It’s been almost a decade, and the Sixers are no closer to a championship than they were in the days of Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young.
You can tank for talent, but you can’t tank for heart.
The Heat have it. The Sixers don’t.
As such, anything might happen now. The coach might get fired or ask out. The superstar might get traded (his words). The Hall of Fame guard could decide Philly ain’t it.
After the Sixers surrendered the Eastern Conference semifinal with an embarrassing effort in front of a mortified home crowd, Sixers players were honest.
Tobias Harris said there was a “lack of effort” and “our body language was crappy” and the Sixers lacked “mental toughness.”
Tyrese Maxey said, “We didn’t match their fight.”
Joel Embiid said, “I just know we weren’t tough enough,” “The physicality wasn’t there,” and “Mental toughness could be a part of it.”
They were all too kind.
The game turned in the first 14 minutes of the second half, which the Sixers entered trailing by one. James Harden dribbled off his foot twice, threw a crosscourt pass that Bam Adebayo intercepted and slammed home 80 feet later, and dribbled another possession away. Maxey missed three layups and turned the ball over three times himself. Embiid missed a putback, had a 15-footer cleanly blocked by Adebayo, and fired up questionable three after questionable three, and the Heat led by 19 and eventually won, 99-90.
Future Hall of Fame coach Doc Rivers? He had no answers. The Sixers lost the Eastern Conference semifinal four games to two. They’re left with questions going forward, from roster makeup to the coaching staff, wondering if they’ll ever win with a center who can’t stay healthy.
Thursday night was the latest indictment of The Process, begun in 2013, now highlighted by a fourth second-round playoff exit in the last five years. These exits have been earmarked by youth, injury, or, in 2019 with Butler, bad luck and poor chemistry. This one? Lack of effort.
In a word, the 76ers are producing the same sort of postseason mediocrity The Process sought to avoid.
Butler left after that 2019 season — the Sixers, bound with issues that complicated any long-term deal with Butler, wound up re-signing Tobias Harris — and now will guide the Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in three seasons as The Process turns 10. Butler strutted through the tunnel to his locker room, hollering, with insincere and inaccurate bravado: “Tobias Harris over me? Tobias Harris over me?”
Butler scored 32 points Thursday. He’s averaged 30 points in the past five games and left the court with a primal scream. He’s been tough, and smart, efficient, and consistent. He’s played winning basketball. He’s been everything Embiid and Harden have not.
Embiid scored 20 points on 7-for-24 shooting. Harden scored 11, did not attempt a free throw, and did not score in the second half.
Harden, Embiid & Co. played a bit harder Thursday than they’d played in Game 5 on Tuesday, a 35-point disaster in Miami, but they still lacked the sort of postseason mettle from which champions are forged.
They still complained about non-calls. They still played stagnant defense. They ran offensive sets that looked like something out of the Catholic League (no offense, Catholic League).
To be clearer, Harden — who vowed once again to opt-in to his 2022-34 contract — ran offensive sets that wouldn’t have worked in high school. He’s the point guard, for whatever that’s worth these days. Asked why he only took two shots in the second half, he replied, incredibly:
“The ball moved. It just didn’t get back to me.”
This, from a guy who spent 10 years in Houston making sure the ball never left him.
Then again, Harden wasn’t playing with a centerpiece talent like Embiid in Houston. And, fairly or not, much of the blame for this season’s end will land at Embiid’s feet. He played eight days removed from clearing concussion protocol, his fractured right eye socket protected by a mask, his torn right thumb ligament, and his ego bruised by losing the MVP vote for a second straight season.
But Embiid played, and that’s all that matters. History does not grade on a curve.
One big reason Embiid lost the MVP vote again to Nikola Jokić: Much of Embiid’s act seems performative. He flails, he postures, and he falls. Falls. Falls.
Last night, he fell so much he needed Life Alert.
He underperformed, but then, so did everyone, including the coach. Rivers was proud and defiant after guiding the Sixers to a No. 4 seed despite the absence of Simmons for the first two-thirds of the season (he boycotted).
“I think I do a terrific job,” Rivers said.
Even so, perhaps the Sixers shouldn’t have won the title this season, but they are, on paper, scads better than this hodgepodge Heat squad.
“I came to the conclusion at the end of the game: We are not good enough to beat Miami.”
Wrong. They’re just not man enough.
Maxey said it best:
“They had guys that are grown men.”
He mentioned pugnacious P.J. Tucker and bruisers Butler and Adebayo. This time of year, will can overcome skill. That’s what happened here. Against all odds.
On Feb. 10, when Harden and Simmons traded teams, the Sixers’ odds to win the NBA title leapt from 13-1, just behind Miami, to 6.5-1, almost twice as good as the Heat. Three months later the Beard, the Doc, and The Process are done.
Nine years after its inception, the Sixers’ controversial strategy of continual losing to hoard top draft picks remains as unfulfilled as it was in 2012, when Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday, outstanding, complete players, led the franchise to a second-round exit. They have since combined for four NBA titles. Iguodala was the 2015 Finals MVP. Holiday joined the Bucks last season and brought the crown to Milwaukee, where they are one game from reaching the Eastern Conference final for the third time in four years.
The Sixers still haven’t made it out of the second round.
Entering this season Embiid, drafted in 2014, and Simmons, drafted in 2016, and the hiring of Doc Rivers in 2021 were the centerpieces of The Process — a generational talent at center, a promising power point guard, and a Hall of Fame coach with an NBA title who ranks ninth all-time in wins.
But Simmons refused to play this season. Embiid got hurt again. Harden, like Simmons, is a faux point guard, and, at 32, is a shadow of the 2018 MVP he once was.
Rivers, as he’s done so often in his career, and as he did last season in Philadelphia, failed to produce results commensurate with the assembled talent.
And, so, like the eight processed seasons that preceded it, 2021-22 ended another fruitless pursuit for contention.