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3 takeaways from Sixers’ disappointing Game 3 loss

Joel Embiid looked more like his MVP self, but the Sixers’ starting backcourt scuffled while the Celtics made winning play after winning play.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

A night that started with so much promise ended in massive disappointment.

Joel Embiid finally received his first MVP award but it felt like that was the last thing to go right for the Sixers Friday. They suffered a disappointing 112-104 loss to the Celtics at The Center. Boston now leads the series 2-1 with Game 4 set for Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

Embiid did look more like his valuable self than he did in Game 2, but James Harden has fallen off cliff in the two games since his 45-point masterclass in Game 1 and Tyrese Maxey can’t seem to find his rhythm.

Here are three takeaways from a rough night in South Philly.

The MVP looks like the MVP

You could tell Embiid was fighting off rust in Game 2. He also admitted postgame after Game 3 that he was deferring to his teammates considering how well they’d done offensively without him in Game 1. Still, from a physical standpoint Embiid didn’t appear limited and his body language was great — especially considering how we’ve seen him struggle to play through injuries in the past.

Embiid pretty much hit the ground running in Game 3. Despite the Celtics getting off to a blistering start from three, Embiid led a strong close to the quarter on both ends and had the Sixers out in front, 29-28, after one. The Sixers couldn’t build off that momentum and struggled with Embiid on the bench.

Truly Embiid was the only positive from this game for the Sixers. It’s clear he’s going to be able to score in this series. There was a stretch or two where it actually felt like they went away from Embiid for too long. You could make an argument he’s been more impressive on the defensive end. The Celtics shot 44.2 percent from the field overall, with Embiid often thwarting or deterring Boston players at the rim. He had 30 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. He deserved a better outcome Friday.

It’s a shame because this should’ve been a great night for Embiid. This moment (I’m biased as a newish dad) was one of the coolest I’ve seen in my time covering the Sixers.

Harden and Maxey have to get it going

Just an OK game from either Harden or Maxey and we’re probably talking about a 2-1 Sixers lead heading into Sunday. Instead, the starting backcourt had an abysmal night and the Sixers failed to defend their home court.

Since dropping 45 points and looking like the player that once won an MVP, Harden has looked like a shell of himself. The Beard went 17 of 30 from the field and 7 of 13 from three in Game 1. In the two games since, he’s shot a combined 5 of 28 from the field and 2 of 13 from deep. What was particularly disturbing in Game 3 was Harden passing up what appeared to be pretty good looks at the rim. It sort of looked like ... well ... I won’t even say it. The Celtics have done well defending the pick-and-roll, but simply put, Harden needs to be way better.

Maxey had his struggles against Boston during the regular season. Some of that felt like bad luck and timing. Now, it seems like Maxey is getting the looks and not cashing in. There are times where it feels like maybe Doc Rivers could run the offense through Maxey a little bit more. Perhaps have Maxey bring the ball up the floor more to alleviate the ball pressure from Jaylen Brown on Harden. Still, Maxey has to knock down the open looks he gets. Maxey, who finished the season hitting 43.4 of his threes, is 6 of 22 from deep in this series.

On the night, De’Anthony Melton was the Sixers’ second-best player. With all due respect to Melton — who has been quite good this postseason! — that cannot happen.

Celtics made winning plays at the right time

Despite pretty disastrous nights from Harden and Maxey, the Sixers still had their chances. It felt like every time the Sixers crept back into the game, the Celtics would come up with a huge offensive rebound or force a turnover and stem the tide. Boston repeatedly made backbreaking shots and winning plays. That’s what great teams do.

Neither Brown or Jayson Tatum had their best scoring nights, but they came up with buckets and plays in big spots. The Celtics’ stars delivered. That’s what great players do.

The Sixers are going to have to make adjustments, but the bottom line is their better players need to play better and they need to flip the script on Boston in coming up with those momentum-swinging plays.

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