After acquiring James Harden at the trade deadline, the Philadelphia 76ers hoped this would finally be the year they break through and make it into the conference finals — and beyond — in the NBA playoffs.
Instead, for the fourth time in five years, Philadelphia saw its season come to an end in the second round Thursday night, losing 99-90 to the Miami Heat. Harden was a non-factor in the game, taking just nine shots — including two in the second half — and scoring 11 points.
That led Joel Embiid to say the 76ers did not get the version of Harden that won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, and finished in the top three in voting three other times, in the deal, and that he — and the rest of the 76ers — weren’t aggressive enough throughout the series.
“Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden,” Embiid said. “But that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker. I thought, at times, he could have been, as all of us could have been, more aggressive. All of us whether it was Tyrese [Maxey] or Tobias [Harris] or guys coming off the bench.
“And I’m not just talking about offensively. I’m talking about you know, as a whole offensively and defensively. I didn’t think we were good defensively as a team. They took advantage of a lot of stuff that we tried to do defensively. And then offensively just really everybody being on the same page, obviously, only having probably what, three or four months to all work together and try to figure it out. Maybe it wasn’t a lot of time. … I don’t think we played our best basketball.”
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The 76ers certainly didn’t play their best basketball in Games 5 and 6 in this series, when the Heat successfully ran them off the court twice in a row to close things out after Philadelphia had won Games 3 and 4 here at Wells Fargo Center to even the series.
Throughout a wide-ranging interview, that served as both a postgame discussion and an exit interview for the offseason ahead, Embiid said the loss couldn’t be pinned on any one player, and that it was a moment that required everyone on the roster to look in the mirror and find ways to get better.
“Everybody’s got to get better,” Embiid said. “It’s not just not just about me or [Harden]. From 1 through 15, there’s a reason why we lost to Miami. That means we all were not good enough. So everybody just has to be better.”
And, when asked to drill down on specifics as to what, exactly, the 76ers have to get better at as a team, Embiid pointed to the team that he just finished playing — the Heat — and said the 76ers need to get a lot tougher, pointing specifically to Heat forward P.J. Tucker as the type of guy he has never played with during his career.
“For sure,” Embiid said. “I mean, we’ve had a few tough guys since I’ve been here. I can recall, whether it was Mike Scott, he didn’t play a lot of minutes, but when you have size and toughness, that goes a long way.
“You look at someone like P.J. Tucker, great player, but it’s not about him knocking down shots. It’s about what he does. Whether it’s on the defensive or rebounding the ball. You look at defensively, he plays with so much energy, believes that you can get from point A to point B and he believes that no one can beat him and he’s tough, like he’s just physical and he’s tough. And they have a few of those guys, whether it’s Bam [Adebayo] and all those guys.
“Since I’ve been here, I’d be lying if I said that we’ve had, you know, those type of guys. Nothing against what we have. It’s just the truth. We’ve never had P.J. Tucker. That’s really what I’m trying to say. So as the physicality [increases], especially once you get to the playoffs or the later rounds, you need that. You need those guys that are really tough.”
And, in addition to talking about Tucker, Embiid reaffirmed his affection for Heat star Jimmy Butler, his teammate for a few months here three years ago before he joined Miami that offseason.
It was three years ago Thursday, in fact, that Philadelphia’s season ended in Game 7 in Toronto on Kawhi Leonard’s forever shot — the only time Embiid and Butler teamed up in the playoffs. Embiid admitted that he wished he would have had more opportunities to play in the postseason with Butler.
“Obviously, that’s my guy,” Embiid said. “That’s my brother. Oh, man, it’s tough. But I’m so proud of him. He’s playing an unreal level right now. He’s something else right now. I’m proud of him being at this level and carrying them and what he’s been able to do. They’ve had ups and downs the whole season. Missing guys, not being healthy, and, they still found a way to be the number one team in the East and to be able to come in and do what they did, they deserve a lot of credit. They have a great team, great guys overall. And obviously great coaching and a great front offense. So a lot of credit to them.
“Like I said, I’m happy for him. I mean, I won’t sit here and say I didn’t wish he was my teammate. I still don’t know how we let him go. I wish I could have gone to battle with him still. But it is what it is. I just gotta keep building and keep trying to reach that goal.”
While Embiid isn’t playing with Butler, he is playing with Harden, who saw another disappointing postseason come to an end with his disappearing act in Game 6. Harden took just two shots in the second half — with the second one coming very late in the fourth quarter, after the game was already decided.
Asked what caused him to disappear offensively, Harden said, “”We ran our offense. The ball just didn’t get back to me.”
But when it came to his future in Philadelphia, Harden had a little more to say. With a $47 million player option this offseason, Harden has the choice to either pick that up and lock in that money, pick it up and extend with the 76ers or decline it and either sign elsewhere or sign a new deal.
Whatever option he chooses, however, Harden said he’ll be choosing to play here.
“I’ll be here,” Harden said.
Asked whether he’ll take less money, he added, “Whatever allows us to continue to grow and get better and do the things necessary to win and compete at a high level.”
What’s clear is the 76ers will need more than what they have to compete at the level they hope to. After the game, 76ers coach Doc Rivers repeatedly said this team “wasn’t good enough” to beat the Heat and said the roster has to improve.
And, in addition to Embiid’s comments about Philadelphia’s toughness needing to improve, Harris said the team’s mental toughness was a problem against Miami.
“It’s not simple to fix,” Harris said. “But I think it just comes with the intent. Every man to himself with the intent that you’re coming into the game, with the energy that you come in with, I think that’s a huge part of it. That’s something that we’ve, I will say, throughout this year, we’ve shown in many games how great we can be and we’ve shown when things are good how mentally tough we are. I think that you know, on the flip side of that, we didn’t do a great job of that when things weren’t going our way.”
Now, the 76ers will have a long offseason to think about it not going their way, and all of the ramifications of that being the case.
Embiid, meanwhile, said that he still expects to have surgery on the torn ligament in his right thumb, but that he doesn’t expect he’ll need it for his facial fracture. And he admitted that, after getting through the regular season healthy for the first time in his career, he was disappointed his season ended with him playing through multiple injuries that kept him from being his best.
“I don’t regret it because it’s life,” Embiid said. “It happens. You just got to deal with it. It sucks. Not not looking for any excuses. But those are just the facts. It sucks. I don’t think anybody will believe that I was 100%. So it does suck to get to the stage and not be yourself, not being able to do what you want, and your body not allowing you to just be yourself. So it sucks, but I have no regrets.”
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