The Sixers were riding high just 10 days ago. After defeating the Denver Nuggets, they suddenly found themselves atop the NBA.com power rankings. And Joel Embiid, who’d dropped 47 points vs. the reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, had just about halved his own MVP odds, gaining ground on Joker.
And just like that, things sort of seemed to flip. Philadelphia has dropped three of their last five games. In two of those losses they held 20-point leads. But the two stinkers vs. the Orlando Magic and the New York Knicks could have been mostly erased from our minds if only the Sixers could have beaten a hobbled Celtics team Wednesday, pulling to within two games of first place in the East. It was a golden opportunity and they laid a massive egg.
With Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Robert Williams out of the lineup, this one should have been doable for Philadelphia. To make things even easier, Celts All-Star wing Jaylen Brown took some vicious friendly fire from Jayson Tatum and missed the entire second half.
But still, the Sixers floundered, looking lost, and routinely baffled on both ends of the floor. Remember back in October when the Sixers were playing like they were in quick sand? Much of that has crept back in over the last handful of games.
With the Celtics first-tier bigs out of the lineup, it was Blake Griffin who provided an unlikely spark, draining 5 of 8 triples. The Sixers intentionally left him wide open in the first stanza of the ballgame (as many teams would have opted to do). But he made them pay, drilling three triples keeping Boston afloat during Philly’s hot start.
After the 106-99 shorthanded Celtics win, Blake Griffin had some harsh words for his former head coach, Doc Rivers. Per Rich Hofmann of The Athletic:
"Obviously Doc makes that game plan. They didn't adjust, which has been sort of a thing. No disrespect, though."— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) February 9, 2023
Blake is just a career 32.7 percent three-point shooter, and shot just 26 percent from distance a season ago. He came into this one shooting 32 percent. So it wasn’t the worst idea to test him, to be fair.
In the Tweet above, you can hear Griffin being asked what he was feeling and seeing out there that got him going from distance.
“Just space,” said the former Clipper, Piston and Net. “I mean honestly, when a team leaves you open like that you just gotta try and make ‘em pay. And y’know, I was shooting open shots all night so it was nice to see some go through.”
OK, no shade yet....
But then there was a follow up. Next Griffin was told by a reporter James Harden mentioned postgame that the Sixers played some “lazy defense,” before the reporter asked Blake if he felt disrespected by Philadelphia’s strategy to ignore him offensively?
“Umm, I don’t really take it as disrespect. It hurt ‘em. That was their game plan. Obviously Doc [Rivers] makes that game plan. They didn’t adjust, which has been sort of a thing. No disrespect, though.”
You know when a guy has to say no disrespect though he meant a bit of disrespect. Griffin is obviously referring to some disappointing playoff performances on his own and Doc’s resume; the kind where (Griffin obviously feels) Doc failed to make in-game or in-series adjustments.
Their 2015 Clippers team had a 3-1 series lead in the second round when they wound up losing to Harden and Daryl Morey’s Houston Rockets. That is just one of three times a Rivers led team has blown a 3-1 playoff series lead. Griffin may have also been referencing the 2014 NBA Playoffs, when the Clips had home court advantage against the Oklahoma City Thunder and lost in six.
In that 2-2 series, in L.A. the Clips had a 13-point lead with just 4:13 to play. Had they finished that one off, OKC would have faced elimination. But the Thunder stormed back, closing the game on a 17-3 run and won 105-104. They’d polish off L.A. in the next contest.
Griffin, of course, may also be referring to other disappointing series he’s been a part of with Doc. Those Lob City teams did also have some tough injury luck. It’s not all on a coach or player. Or he may simply mean some of the other heartbreakers Rivers has been criticized for blowing, like that 2020 Clippers-Nuggets series.
There, once again, Doc’s team held a 3-1 series lead and squandered it, losing to Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic in the bubble. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George had a golden opportunity to win the title that season. But Rivers overplayed Montrezl Harrell (sound familiar?) who wasn’t able to defend Jokic as well as Ivica Zubac was. Despite the glaring on-court splits, Doc went with his gut and his preferred big and it didn’t pay off. That’s reportedly part of why he was fired and consequently how the Sixers were able to swoop in to sign him that fall.
Rivers certainly has his critics who point out his lack of adjustments when it matters most. And a few of his most talented all-time players (e.g. Chris Paul, Paul George) haven’t exactly hid their feelings. It sounds like Blake harbors some resentment as well.
The stray feels harsh, but Griffin makes a decent point. Rivers still has a pretty big issue with in-game or series adjustments.
Is it possible that the Sixers insistence on these all bench units over the weeks have— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) February 9, 2023
A) cost them games
B) cost them golden chances to rehearse playoff viable lineups
C) cost Tyrese Maxey some confidence
You can’t help but wonder if one day Joel Embiid or James Harden might not have similar feelings with the way things have played out during Rivers’ tenure in Philly thus far. There’s still time to figure things out. But they’re not where they want to be yet.