The Sixers probably should not have been in a close game against the Portland Trail Blazers, and while the story of an unlikely comeback against a significantly better team while being undermanned after two players were hurt and having recently endured a terribly unfortunate loss is a good one, and one that the Sixers would like for you to read about, it is not the story that will emerge from tonight's 108-105 loss. Instead, it'll be a series of people wondering what the hell happened in the final 23 seconds.
With 23 seconds remaining in the game, the Sixers tied it on a foul line jumper from Ish Smith, who had maybe his best game of the season given the circumstances. Smith finished an assist short of a triple-double, and 17 points and 14 rebounds. Smith helped the Sixers to a -3 on the boards, an amazing feat given the Sixers played about 18 minutes of game time without even a natural big, and played under control on offense and challenged Damian Lillard enough on defense. Portland called timeout to set up their final possession.
Anyone with cognitive function would tell you that Portland would give possession of the ball on their final shot to one of C.J. McCollum or Damian Lillard, their ball-dominant guards. They are the fulcrum of their offense - everyone else simply functions off of them.
So the Sixers decided to use a late-game defensive strategy employed once before in a close-game situation: in a home loss to tomorrow night's opponent, the Warriors. That strategy was to double team the biggest threat - in that case, the NBA's best player in Stephen Curry - and try to scramble and recover after forcing the ball out of the best player's hands.
From a purely theoretical perspective, it makes more sense for Curry than almost any NBA player to do this, if only because he hits a preposterous number of contested shots, and could even run backwards and get what qualifies as a high-percentage shot. Even then, leaving Curry and forcing a 4-on-3 when the value of the shot doesn't matter as much as it's success is dubious at best. And we're talking about the most prolific scorer in the NBA in the past 8 years.
Now, apply that same logic to Portland. They have two dominant, on-ball scorers. You'll need to separately account for Lillard and McCollum plus the double guy, which means that you are theoretically forcing a 3-on-2 situation, which late in a game against not-Curry is asking for trouble. Odd-man situations for non-Sixers teams usually result in high percentage shots. Yeah, Isaiah Canaan may have screwed up a 3-on-2 earlier in the game, but it doesn't mean a real NBA player would.
The Sixers used Robert Covington (who finished 1-9 from three but hit three consecutive and-one layups and finished with 17 points) to first double Lillard, which got the ball out of his hands and into McCollum's. McCollum then split the double team, because God forbid the Sixers execute even bad defensive schemes correctly, and McCollum made a layup and got fouled. The free throw put Portland up by three with about eight seconds left.
After a timeout, the Sixers get the ball and Jerami Grant is immediately fouled. No matter what you think about the ability for teams to foul up three, you have to admit the Blazers executed it properly. Grant, the worst free throw shooter on the court for Philadelphia (who finished 5-10 from the line), was allowed to catch the ball just to set up the foul shots. He missed the first, because he's not that great of a shooter.
Now let's pause. So at this point, Marc Zumoff and Alaa Abdelnaby discussed missing the free throw intentionally. The Sixers were out of timeouts and down by three, so even hitting the free throw could put Portland in position to ice the game. Missing the shot made sense, and even if it sets up another intentional foul, it'll give them a shot if the Sixers can make their free throws.
So anyway, at this point Jerami Grant intentionally misses a free throw by pounding it off the backboard and jumping into the lane to grab a rebound because I guess he didn't know you couldn't do that and get the ball back. He committed several violations just in general on that one foul shot attempt. This explanation doesn't do it justice. And I can't even describe it as a brain fart because I'm not sure Grant thought he was doing anything wrong.
Lord. Regardless of what he was thinking, or whether or not he had a momentary lapse, we have now found a new way for the Sixers to lose.
But we're not done. The Sixers can extend the game by fouling or forcing a turnover with 7.2 seconds left. Stranger things, like Wednesday night's ending, have happened.
Except the Sixers, with over seven seconds remaining in a one-possession game, did not foul. The Sixers, masters of extending games via pointless fouling in significantly more hopeless situations, decided to not foul where there was still technically a chance at victory, instead faux-trapping McCollum in the backcourt without applying real pressure. And the game just ended like that!
THAT. THAT is how you overshadow three huge three pointers from Hollis Thompson, a 17-point comeback to lead, and several other very positive things to leave an uneasy feeling and sit on nine wins with just nine games remaining in the season. Go to Blazer's Edge for a regular recap. This was just too much.