They were so, so, close to finally breaking through.
Possessing a two-point lead and the ball, with 4:29 remaining in a close out Game 6 at home, Philadelphia 76ers’ point guard James Harden launched a step-back three over Boston’s Marcus Smart. No good. On the other end, Jayson Tatum drained one. It turned out to be a backbreaking, series-altering, legacy influencing swing for multiple names involved in this classic Sixers-Celtics rivalry.
The Sixers had multiple chances to go up two possessions, Harden’s attempt was just one of several. But had Beard’s triple dropped, the Sixers would have taken a commanding five-point lead at the crib, mere minutes away from wrapping up the chance to host the No. 8 seed Miami Heat in the Conference Finals.
Instead, suddenly, they were trailing. Tatum, who had been frigid to that point, was only heating up (and he’d never cool off). The Sixers had every chance to put a stamp on Game 6, but they simply couldn’t do it, shooting just 23.5 percent from distance.
And Game 7 was only close for two quarters.
We’ve been monitoring the “James Harden back to Houston” rumors ever since Christmas of last year. Harden has a player-option he’s likely to decline. So what does this sad end, eerily similar to their 2022 demise, mean for his future?
The 2018 MVP hit two game-winners in this series, both contests where he also cracked 40-plus points. But he had some split personality jawn going and finished a combined 7-of-27 in the last two ballgames, barely resembling the guy he was in Games 1 and 4.
But in the postgame locker room he didn’t sound like he’s predetermined to move on.
“I just want to have a chance to compete. ... I mean, we’re only one year in,” Harden said of the 76ers’ currently constructed roster. “We played against the team who’s been together for quite a few years now. They were in The Finals last year, so you kind of know what it takes to get back there.”
For his part, Embiid said he and Harden have an “unfinished job.”
“Having the chance to close it out at home, which we didn’t do ... I still believe we got the chance to win. We got what it takes to win.”
James Harden says he hasn’t thought about what will go into his free agency plans this summer.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) May 14, 2023
Harden says he believes in this group’s potential. “It’s only Year 1 for us together.”
If Harden indeed wants to compete, he’ll likely have an easier time doing that in Philly than Houston, who tied for the third worst record this year.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Harden admitted after the loss....“I’m very, very disappointed,” The Beard added. “Very frustrated. It’s a lot I want to say, but it’s frustrating.”
It wasn’t but a few days ago, folks were talking about whether or not Jaylen Brown would want to leave Boston.
Instead, everything flipped after the Sixers dominant road Game 5 victory. It felt as if they simply wilted with the tremendous pressure of breaking through to that next level.
But reading these quotes from Harden and Embiid, it doesn’t sound at all like they’re ready to bid each other farewell.
Full Joel Embiid quote when he was asked about James Harden below. pic.twitter.com/BBnXrP1fIZ— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) May 14, 2023
The stuff about it only being their first full year from James, or the unfinished business stuff from Joel is a far cry from “we’re through with this partnership.”
So we’ll see.
If Harden is not offered a max contract from another team, perhaps the Sixers could get a break on bringing him back?
As for Doc Rivers, Harden wasn’t quite as gushy as Embiid was.
“I thought he’s done a fantastic job,” Embiid said of Rivers. “I think we’ve got him better over the years. I thought he’s done a great job and I don’t make the decisions, but I think he should be fine. We got a great relationship.”
Harden, meanwhile, was brief when asked where his relationship with Rivers stands, and whether he believes Rivers should return next season. “Our relationship is OK,” Harden said.”
Doc himself noted he still has two years remaining on his contract. We have heard that there could potentially be significant changes in Philadelphia if they didn’t advance past the second-round. So we’ll see if that indeed happens. Harden is one of the biggest dominoes to monitor.
Again, they were pretty close to advancing to the Final Four, even though Game 7 makes that difficult to remember. But yeesh, did they go out in disappointing fashion, unbefitting of their solid season.