On a Friday night that resembled a yo-yo, the 76ers fumbled the string in the final minutes.
The Sixers fell behind early, then flipped that double-digit deficit into a 24-point advantage, then surrendered that lead in a stunning 102-101 loss to the Clippers at the Wells Fargo Center.
“Honestly, we just blew this one,” forward Tobias Harris said. “And we all know that in the locker room. We have to be better for the next and learn from it.”
The Clippers steadily trimmed the Sixers’ big advantage to 10 points heading to the fourth, before outscoring them, 32-21, in the final period to create the tense finish.
After Marcus Morris tied the game at 96 with a three-pointer with less than two minutes to play, Ivica Zubac followed with a go-ahead finish inside. Harris went 1-of-2 from the line on the Sixers’ next possession and Furkan Korkmaz missed a corner three off the Sixers’ offensive rebound. Amir Coffey hit a jumper on the other end to give the Clippers a 100-97 lead, before a pair of Joel Embiid free throws cut that advantage to one point.
Reggie Jackson then hit two free throws in the final seconds, and, after Morris misfired on a pair with about nine seconds to play and the ensuing scramble for the loose ball, Tyrese Maxey dribbled the ball full court and missed a runner at the buzzer.
“I think I could have got one more dribble and got a layup,” Maxey said of the final look. “But I knew I could use my speed to get as close as I could to get an easy shot.”
Coach Doc Rivers and players pointed to a multitude of issues on both ends of the floor. The offense went stagnant rather than continuing to run, Harris said, and struggled to create straight-line drives when the Clippers shifted to a zone defense. The Sixers’ defense was not physical enough, Harris added, and lost too many outside shooters in transition and pick and rolls, Rivers said. Embiid said a lack of focus was at the root of those miscues.
In the postgame locker room, Harris and Embiid went around the room with a message: “We win together. We lose together.”
“No one is ever going to point a finger at anybody,” Embiid said. “… That’s how you keep everybody together, and that’s how we’re gonna get better results.”
It was the Sixers’ third loss in six games after a seven-game winning streak dating back to before Christmas. But this one was the most crushing. Though it was reminiscent of last season’s playoff collapses, perhaps the only comparable outcome from this season is when they surrendered a 10-point lead with less than six minutes remaining against the Brooklyn Nets in the second game of the season.
After a poor first quarter, the Sixers used a 32-12 run that overlapped the two periods to turn a 13-point deficit into a comfortable advantage. They outscored the Clippers 37-16 in that second quarter by shooting 56% from the floor, limiting Los Angeles to 7-of-22 on its attempts and dominating the glass, 19-7.
It was almost a complete about face from the first period, when the Sixers shot 7-of-23 and were outrebounded, 16-7, and the Clippers made 55% of their attempts from the floor.
The Sixers’ lead ballooned to 24 points at 68-44 on two Harris free throws midway through the third quarter. Yet the Clippers rapidly erased that advantage over the final 19 minutes, 39 seconds, starting with a 10-0 third-quarter run before holding the Sixers to just two points during the fourth quarter’s first four-plus minutes — a stretch Rivers told his team was plagued by turnovers and poor shot selection.
Another 30 for Embiid
Embiid eclipsed 30 points for the 14th time in his last 16 games, finishing with 40 to go along with 13 rebounds and six assists.
Still, Embiid turned the focus to his mistakes. He committed five of the Sixers’ seven turnovers (his backup, Andre Drummond, had the other two), including “a big one” with less than two minutes to play, which resulted in a Nicolas Batum steal that he kicked ahead for Zubac’s go-ahead finish. There were multiple potential and-one opportunities he believed he should have converted. He also missed two free throws late in the third quarter.
“I could have done a better job tonight,” Embiid said. “I wasn’t as good as I should have been offensively and defensively. That’s on me. It starts with me. I’ve got to be better. ... I’m never satisfied with anything.”
He scored 11 points in the fourth quarter on 3-of-4 shooting from the field and 4-of-4 from the free-throw line. His three-pointer from the top of the key gave the Sixers a 96-91 lead with three minutes to play, before his two free throws made it a one-point game in the final seconds.
Coming off his 50-point outburst, Embiid, like his team, struggled to find a rhythm in the first quarter. And, like his team, he caught fire during his second-quarter stint and finished an efficient 15-of-25 from the floor.
He scored 12 of his points in that second period, including a go-ahead three-pointer shortly after re-entering, a transition one-handed dunk that gave the Sixers a 41-36 lead with less than four minutes to play in the half and another driving dunk to stretch that advantage to 52-38 in the final minute.
A third-quarter three-pointer from Embiid pushed the Sixers’ advantage to 66-44. And with the Clippers attempting to trim the lead, Embiid finished at the rim and then converted an and-one with less than three minutes to play in the quarter to make the score 75-59.
Complementary help — or lack thereof
Without Seth Curry (ankle soreness), the Sixers needed offensive bursts and timely shots from Harris (20 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and Maxey (19 points, eight assists).
Yet no other Sixer scored more than seven points, low-lighted by a lack of bench production on both ends of which Rivers was critical. The coach lamented that the group had a “casualness,” noting that “a 20-point lead in a three-point league means nothing. It’s five shots and it’s a game and that’s exactly what happened.” The three reserves — Georges Niang, Andre Drummond and Charlie Brown — combined to shoot 5-of-20 from the floor.
“The game was lost in the middle of the game,” Rivers said. “We had to give Joel rest, and that stretch changed the game.”
Harris ignited the Sixers’ big first-half surge with three consecutive buckets to end the first quarter. He also scored the first five points of the third quarter, including a three-pointer that increased the lead to 59-40.
Maxey scored 11 of his 14 points before intermission in the second quarter, including a three-pointer that extended the Sixers’ lead to 48-38 and a high-arching pull-up on the next possession. Later, he converted a layup in the third quarter’s final minute after the Clippers had cut the Sixers’ lead to 10.
Maxey was immediately self-reflective after the game. He had already re-watched his final shot attempt. He agreed that he should have gone for a two-for-one on the Sixers’ second-to-last possession, but in the moment was “trying to get a good shot and not rush it.” And he called the Sixers’ cold offensive spells “unacceptable” and said “that falls on me sometimes, as well.”
Curry joining Matisse Thybulle (shoulder), Danny Green (hip), and Shake Milton (back) on the Sixers’ list of unavailable players meant Rivers needed to get creative with his perimeter lineup groupings.
Isaiah Joe started the game, but missed three of his first four shots in 9 minutes and did not re-enter until the second quarter’s final minute. He played only 14 minutes overall. Korkmaz (five points on 1-of-6 shooting from three-point range) returned to the first group after coming off the bench during Wednesday’s win against Orlando.
Brown went back to a reserve role after starting Wednesday, but was on the floor during the stretch run of the second quarter, started the third quarter in place of Joe, and briefly checked in twice during crunch time. He continued to struggle offensively (0-of-4 from the floor) — including a whiff on an open look under the basket off a terrific pass from Embiid late in the game — but totaled seven rebounds in 22 minutes.