you lose may not be vital, and even when that’s true, how you lose definitely is.

“You can be sad about it all you want, but you always got to find ways to be better and keep improving,” Embiid mentioned. “And that’s what I’m gonna do, win or lose.”

Embiid’s postgame remarks have been a bit all over. He lightheartedly invoked Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s “failure” quote, whereas additionally declaring that dropping the sequence was a failure. He mentioned that the loss was on him, but additionally talked about that he and Harden need assistance from his teammates.

Perhaps we shouldn’t anticipate a constant message so quickly after the finality of a season-ending loss. The remark about him and Harden not having the ability to “win alone” irked loads of individuals, even when it was a part of a longer quote and a sentiment he has additionally shared throughout higher instances. That is for good purpose: If your greatest participant doesn’t present up when the lights are brightest like Embiid did in Game 7, the supporting solid is irrelevant.

So, what does it imply shifting ahead? The Sixers weren’t a crew trusted by its fan base heading into Sunday, a sentiment that was solely strengthened. But extra vital is how proprietor Josh Harris and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey determine to react.

What occurs with Harden? What occurs with Rivers, with some big-name teaching replacements hitting the open market? The coach, in spite of everything, is the best particular person to switch. And greater than something, how will Embiid and the Sixers reply to a different season of falling flat on their face in mid-May?

The Sixers have been good for fairly a very long time. It’s unclear if this iteration with Embiid main it’s going to ever be nice.

“We played great all year,” Rivers mentioned. “And this loss absolutely diminishes that, what we did this year, in some ways.”

(Photo of Joel Embiid: Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)

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