As Sixers blame lack of toughness for loss to Miami, uncertain offseason begins with the James Harden question
PHILADELPHIA — After Victor Oladipo stole the ball, Tyrese Maxey and James Harden looked at each other with exasperation. Maxey threw the ball away, looking for Harden to initiate the offense, and they both threw their hands up at each other as Oladipo raced in for the layup.
On the next possession, Harden unsuccessfully attempted twice to attack Oladipo off the dribble. The second time, he tried to go behind the back when Bam Adebayo helped off Maxey to easily steal the ball from him. The Miami Heat were off to the races, with Adebayo finishing a dunk on the other end. Down 17, Doc Rivers then mercifully called a timeout.
The Sixers’ season ended Thursday night with a 48-minute whimper. Their demise came at the hands of the Miami Heat, who over the final two games proved to be a far superior group. The final margin of Game 6, 99-90, overstates the Sixers’ competitiveness. Once the ball was tipped at the beginning of the second half, they were never in the game. This was the second such performance in a row.
“I know what they (Miami) have. I get that, you can visually see that, athletically, and they’re big,” Rivers said. “I just thought that, I don’t know, I just thought that we had more.”
He later added: “So many of these guys, they give it to the city, they give everything they have. And sometimes it’s just not good enough. I came to the conclusion at the end of the game we were not good enough to beat Miami. I can accept that, and we just weren’t. And that’s a tough thing to say, but we weren’t.”
That much was clear, but for the Sixers to move forward, they are forced to answer the question of why that was the case.
Collectively, the Sixers’ final two losses, after they battled back last weekend to make the series competitive, wasn’t a matter of Erik Spoelstra’s schemes or shot-making going in Miami’s favor. In fact, Miami shot a miserable 7-of-28 from the 3-point line Thursday night. It was Miami’s physicality and toughness overwhelming the Sixers, particularly in holding them to 15 points in the third quarter.
After the game, Tobias Harris said that the difference was, “truthfully, just lack of effort on our part.” Over the final two games of the series, Miami played with a level of belief and connectivity that the Sixers simply did not have. Offensively, the Sixers did not have the type of flow that was necessary to win games against a rock-solid opponent that challenged them with physicality.
“It’s mental toughness. That part of it, I don’t think we have yet,” Harris said. “Seeing the Milwaukee game yesterday, that’s a team that has been through the fire, being able to fight and keep going. I think at times, for our group, too many things just affected us as a whole. We drop our heads too much, our body language at times is crappy. And we needed that to be better throughout this series.”
There were areas on the box score that showed the physicality advantage. Miami rebounded a whopping 38.3 percent of their misses, according to Cleaning The Glass, with PJ Tucker collecting four of them after the Heat shooters would miss the initial shots. Those types of hustle plays wore the sixers down, like a boxer who has taken too many shots to the body.
“You look at someone like PJ Tucker. Great player, but it’s not about him knocking down shots,” Joel Embiid said. “It’s about what he does on the defensive end or rebounding the ball. You look at, obviously, defensively he plays with so much energy, believes that he can get from Point A to Point B and he believes that no one can beat him. And he’s tough, he’s just physical and he’s tough.
“They have a few of those guys, whether it’s Bam and all those guys. And since I’ve been here, I’d be lying if I said that we’ve had those type of guys. Nothing against what we have, it’s just the truth.”
The Sixers once had one of those guys who was wearing No. 22 for Miami on this night. Three years ago, in the same spot, Butler had 25 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists as the Sixers forced a Game 7 in Toronto. They ultimately lost that series, but there weren’t questions about toughness after it was over. Butler did not have a great shooting night in Game 6 but still managed to score 32 points.
As the game ended, Butler rubbed it in. He waved goodbye to the crowd after scoring his 32nd point. He said in his postgame interview that he still wishes he was playing with Embiid. He invoked the big contract that the Sixers gave to Harris that summer. The Sixers have made countless organizational errors over the years, but letting Butler walk in 2019 ranks at or near the very top if drafting Markelle Fultz still haunts them the most. Butler very well could continue to haunt them, as he did with four brilliant performances to knock them out of the playoffs.
“Tobias Harris over me?”
Jimmy Butler didn’t forget about the 76ers’ decision to sign Harris over him in 2019 👀
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) May 13, 2022
If there is one statistic that tells the story of the game, it’s that the Sixers shot just seven free throws. That is their lowest total of the season, in the game where they were first facing elimination. This is the team that gets to the line more than anyone in the league, and without those free throws, the Sixers offense ground to a halt.
When we talk about those free throws, the focus falls on two players. Embiid went just 7-of-24 from the field, leaving everything he had out on the floor to the point of physical exhaustion. Coming back from a concussion and broken face, Embiid didn’t have the timing offensively. His sheer presence allowed the Sixers to win a couple of games over the weekend, but ultimately, he needed to be razor sharp offensively. And he wasn’t, averaging 19.8 points per game on below-average efficiency (53.2 percent true shooting).
Miami’s defense deserves the credit for that, as well. If recent history is any indicator, Embiid will get surgery on his thumb, take his lessons from the postseason and apply them during the 2022-23 season.
“You look at every other team, whether it’s Boston and Milwaukee, there’s a sense of just toughness that all of them play with,” Embiid said. “I think just watching the playoffs and playing against all those teams, that’s what I really take away from it: I just need to be tougher and we all need to be tougher.”
There are a few reasons that the Sixers ultimately fell short. Embiid was not at his best, perhaps due to his injuries. Maxey played with the inconsistency that you might expect from a 21-year-old. The Sixers did not have even close to the type of quality, two-way depth that Miami possessed, which was made even worse when Danny Green suffered what appeared to be a serious left knee injury three minutes into Game 6. The Sixers’ collective toughness and physicality were not at the same level as Miami’s. Rivers’ offense was not able to solve Spoelstra’s defense.
But the biggest question of the Sixers’ offseason was also the player who had the most disappointing performance of the night. Harden has a lot of playoff clunkers on his resume, and this one ranks right up there: 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting, zero free-throw attempts, 9 assists and 4 turnovers. When Miami responded with physicality, Harden shied away. He took two shots in the second half, not going down swinging in the same way that Embiid did.
After the game, Harden said, “We ran our offense. The ball just didn’t get back to me.” He is the point guard, the guy who is at the controls of the offense. In the third quarter, the Sixers elected to run their offense through reserve guard Shake Milton, because unlike Harden, he was showing some signs of life.
Now comes the hard part, no pun intended. Harden has a player option for $47.1 million next season or could hit free agency. The Sixers could offer him a maximum salary worth $275 million over the next five seasons. The Harden that played for the Sixers over the past few months, who still can offer plenty of positive for a basketball team, is unequivocally not worth that level of financial commitment.
As the Sixers head into yet another offseason of uncertainty, an annual tradition in Philadelphia, Harden said that he will be a part of the organization. What that means, and what the roster would look like around him, is anyone’s guess.
“I’ll be here,” Harden said. “Whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level.”
(Photo of Joel Embiid and James Harden talking during the fourth quarter: Bill Streicher / USA Today)