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Joel Embiid: ‘I didn’t touch the ball at all (down the stretch)’

Joel Embiid and James Harden unpack a horrifying loss to the Boston Celtics in Philadelphia.

2023 NBA Playoffs- Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

It was one of the Sixers biggest games in years, and the stage was set. Win, and you have home court throughout the Conference Finals and Championship round. An absolutely unbelievable opportunity before them. All they had to do was win on Thursday!

But they just couldn’t get it done at the crib.

The Sixers managed just 86 points in this loss. Despite trailing by 16 early, they stormed back and took a 5 point lead late in the third, earning multiple opportunities to go up two possessions midway through the fourth.

But to my eye, they seemed tight. They missed all of those chances to go up two possessions. The Sixers only managed 13 points in the entire fourth quarter; certainly not the type of championship caliber basketball they played in Game 5 back in Boston.

They did the hard part, winning two games in Boston. But they couldn’t close the door on South Broad.

Philadelphia’s offense was generating decent enough looks against the double-big Al Horford and Robert Williams Celtics’ front court, a new wrinkle Celtics’ coach Joe Mazzulla stymied them with to begin Game 6.

But this Sixers team couldn’t seem to knock down the available perimeter looks that resulted from the Celtics doubling down on rim protection. They shot just 23.5 percent from distance as a team. They shot just 36 percent overall. This from one of the regular season’s best overall offenses.

Embiid isn’t fully healthy, and appeared to tweak that right LCL sprain early on in this ballgame. But this one was still there for the taking, in large part because of his defense.

They were presented with a gift because Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston’s newly crowned All-NBA duo, combined to shoot just 11-of-34 from the floor.

Odds are, those two will be much hotter in Sunday’s Game 7.

After the heartbreaking home loss, which now sends the 76ers packing for Boston seeking to steal an improbable third game at TD Garden this series, Joel Embiid, who finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds, offered his thoughts about how things all unraveled at Wells.

“I think it was three things. We had a lot of wide open shots we didn’t make ’em,” the MVP told reporters after the game. “We stopped moving the ball. And I don’t think I touched the ball the last four minutes of the game. Like I said, missed a lot of good looks. I didn’t touch the ball at all.”

I’m not certain the ball necessarily stopped moving, but it did appear to stop finding Embiid’s hands.

“I just think our offense kind of stalled a little bit, we stopped moving the ball and we stopped making plays for each other like we had been doing all night. And that was the result of not getting good shots and the ball not moving enough,” Embiid continued.

Embiid was asked if that was something Boston took away from them, or something they fell into. He first explained that they had been pretty good about this stuff most of the season, implying it wasn’t all Boston’s strategy but “I just thought tonight we were a little flat because of their shot making in the fourth quarter. I felt instead of getting back to ourselves,” Embiid said, “we just started playing for ourselves. In those situations, like I said, we gotta stick together....”

That raises your eye-brows. Instead of getting back to what we do, we started playing for ourselves? Hmmm. He didn’t name any names but it certainly sounds a bit directed, huh?

So what say you Mr. James Harden?

“I’m not gonna look at my shooting percentage,” Harden said (he said he was told by officials they missed a couple calls which in turn diminished his percentage). “I did a lot of really good things offensively. Defensively, they did a really good job of like their game plan was to pack the paint. They started two bigs and they packed the paint. So they forced us to make shots. It’s not a hard game. I’m not gonna go out there and force it. Obviously, I want to score the basketball but I’m a playmaker as well. I don’t look too much at scoring.”

Harden finished with 13 points, 9 assists, and 5 turnovers. He was a lowly 4-of-16 overall, and 0-of-6 from deep. This has been one up-and-down series for The Beard, who has two game winners this series on 40+ point performances. But the three-time scoring leader was far from #Him in Games 2, 3, and 6.

Harden was told that coach Doc Rivers mentioned maybe there wasn’t enough trust. Harden didn’t necessarily agree. “There was some trust, we just didn’t make shots. We make a couple shots, we’d be celebrating, different ballgame. Look at the film, it’s simple.”

P.J. Tucker was 2-of-7 from distance. Tobias Harris was just 1-of-7 overall. De’Anthony Melton went 0-for-5 overall. It was rough out there.

But let’s go back and see if Embiid is right about him not touching it at the end.

Embiid did get one look with just under (3:56) four minutes remaining. He found a makable, in rhythm middy off a feed from Tyrese Maxey which just rimmed out.

On the next offensive possession, this time with Philly trailing by four, Harden drives and finds Tyrese Maxey who puts up an airball. No touch for Joel.

Then they got a stop and a transition look which led to Maxey free throws, at 2:53.

Next time down, this time trailing by five after a Marcus Smart floater, Harden sneaks into the paint where he’ll often dish to Joel but instead kicks to an open P.J. Tucker in the corner. The three didn’t drop, but Harden tracks down the rebound.

Okay, at this point, maybe the ball kind of stops moving as Harden sizes up his man but gets stopped by Al Horford at the rim. A foul is called. But Boston challenges and wins. Sixers ball, sideline out of bounds. On the inbound, Melton just gets off a hot-potato heave and a miss. Another no touch for the MVP here.

Jayson Tatum drains another backbreaking triple on the other end, and you can see Joel show some frustration here as he slaps the ball to the in bounder.

On the next possession, Harden snakes the pick-and-roll with Joel and rather than trying for the bounce or entry pass, James tries to score and winds up getting stopped by Horford again.

This time, Embiid shows even more frustration, the kind that feels directed at his point guard (in my opinion). See for yourself....

On the next offensive play, in transition, Marcus Smart trips Harden but it wasn’t called. Harden complains to official Ed Malloy who didn’t spot the foul, (a painful theme throughout this series for Philadelphia) and as Embiid walks up the court you can picture even more steam rising.

He probably didn’t know Harden was genuinely tripped up, but nevertheless, he wanted the rock and didn’t get it... again.

JT, now suddenly hot after struggling all night, drains yet another dagger triple, and Doc Rivers throws in the towel with half a minute to go.

So yeah, you can tell Embiid wanted more touches. He did deserve more touches. But upon review, I didn’t think Harden was making any egregious errors. I’m good with his kick out to Tucker, and his pass to Tyrese Maxey was fine as either of those makable triples would have been huge.

But James was definitely a little overzealous attacking Al Horford with the benefit of hindsight.

Was the team “playing for ourselves” at this point, as Joel suggests? I wouldn’t have put it quite that way after re-watching.

But on the whole, it’s the point guard’s job to keep the team’s best player involved during pivotal swings. And I’m guessing Harden sensed that Joel was already frustrated, wanting touches when he did opt to swing one elsewhere, or attack Horford on multiple occasions. Why not just swing one or two to your MVP who was calling for it? You’ve been off most of the night anyway.

That being said, we only looked here at the last four minutes because that’s what Embiid mentions post game. And by this point, Tatum was so hot, it may not have mattered if they got Embiid another contested middy or two anyway.

There’s a ton more to unpack from the prior 44 minutes.

But yeah, if you’re looking for drama, I have to admit it sounds like Joel was frustrated with James for not getting him more touches down the stretch. And it sounds like James has a slightly different version of events. And they both have some pretty valid points in this case.

I think I might take both of their sides. The Sixers deserved a few more calls that went Boston’s way and led to multiple transition opportunities. If they hadn’t shot so abysmally, they would have won, and as James says, we’d all be celebrating. But they also should have gotten Joel more involved down the home stretch; especially once it was clear he really hadn’t touched it in awhile.

We’re onto Game 7. If they don’t win, we’ll have time to think more about this stuff, sadly.

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