The Sixers keep failing to make their own luck originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Fine margins and misfortune have emerged as dominant themes for the Sixers this time of year.
For most teams that come close to deep playoff success and fall short, they’re legitimate factors. Injuries sideline or hamper stars, reliable shooters turn cold, and the opposition gets the friendly bounce or two required to advance.
Though all of the above has tended to describe the Sixers’ playoff performances, the team hasn’t been helplessly watching from the couch as its seasons slip away.
They’ve failed to make their own luck.
Joel Embiid has been the Sixers’ one true constant through six consecutive playoff appearances, and he’s generally been great. The team’s primary problem has often been trying and failing to steal a few passable Embiid-less minutes. The Sixers have seemingly cycled through a full roster of backup centers, most of them incapable of adequate postseason play.
Embiid’s injury luck has been brutal, too. Ironically, the one year he didn’t miss any playoff games, the Sixers were swept by the Celtics in the first round. This time around, Embiid played through a right knee sprain and the Sixers fell to Boston in seven games.
“The kid deserves a break,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said Sunday. “He really does. He deserves one shot to just be 100 percent throughout. I don’t know if we would’ve won this series, but I would love to just have him one time where we don’t have issues. I haven’t had that opportunity and Joel hasn’t had that opportunity, and that sucks for everybody.”
While that sentiment is fair, it’s also glaring how routinely Embiid and the Sixers have been unable to power through trouble and find ways to win big games.
For much of this year, they looked equipped to figure things out regardless of the circumstances. The Sixers went 11-5 without Embiid during the regular season, 2-0 during the playoffs. In both shorthanded and full-strength situations, players admirably filled voids and gave consistently strong effort. Paul Reed’s offensive rebounding was a giant part of the Sixers’ sweep-clinching win over the Nets in Round 1. Danuel House Jr. stepped into the rotation and excelled in the Sixers’ Game 5 victory against Boston.
For a second straight year, however, the Sixers went 0-2 in their two most important games of the season.
“It wasn’t enough. … We weren’t very tough,” P.J. Tucker said. “We weren’t very physically tough, emotionally tough, mentally tough. It just wasn’t enough.”
Asked to summarize the Sixers’ season, Tucker said, “Average. Average.”
Embiid played well below his version of average on Sunday, scoring 15 points on 5-for-18 shooting. Last season, he posted 20 points on 7-for-24 shooting in the Sixers’ Game 6 loss to the Heat. The year prior, he scored 31 points in Game 7 vs. the Hawks but committed eight turnovers.
Of course, all of those numbers come with injury asterisks. Embiid has also improved immensely in three seasons under Rivers, honing perimeter-player skills as a 7-footer, devising crafty answers to swarming defenders, and becoming a two-time scoring champion and MVP.
Still, Embiid, James Harden and the Sixers were again far from generating a sufficient response once an elimination game started breaking toward the other side. In Sunday’s miserable third quarter, the Sixers’ stars didn’t forcefully draw free throws, put pressure on the Celtics, make run-stopping shots, play impactful defense, or do anything to meaningfully resist Boston’s blitz.
Tobias Harris was on the same page as Tucker in again citing the Sixers’ lack of “mental toughness,” and that assessment appeared exceedingly valid.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” Harris said. “We’ve talked about that for years, right? Obviously, it’s easy to be engaged and in rhythm and in flow when things are going your way. At that moment, I thought we didn’t get enough good looks offensively. Well, we got some good looks; they didn’t fall. But it was the turnovers and it was the lack of execution on the defensive end. … That’s tough for us to come back from.”
Embiid’s read was much less harsh.
“I thought for the most part, we were pretty good mentally,” he said. “Tonight … I don’t want to sit here and overreact. That’s not what I’m going to do. I thought tonight didn’t represent us. I just think we just didn’t make shots. That’s what it came down to the fourth quarter last game and tonight. You can be as tough as you want mentally and obviously, they go on (runs). But if you can’t respond by making shots, that doesn’t mean that you’re weak mentally.
“It just means that maybe it’s not supposed to happen. You’ve just got to keep going and keep shooting. And we did keep shooting, and we just kept missing. And that’s OK. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Embiid is right that the Sixers missed many open shots in critical moments. If they’d gone 10 of 25 on wide-open three-pointers in Game 6 instead of 6 for 25, we imagine a Game 7 wouldn’t have been necessary.
It’s been easy to point to similar what-ifs in previous years. For instance, if Ben Simmons had made 60 percent of his free throws in the Atlanta series instead of 33.3 percent, the Sixers may very well have ended their conference finals drought two years ago.
That streak now sits at 22 years and bad luck isn’t the only reason.
“All the sacrifice and all the things that everybody did around the team,” Tucker said, “for everything to come out the way it did — to go down like that without feeling like you gave a full fight … two disappointing games (with a chance) to win the series.”