Joel Embiid was already midway through the tunnel back to the locker room when the final buzzer sounded inside the Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers had just witnessed the Boston Celtics close Thursday’s Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 14-3 run to even the series. They also watched their best chance yet at reaching the franchise’s first East finals since 2001 slip away.
Moments later, seated behind a microphone and wearing a T-shirt bearing his “The Process” nickname, Embiid moved on to the task waiting for Sunday in Boston.
“Game 7,” Embiid said. “That’s why you play, for these types of games.”
Sunday’s showdown inside Boston’s TD Garden was the third time over the past five seasons Embiid and the 76ers played in a Game 7 in the East semifinals. Instead of breaking through, it delivered a familiar feeling for the newly crowned MVP and his team: playoff heartbreak.
In 2019, it was Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce buzzer-beater that sunk the 76ers’ hopes. In 2021, it was Ben Simmons passing up an open dunk in the closing minutes against the Atlanta Hawks.
On Sunday, it was Embiid finishing 5-for-18 from the field, while Jayson Tatum scored 51, including him surpassing the half-century mark with a 3-pointer from the right wing over Embiid’s outstretched arm.
The result: a 112-88 demolition that sent Boston to the conference finals and sent Philadelphia into another offseason of intrigue, retooling around Embiid and waiting for the free agency decision of James Harden.
“I care about winning,” Embiid said after Game 7. “I want to win so bad and I know everybody around me also knows that and it’s tough losing. It sucks losing. I freaking hate losing.”
Here’s where the 76ers’ two superstars stand after another near miss for Philadelphia, and what’s next for the East juggernaut.
The Process continues — with mixed results
“The mantra here has been very clear, which is to compete for championships. History has been reasonably clear that [to do so], superstar players matter.”
— Former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, May 2013
The mantra “Trust The Process” was born 10 years ago Sunday, when Hinkie was introduced as the 76ers’ president and general manager. Hinkie had come into the job after Philadelphia had made what turned out to be a disastrous trade for Andrew Bynum the year before, and promised to bring better days to the franchise.
Embiid, taken with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft, wouldn’t play for the following two seasons because of recurring health issues, but the big man would become the face of Hinkie’s rallying cry.
Embiid completed a three-year odyssey this season to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, subtly changing his game to iron out flaws from previous playoff failings.
He worked to become a better offensive player after future Hall of Famer Marc Gasol gave him fits in the loss to Toronto in 2019. And, after losing to Miami in the second round last year, he worked to catch the ball at or near the elbow, rather than on the low block, to make it easier to evade double-teams and cut turnovers.
The result was the most dominant season of Embiid’s career, and with it the MVP trophy.
“Improbable doesn’t mean impossible,” Embiid said of someone with his background and story — growing up in Cameroon, beginning to play basketball at age 15 and overcoming his injury issues — becoming the NBA’s MVP, “and you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.
“As long as you believe in it, and you know, keep working hard, anything can happen.”
But after years of nagging injury issues haunting his playoff runs, yet another one befell Embiid and the 76ers in Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets, when he landed awkwardly contesting a drive by Nets forward Cam Johnson and spraining his LCL in his right knee.
Embiid would miss the next two weeks before returning for Game 2 of the conference semifinals. But while Embiid had plenty of impressive moments after a sluggish return – he recorded three straight 30-point performances in Games 3, 4 and 5 — this run will be remembered most for his disappointing showing in Philadelphia’s biggest game of the season.
“I got to be better,” Embiid said after Sunday’s Game 7. “I guess that’s on me. If you want to call me the best player on the team, every failure and every loss, no matter what, [is] on the best player. I’ll take it all and it’s all on me.
“It’s hard to win alone, but it’s all on me. I just got to be better, and I will be better. Every time I say it, I always find a way to get better.”
Hit or miss Harden: An uneven series for The Beard
“The opportunity to win is now. Joel is playing the best he’s ever played. So my job is to come out there and help him and help the entire team win a championship this year and in years going forward.”
— Harden, during his introductory news conference in February 2022
When the 76ers acquired Harden in the blockbuster trade deadline deal for Ben Simmons, Philadelphia was getting one of the greatest volume 3-point shooters and offensive machines in NBA history, ideally suited as a prime pick-and-roll partner for Embiid.
