On Sunday, Michael Levin, one of the hosts of The Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast, tweeted the following: “the two best words in sports: Game 7. the two worst words in sports: the Sixers.” Great tweet, and the thing that makes it even better is that it went out three hours before tipoff, a 112–88 Philadelphia 76ers loss to the Boston Celtics, a game in which Boston’s Jayson Tatum was amazing. Your current NBA MVP Joel Embiid was terrible. James Harden was also terrible, and Doc Rivers came out the loser for the 10th time in a Game 7 as a head coach, five more than anyone else—or if you prefer multiplication, twice as many as anyone else. The loss knocked Philly out of the postseason, and on Tuesday, the 76ers fired Rivers, the first head to roll after the team’s third straight season getting bounced from the playoffs’ second round.
On Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen this week, hosts Josh Levin and Stefan Fatsis spoke with the Washington Post’s NBA writer, Ben Golliver, about who on the 76ers is really to blame for the franchise’s latest heartbreak, and where the team and its personnel may go from here. Golliver also co-hosts the basketball podcast Greatest of All Talk. Their conversation is transcribed below; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Levin: One could argue that the Sixers actually overachieved, Ben, by making it to a Game 7, given that the Celtics were the higher seed. Will you dare, on this planet, on this day, to argue that the Philadelphia 76ers are overachievers?
Ben Golliver: Wow, that’s quite the take. I don’t think anyone in Philly would agree with you. I think those Sixers diehards you were quoting earlier are probably having a hard time getting out of bed this morning. I think the frustrating part for the entire experience is that they made it to Game 7 because they finally got enough help around Joel Embiid to go deep in a series against a quality opponent. Now, since Embiid’s been there, they’ve never beaten a 50-win team in a playoff series. Their only victories are typically first-round wins against teams that sometimes are even below .500. So they get two 40-point performances from James Harden in wins. They get Boston laying a complete egg in the middle of this series, giving them a winning Game 5, and they have this golden opportunity back at home in Game 6 to take care of business and close the door. And Joel Embiid just can’t deliver, and then they get another chance in Game 7.
And it wasn’t just the foreboding fans who were preparing for doom in Game 7. There’s leaking reports about referee disparities before Game 7. They’re almost trying to lay the groundwork, just in case this thing goes awry. And we’ve seen that from the Sixers before. In 2021, Doc Rivers had a very ominous pregame press conference before Game 7 against the Hawks, where he essentially said he hoped his team didn’t choke. And sure enough, they went out there and did. So I don’t think the vibes were very good going into [this] Game 7, and the way they rolled over, I got to say, it wasn’t super surprising to me. Draymond Green has coined this idea of the 82-game player versus the 16-game player, and typically, among the NBA players, they love to celebrate the 16-game guys: the players who raise their games in the postseason. But they don’t love to point the finger at the 82-game players, the guys who, maybe they’re better in the regular season and can’t quite translate their skills to the playoffs.
And I think, right now, among the superstar class, there is no clearer 82-game player than Joel Embiid. He’s just not the same guy in the playoffs, whether it’s for health reasons, whether it’s because his offensive game isn’t as effective against high-level defenses, and whether it’s his defensive limitations, in terms of going out and playing in space and not being quite as versatile as the very best playoff defenders, like Anthony Davis. They all came back to bite the Sixers in this series. [Embiid] got plenty of help to win this series in six or seven games, and ultimately, he didn’t step up and bring it home.
Stefan Fatsis: Help us understand what happened in Game 7, Ben, because the Sixers played well in the first half. This was a close game, and then they scored 10 points in the third quarter, which was the lowest, I think, in the history of the NBA playoffs in the shot clock era. Part of it was Jayson Tatum exploding and not missing anything and finishing with 51 points to set a Game 7 playoff record. What happened in that quarter?
Golliver: Well, they fell to pieces, and I think there’s a couple different reasons for it. First of all, I have this phrase: “It’s not always about you, bro.” Sometimes it’s just about Jayson Tatum scoring 51 points, and whatever happened to your own offense would be irrelevant. But I think a big part of it is mental. They’ve been in a number of these collapses before. Doc Rivers’ closeout game record is not excellent. Joel Embiid has not had that signature moment, in the playoffs, of confidence boosting, of being able to get over the hump. And the Celtics have haunted the Sixers, Joel Embiid—and for decades, frankly, before Joel Embiid was even there, [Philly] has really struggled in that matchup. It’s a tough matchup for Philadelphia, because Boston shoots the three so well and because they’ve got arguably the best Embiid-stopper in the NBA right now in Al Horford, who played sensational defense across this series, limiting Joel Embiid, confusing him, frustrating him, kind of coaxing him into turnovers. And I think you could see their confidence wane from there.
Philly, to me, their energy—especially Embiid and Harden’s—wasn’t great even to start the game, as those two teams were feeling each other out. But coming out in the third quarter, it was clear Boston was ready to switch into sixth gear. Philadelphia couldn’t keep up with them, and it was really their offense that fell apart. They weren’t getting good shots, there were turnover issues. The ball movement wasn’t great. It was a lot of stagnant jumpers, just one shot and no rebounds, and back they go the other way. And it just got to a point where it was demoralizing.
That’s what you have to guard against if you’re a team with a checkered playoff past, because as soon as it starts to slip, you get that feeling of, like, “Oh boy, here we go again.” And that’s exactly what you saw from Harden and Embiid, where the effort down the stretch and the production down the stretch was just not close to what we would think of as their regular season standard.
