MIAMI — The Sixers needed James Harden, circa 2018. They needed Angry Joel Embiid. They needed Doc Rivers, Super Genius.
Instead, they got Playoff Doc, Gray Beard, and Sleepy Jo, Philly version.
“Their energy was better. Their toughness was better. And that’s on all of us,” Rivers said. ”That’s on me to me to make sure they’re ready, and it’s on them to be ready.”
They lost, 120-85. They lost by 35 points. They gave the Heat a 3-2 advantage — gifted it to them, like mums on Mother’s Day.
Ready? Maybe ready for some sunscreen and daiquiris. Maybe ready for some jet skis and nightclubs.
But no, Doc, they were not ready for basketball.
Harden, resurrected, won Game 4 in Philadelphia with 31 points. He and Embiid combined for 31 points in Game 5 here Tuesday, the lifeless leaders of a lifeless team.
“We just weren’t engaged defensively. We’ve got to be engaged. We’ve got to be locked in,” Harden said after seven Heat players scored in double digits. “In the second round of the playoffs, on the road, in Game 5, it’s not good enough just to play hard. You’ve got to be able to play hard, and you’ve got to be able to think, possession by possession.”
Embiid, internationally insulted Monday, should have dominated Tuesday. He barely showed up. ESPN.com noted that his minus-29 rating was the worst of his career. Teammates Georges Niang and DeAndre Jordan thought Embiid would be an Em-Beast after news broke Monday that he’d lost the MVP, but maybe losing the award for a second straight year doesn’t matter to him after all. He certainly didn’t seem upset.
“We weren’t locked in,” he said. “Tonight, we weren’t focused enough.”
They all spoke like men who knew they’d stolen money for a night.
This wasn’t just a Game 5 loss. They lost the first two games here without their 7-foot-2 centerpiece, but the Sixers, with Embiid, are a better team than the Heat. It’s not particularly close. They beat the Heat twice in Philly despite brilliant play from Miami star Jimmy Butler.
This Eastern Conference semifinal swing game was a referendum on the Sixers’ heart. A test of their mettle.
They failed this test. They’ll have at least one more.
They play again Thursday in Philadelphia, facing elimination and humiliation. Harden, 32, is hoping for one last huge contract. Embiid, 28, has his best chance so far at an NBA title. You might have thought he’d be energized Tuesday after a report surfaced Monday that Nikola Jokić stole the MVP for a second straight year.
You’d have thought wrong.
It didn’t help that Embiid, who is wearing a protective mask, got hit near his right orbital fracture by a deflected ball midway through the second quarter. It isn’t the mask that’s hindering him. It isn’t the torn ligament in his right thumb, either. It’s his legs. He spent more time bent over and pulling his shorts than he spent with the ball in the post; but then, any amount of time would be greater than zero, since he was about as effective at establishing post position as Spud Webb.
The Sixers lack a single player adept at delivering entry passes, but Embiid’s been too tired or too weak or too protective of his various ailments to establish primo position. When Bam Adebayo and P.J. Tucker are pushing Shaq 2.0 out of the post, he’s not trying hard enough.
“I’ve got to get the ball deeper than I have,” he agreed.
Embiid had to take time off to recover from the concussion he suffered in the finale of the Sixers’ six-game first-round win, the same incident that fractured the orbital. He missed two games, and, perhaps more significantly for a player who’s struggled with conditioning for all of his eight seasons, he couldn’t work out for a week.
Apparently, he spent that week at Chick-fil-A.
It also didn’t help that Harden once again couldn’t buy a foul call in Miami. He bleated a bit and hinted at bias, but when asked directly if he thought the Heat got more calls Tuesday, Harden replied, “No comment.”
He has no right to comment.
When you’ve averaged five turnovers a game in the series — many of them the YMCA noontime scrimmage, dribble-off-your-foot variety — the refs won’t give you many benefits of the doubt.
But, with all of this — poor effort, a bumbling Beard, and The Process at about 70% — when they feel like playing right, the Sixers are the better team.
Can the Sixers bring it back to Miami? Sure. Can they win Game 6 on Thursday in Philly? Absolutely.
Will it matter?
Title-bound teams tend to play relatively well relatively consistently. The Sixers now have lost four of their last seven playoff games, and they’ve lost them by an average of 20 points.
“We haven’t been consistent,” Embiid said.
“I think that’s a bogus stat,” Rivers said. He noted that Embiid has played in only two of those four games.
Well, Embiid also played in two of those four games.
Including the one they just lost by 35.