PHILADELPHIA -- The stage was set. After two consecutive wins, the Philadelphia 76ers had a golden opportunity to close out their Eastern Conference semifinals series with the rival Boston Celtics in front of their raucous home crowd in Game 6 on Thursday night and end their conference finals drought, but they were ultimately unable to do so.
After a sluggish start to the game that saw them fall behind 15-3 out of the gate, the Sixers shook off some early nerves, climbed back into the contest over the course of the first half and found themselves down by just seven at halftime. They were able to erase that deficit entirely in the third quarter and took a two point lead into the final frame. At that point they were in control of their own destiny -- up 3-2 in the series with a lead heading into the fourth quarter in their own building. Closeout opportunities don't come too much more ideal than that.
Things didn't go Philadelphia's way in that fourth quarter, though, as their offense bogged down, and they were able to muster just 13 points over the final 12 minutes of action. The Celtics, on the other hand, scored 24 points during that same span, and they were able to pull out a season-saving 95-86 victory as a result. Now, the series is tied at three games apiece and the decisive Game 7 will be played in Boston, where the Celtics will have the home crowd -- and any lingering momentum -- behind them.
So, what went wrong for the Sixers down the stretch of the game? It was a three-pronged problem according to newly crowned league MVP Joel Embiid.
"I think it was three things," Embiid said after the game. "We had a lot of wide-open shots, we didn't make them. We stopped moving the ball and I don't think I touched the ball the last four minutes of the game. Like I said, we missed a lot of good looks. I didn't touch the ball at all."
When discussing his lack of touches in the final minutes of the game, Embiid was completely correct. He took six shots and scored six points in the final frame, but his last shot attempt came on a missed jumper with 3:56 remaining. At that point the Celtics led 84-83. From there on out, Embiid didn't take another shot, and Boston outscored Philadelphia 11-3 to close out the game.
Blame who you want -- Doc Rivers, his teammates, or Embiid himself -- but that's simply unacceptable. This is the MVP of the league we're talking about. He should be getting attempt after attempt down the stretch of a closeout game. There's simply no excuse for the offense not to continue to flow through him. Embiid's inability to establish himself late cost the Sixers in this game, and it could prove to be a stretch of play that the Sixers come to rue.
While the Sixers struggled to get their best player involved in the fourth quarter, the opposite occurred for Boston. After playing poorly and scoring a total of just three points over the first three quarters, Celtics star forward Jayson Tatum went off for 16 points in the fourth to close the door on Philly's hopes of avoiding a seventh game. Tatum outscored the Sixers singlehandedly over the final 12 minutes, and his late explosion largely papered over his previous ineffectiveness.
A lineup adjustment by Boston coach Joe Mazzulla that saw the Celtics slide Robert Williams into the first five alongside Al Horford proved beneficial as it contributed to Philadelphia's slow start. The Celtics had Williams clog the paint by playing off of P.J. Tucker in the corner. His presence in the paint mucked things up for Philadelphia's offense, as it eliminated easy looks for Embiid and others. The Sixers were slow to adapt, and by the time Doc Rivers subbed Tucker out four and a half minutes into the game, the Celtics had already built a 12-point lead. Philly was then forced to play from behind from very early on.
Assuming the Celtics start Williams again in Game 7, it will be interesting to see if the Sixers adjust accordingly. Starting a more reliable and willing floor-spacer like Georges Niang instead of Tucker could be an option, though it seems unlikely that Rivers will want to tinker with his first five at this point in the series. Opting to use Tucker as a ball-screener in order to lift Williams out of the paint rather than just having him consistently camp in the corner is probably a more likely option. The Celtics moved their chess piece, now it's time for the Sixers to counter.
"We know what we have to do," Embiid said. "We've gone on the road and we've won. It's not going to be easy... Everybody has to step up, starting with me. I've got to be more aggressive as far as shooting and getting my teammates open looks. Everybody else has to do their job and everybody has to show up. But, it's going to be fun. Game 7. That's what we play for, these types of games. Tonight was pretty tough, but we know how much we could've been better. We missed a lot of good opportunities, especially going into the fourth up two. They made a lot of tough shots. That's the name of the game. We've got to respond and we've got to go win."
The Sixers have already won two games in Boston in this series, so they're clearly capable of it, but winning a Game 7 on the road is a whole different animal, especially against a team as tough and as experienced as the Celtics. Taking care of business at home obviously would have been preferable. They had the Celtics on the ropes heading into the fourth quarter, but they were unable to deliver a knockout blow. Now Boston lives to fight another day, and the missed opportunity that was Game 6 could come back to haunt Philadelphia.