Levin: For a man who accused me of firing off a spicy take in the intro, I was genuinely taken aback when you did that whole run-up with the 82-game player thing and said Joel Embiid instead of James Harden. I was like, “Whoa.” I actually didn’t see that coming.
Didn’t we see in Game 6, Ben, that just a tiny twist of fate changed the whole narrative away from “Joel Embiid gets the Sixers into the Eastern Conference Finals and maybe he’d have a just absolutely rip-roaring amazing series against the Heat”? I don’t know if [Miami’s] Bam [Adebayo] might have something to say about that. But then, you have Jayson Tatum put up one of the worst performances in an elimination game ever [in Game 6], until halfway through the fourth quarter, and then, comes back with the greatest Game 7, in terms of points, ever.
Are you just being descriptive of “Joel Embiid hasn’t won in the playoffs,” which I think we can agree with, or are you saying there is something wrong with Joel Embiid?
Golliver: Well, this is a little bit of a hobby horse of mine, because throughout his tenure in Philadelphia, there’s been a lot of scapegoats. [Former head coach] Brett Brown became a scapegoat, got himself fired after the bubble. Ben Simmons, maybe the biggest scapegoat of the last 25 years in the NBA—surely, he had his shortcomings in the playoffs too. But if you consistently go series by series, Joel Embiid has had injury issues that have impacted his team’s ability to win games. He’s had these mysterious illnesses during series, where people just don’t know whether they can count on him. He’s had a lot of duds, low-efficiency scoring performances, in closeout and elimination games. And I’ve long felt that he’s the [Sixers’] best player; he’s the max salary player; he’s in his prime. Typically, when we assess blame after series losses, those types of players get it first.
And in Philadelphia, he’s such a charming guy. People love this idea that he’s the modern Shaq, from a personality standpoint, and he’s funny on Twitter with the trolling. People seem to like him, and I’ve always felt he’s just a little bit Teflon. He’s escaped criticism more often maybe than he should in postseasons past.
I do think that changed this year. I do think people started to realize, like, “Wait a minute, the nature of his game isn’t ideally conducive to postseason basketball.” I’ll give you a couple examples. The best thing that he does, he’s the NBA scoring leader. He’s a great mid-range shooter, he’s great at getting to the free-throw line, and he’s great at kind of punishing smaller defenders going toward the basket during the regular season. As you progress through the playoffs, all of those things get more challenging. You’re facing more double teams, so you don’t get these wide open mid-range jumpers.
You’re not going against these oversized centers, who you can just plow to the hoop, because you’ve got to deal with Al Horford and Robert Williams and Boston’s wings. You’ve got to deal with more traps and double-teams that are trying to confuse you and take the ball out of your hands. And then, you’re not getting to the free-throw line as much. As we saw, that really dried up in this series, because if you’re just trying to foul-bait or making that a huge part of your game, you’re at the mercy and the whims of the referees. And sometimes, you don’t get the calls. So his scoring average has gone way down in the postseason, compared to the regular season, consistently over his career.
On the defensive side, he had some amazing rim-protection moments in this series, especially considering his knee injury. To be able to get up, to have the timing, to trust your wobbly knee, and really contest people above the rim is a huge asset for a defense, and it’s something that you would expect to go away if he was dealing with a significant knee injury, just because of the strain, both mentally and physically, on a player in those spots. He was able to get it done around the basket quite a bit. And if you look at how [the 76ers] played defense without him in Game 1, compared to when he was back on the court in Game 2—from an interior defense standpoint, Philadelphia was much better [with him]. But what you saw in Game 7 was [Boston’s] perimeter attack, with Jayson Tatum leading the way from the 3-point shot, but also, Al Horford stepping out and taking threes—Jalen Brown, Marcus Smart, all of Boston’s shooters.
Joel Embiid does not have a significant defensive impact against those kinds of players. And he wasn’t great in pick-and-roll situations either, because he’s not the most mobile player. He wants to sit in the paint and contest those shots. But in the modern NBA, this is a wing-dominated league; it’s a 3-point dominated league. And Jayson Tatum is getting switched out to [Embiid] on the perimeter and just looking at him like he’s dinner. He’s licking his lips and shooting 3-pointers right over the top of him. You see the effectiveness, both defensively and offensively, decrease in the postseason for Joel Embiid.
I don’t think it’s just a matter of, he has to go back in the gym and work a little bit harder and fix that. These are just sort of who he is, as this giant man, this 7-footer, a nearly 300-pound player. Those are some of the things that you have to live with if you’re the Philadelphia 76ers, and you have to work around. And unfortunately, they’ve consistently hit walls, in large part, because Embiid has those limitations.
Fatsis: Wow, James Harden sucked. Are we overlooking that? And he has sucked in elimination games many times before.
Golliver: The great thing about the Sixers is you can blame everyone, and you’ll be right. James Harden absolutely came up small. His fourth quarter numbers, in Games 5, 6, and 7—I don’t think he’s scored in the fourth quarter of those three games. Harden’s always going to get criticism. Doc Rivers is a very easy target. But it is time, in this life cycle of the Sixers, for people to look a little bit more closely at Embiid.
And remember, James Harden’s not in his prime. James Harden wasn’t an All-Star this year. James Harden isn’t on a max salary. James Harden might not be there next year. So if you’re really trying to “fix the Philadelphia 76ers,” blaming James Harden and scapegoating James Harden is going to be about as effective as scapegoating Ben Simmons and getting yourself stuck into that quagmire. I think what you’ve really got to do is look hard at what Embiid is capable of doing in the playoffs, and then finding the right mix of players who can offset some of those shortcomings if you eventually want to get over the hump.