Over the ensuing 18 months, that proved to be true. Per Second Spectrum’s player tracking data, the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll was the NBA’s most effective play in 2022-23 and helped power Embiid to a second straight scoring title. Harden led the league in assists, marking the first time in over 40 years that one franchise boasted the league leaders in scoring and in assists.
It also put Harden in a far different position than his first marriage with current 76ers executive and former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, where the Rockets orbited around The Beard for eight-plus seasons. This time, he would be in a supporting role alongside Embiid.
Harden has repeatedly said — and done — all the right things. When Embiid won MVP last week, Harden hugged him after the announcement, and the next morning presented Embiid with a custom watch with “MVP 23” engraved on the back of it. He took a pay cut last summer, allowing Philadelphia to add both P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. to augment and add much-needed grit to the rotation.
This series against Boston showed how this version of Harden can still reach immense heights. His 45 points in Game 1 allowed Philadelphia to open this series with a victory without Embiid. His 42 points in Game 4 — five of which came via a game-tying floater at the end of regulation and a game-winning corner 3 in overtime — saved Philadelphia from a 3-1 series deficit.
“I haven’t felt one of those zones in a minute,” Harden said after his Game 1 scoring outburst. “Just to be aggressive and shoot the basketball and do what I want.”
Harden’s lows have been equally dramatic. Across Philadelphia’s three victories, Harden shot 37-for-61 (60.7%) from the field, including 14-for-25 from 3-point range. In the series’ four losses, he went 12-for-55, including 3-for-24 from 3-point range.
“Very, very disappointed,” Harden said after Game 7. “There’s a lot I want to say, but yeah, just … it’s frustrating.”
Decisions that will impact Philly’s offseason
“I believe [in this team] wholeheartedly, but that’s not up to me. It really is not up to me. That’s up to our owners and Daryl [Morey.] I think they like what they saw overall, but I don’t know.”
— 76ers coach Doc Rivers, on whether he still believes in the 76ers’ roster
After another desultory second-round exit — the team’s fifth in the past six seasons — Philadelphia trudges into an offseason full of intrigue.
Sunday’s loss could cast significant focus on Rivers, who guided the 76ers to 54 wins, the most since 2001, but has lost three straight times in the conference semifinals. (Rivers, himself, hasn’t escaped the conference semifinals in any season since 2012 with the Celtics.)
“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.
Like last spring, questions also surround the future of Harden, who has a player option he can decline to become a free agent. Because of the Over-38 rule in the league’s collective bargaining agreement, Philadelphia’s advantage over other teams in free agency amounts to being able to give Harden an extra $8 million over the course of a four-year deal, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
Since ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Dec. 25 that Harden could entertain the possibility of returning to Houston this summer, the thought of it has clung to Harden and the franchise. Though multiple team sources admitted Houston is a viable option, there is a belief Harden will return to the 76ers next season.
A potential Harden exit would leave Philadelphia with little means to replace his production. The franchise would have only the full midlevel exception — now north of $12 million — to bolster its roster.
Harden said after the game that he hasn’t begun thinking about his decision this summer.
“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.”
Key reserves Georges Niang and Paul Reed will also be free agents. If Harden stays, retaining them could come down to whether Harden is willing to again sacrifice dollars to allow Philadelphia more breathing room under the more restrictive CBA that goes into effect in July.
But this season revolved around Embiid’s continued improvement and MVP breakthrough. Sunday could have been another triumphant moment. Instead, the 76ers were outscored 33-10 in the third quarter as Embiid didn’t record a field goal in the frame. And, after the starters spent a few futile minutes on the court to begin the fourth quarter, Rivers pulled them with nearly four minutes remaining and Gino Time blaring on the Jumbotron above them.
It was the end of what has become a familiar script for Embiid and the 76ers: a promising start to the postseason met with frustrating failure.
“I was telling myself not to overreact,” Embiid said of his mindset watching the final minutes from the 76ers bench.
“There’s only one team that wins. If you didn’t accomplish that, are you going to be happy for being second? I know I’m not. So to me, if I don’t finish first it is a failure. The rest doesn’t really matter.”
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