The Philadelphia 76ers’ 2022-23 season ended with a loud, glaring thud. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, they were routed by the rival Boston Celtics, 112-88. They’ve now suffered five second-round exits in six seasons. Boston’s also knocked them out of the playoffs three times in six years.
After the game was tied at 55 early in the third quarter, Boston unleashed a 28-3 run over a 10-minute span to seize complete control. James Harden and Joel Embiid played very poorly. The Sixers shot 8-of-37 from deep. Jayson Tatum was brilliant, with 51 points on 17-of-28 shooting. The superstar wing also added 13 rebounds, five assists and two steals.
Here are three takeaways from Philadelphia’s horrendous Game 7 defeat.
James Harden’s passivity
When the Sixers lost Game 6 to the Miami Heat last season, Harden attempted just nine shots in 43 minutes. This year, in the final game of his season, he attempted just 11 across 41 minutes, including three in the second half. Harden ended with nine points on 3-of-11 shooting and seven assists to five turnovers. He opened the afternoon driving, drawing help and spraying passes to shooters. His first quarter was pretty good, despite some potential scoring concerns. The next three quarters were not. They were abjectly bad.
The passivity that’s plagued him throughout his career in key moments emerged again. He repeatedly failed to attack open space, was overly quick to get off the ball and forced questionable shots the times he did call his own number. Late in the first half, he let a double-team come, dribbled down the clock and misfired badly on a pull-up three. It was a brutal decision with a predictable outcome.
Aside from a few reckless drives in Thursday’s Game 6, Harden’s process generally seemed sound, he simply missed shots. That did not happen on Sunday. He played horribly and didn’t pressure the defense like an effective initiator should. Just like last season, Harden and the Sixers quietly bowed out of the second round.
Joel Embiid’s woes
Prior to Sunday, the worst shooting performance of the season for Embiid was a 7-of-25 (28 percent) night against the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 23. After Sunday, it’s now his 5-of-18 (27.8 percent) effort in Game 7. Al Horford, who consistently struggled during the regular season to contain Embiid, put forth another excellent defensive outing, as he did throughout this series. He contested numerous shots well, often prevented Embiid from reaching his comfort zones and stripped him on a face-up play; Embiid’s patience was replaced by hesitancy, unsure of how to attack the man before him. The regular season indicated Embiid may have exorcised his Horford-sized demons. The playoffs completely rejected that sentiment.
Al Horford held Joel Embiid to 3-of-16 as his primary defender in game 7, per ESPN tracking— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) May 14, 2023
While Embiid’s offensive issues cannot be ignored, the defense felt like a grander point of contention and far more within his control. Sometimes, a dude locks you down. It happens. You try various ways to work around it, but it’s not always rectifiable. Embiid didn’t compensate for the offensive gaffes with masterful defense, though. He was poorly positioned in a slew of ball-screen possessions, rotated late as a paint protector multiple times and didn’t bring the necessary verve to anchor things. He was not sharp defensively, and it magnified the poor shooting line.
Season-long fortitude disappearing
Throughout much of the year, the Sixers’ players and coaches talked about how this team’s mindset in the face of adversity was different than before. And through 91 games, their play seemed to reinforce those words. They completed many comeback wins against good teams, defeated Boston on the road in Game 1 without Embiid, and scored another huge road victory in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.
These last two games saw that fortitude sprint out of the door. Their offense cratered late in Game 6 and devolved to a slog in Game 7 as Boston stampeded to an irreversible advantage in the third quarter. Sure, an 8-of-37 afternoon beyond the arc exacerbated the problems, but so many possessions amid that 28-3 run were coated with an aura of despair, as if the Sixers were hoping, but not acting, for a way to slow the turning tide.
I try not to harp on intangibles much because I don’t usually know the inner workings of players and teams like that. But there was simply a lack of composure when the Celtics made their push. Almost every offensive possession in the third quarter looked doomed from the start. Boston’s rotations and help positioning were crisply executed and deserve praise, too. Philadelphia’s Harden-Embiid pick-and-rolls didn’t bend the defense, and there was no counter, which was the hallmark of this team’s resilience in 2022-23.
Maybe, the Sixers’ reservoir of tweaks was depleted. That’s not implausible in a Game 7. Either way, at the most crucial juncture of the season, they didn’t have an answer schematically or intangibly. Given Tatum’s dominance, that wasn’t necessarily the difference between winning and losing, but it was a stern reminder of this season’s Groundhog’s Day ending, despite a seven-month build-up trying to avoid such a fate.