76ers’ latest failure belongs to Embiid, Harden

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What we saw from the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was exactly what you’d expect from the best team remaining in the NBA playoffs on its home court with two star players and the deepest rotation in the league. 

It was clinical, it was ruthless and it was spectacular. After a 112-88 beatdown of the Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics will move on to face the Miami Heat and by all rights should be holding the Larry O’Brien trophy about a month from now.

But that’s a column for another day. Today? Today we need to talk about the 76ers, about league MVP Joel Embiid, about the incredibly shrinking James Harden and about a team-building experiment that has reached its expiration date. 

They’ve tried different stars to put around Embiid. They’ve had three front office iterations and two head coaches since the beginning of the so-called “Process.” They’ve thrown Ben Simmons under the bus. They’ve tweaked the edges of the roster. 

And six years since the 76ers emerged as a theoretical championship contender, the bottom line hasn’t changed: They are too close to blow it up, and yet too far to believe there’s anything better waiting for them at the end of this road.

Embiid, who finally got his MVP trophy after years of whining for votes, was sluggish and helpless Sunday when it mattered most. 

Harden, whose playoff failures are canon, lived down to his reputation by disappearing completely with a 3-for-11 performance in Game 7 — after going 4-for-16 at home in Game 6 with a chance to end the series on Thursday. 

Tobias Harris, as has often been the case in key playoff games over the years, looked like a $7 million role player who happens to carry a $37 million salary. 

The bench? Remarkably, the 76ers’ reserves contributed a mere seven points — all from De’Anthony Melton — until deep into fourth quarter garbage time. 

And then there’s Doc Rivers, who fell to 17-33 in closeout games during his coaching career and didn’t have any answers in his matchup with 34-year old Joe Mazzulla. He’ll probably be the next to go because that’s the way things work in this league, and after this series plus the 2021 second-round collapse against Atlanta, you can’t bring him back with any credibility. 

It would be lazy to pin this all on Rivers. Whatever you think of him, this series wasn’t decided on coaching margins. It hinged on which team’s stars were going to play like stars, and that count was not close by the end. 

In 2019, you could pin it on bad luck when the 76ers got knocked out by Kawhi Leonard and the would-be champion Toronto Raptors in a great Game 7 decided in the final seconds. 

In 2021, the postmortem to their horrific Game 7 home loss to the Hawks focused entirely on Simmons and his refusal to shoot a late layup because he didn’t want to get fouled. 

But as of Sunday, there should be no more delusion about where the 76ers stand and where they’re falling short. After getting massively outplayed by Jayson Tatum, whose barrage of 3-pointers from late in Game 6 carried over with a breathtaking 51-point performance in Game 7, this failure belongs to Embiid and Harden.

That duo was conceived with the best of intentions and sound logic. It was worth a try. But by the end of this series, they weren’t even in the same stratosphere as the Celtics’ stars. While Tatum and Jaylen Brown were flying on both ends, Embiid and Harden were dragging themselves up and down the court until they both stopped giving any semblance of effort midway through the third quarter. Their combined Game 7 output of 24 points didn’t even match what Tatum had by himself — in the first half. 

And the reality is they aren’t getting closer. They’re just getting older, with another layer of playoff scar tissue to deal with next April and May after they win 50 games again. 

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So now what? 

We have seen what this version of the 76ers is capable of. Winning an NBA championship does not appear to be one of those things.

That’s no crime, of course. Only one team gets to win the title, and there’s a lot of value in being in the mix every year while putting a good product on the floor every night. 

At the same time, though, appreciation for what Embiid and his various co-stars have accomplished without a championship won’t last forever. Eventually, the compounding psychological damage inflicted on everyone makes it impossible to actually enjoy the chase. 

It feels like the 76ers have reached that point — not just because they lost again, but because this series reinforced every narrative this team was fighting to end and manifested every fear its fans harbored about what might happen when the stakes got really, really high.

The 76ers played their worst basketball in Games 6 and 7. That isn’t an accident. It’s been part of who they are with Embiid as the best player, and while that isn’t entirely his fault, he has had multiple opportunities to be part of the solution and has not delivered.

What happens next for the 76ers, what path they take from here, isn’t entirely up to them. Harden has a player option that he can decline and become a free agent. Can the 76ers afford to give a massive, long-term deal to a guy who will soon be 34 years old and turned to dust at the end of this series? At the same time, can they afford to lose a player of his caliber without a lot of roster and salary cap freedom to improve in other ways?

Is Harris tradable with $39 million left on his contract before next season, knowing that he’s no better than the fourth option on a really good team? The 76ers have their own first-round draft pick this year, but with two future picks going out the door to Brooklyn and Oklahoma City, there’s not a ton to work with there either.

Don’t put it past team president Daryl Morey to make creative moves, but what’s the out here? That’s why it was so crucial for the 76ers to capitalize on the massive opportunity they had this time after winning Game 5 in Boston: This is their team, and this was their time. They choked on that reality in a manner that suggests it’s never going to happen. 

But unless the 76ers can somehow get off the Harris contract or package Tyrese Maxey with some other stuff to get a No. 3 player who can give them a little more, they’ll likely have to come back and try again with a group that looks similar to the one they have now.

Is it enough to win a title? The answer to that question has never been more clear. 

This post appeared first on USA TODAY