The 76ers fell apart quickly, and the fall probably isn’t over yet

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BOSTON – Four years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers fell in Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs in a tie-breaking quadruple-doink. Two years ago, the Sixers fell in Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs by seven at The Pass.

On Sunday, the Sixers fell again in Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs, only this time, their opponent, the Boston Celtics, didn’t need the help of a soft edge or a shortstop star . This time, the game was over well before the final horn. The Celtics, who have now knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs in three of the last six seasons, played better, smarter and tougher, cutting Philadelphia by a final score of 112-88, which doesn’t even do it justice the defeat To extract from one of the team’s old ad campaigns, process to move forward, this is not.

“We’ve played really well all year, and this loss absolutely diminishes that,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers told reporters after the game. “I thought we took another mental step this season. And tonight I thought we took that step back.”

How does this happen? How can a team that at different times of the season looked like a championship contender be beaten by so much? How can a team that, less than 72 hours ago, had a lead with less than five minutes left in a game where a win would have clinched the series, fall so quickly?

Of course, there were tactical reasons behind the Sixers’ collapse. Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla’s decision before Game 6 to insert Robert Williams III into his starting lineup, returning to his double lineup that had propelled the Celtics to the Finals last season, be a decision for which the Sixers had no answers.

Knowing Williams was behind him, Celtics big man Al Horford felt comfortable crowding Embiid and taking his jump shot. Knowing Williams was in front of him, Embiid stopped attacking the rim. Embiid finished the game with a paltry 15 points on an ugly 5-for-18 shooting.

Meanwhile, Harden, seemingly worried about Williams sliding from the weak side and hitting his shot, passed the ball almost every time he got to the paint. Finished with just nine points on 3-for-11 shooting. Turned the ball over five times.

“Defensively, they took away our bread and butter, which is the play and roll between me and James,” Embiid said after the loss. “We didn’t get a lot of the shots we usually do. They made a big adjustment and forced … James to attack and make plays with it, or finish over Rob or throw him in the corner and force the So I thought for the most part they did a good job as a team, every time they had the ball they were pulling to make sure there wasn’t [space] for me to drive.”

There’s more to it, though. The double-big gambit might have worked, but this latest Sixers collapse wasn’t just an example of a schematic change impeding a team’s offense. To describe it as one is a cop-out, and overlooks the real reasons for the defeat. Harden, after all, is a Hall of Famer. Embiid, after all, was recently named the league’s most valuable player. Stars of this caliber are supposed to be scheme-proof. And yet, in the most important game of the season, neither put in an adequate performance.

There was Embiid falling asleep watching the ball and finishing the backdoor. And Harden shot junk from mid-range because he was more focused on drawing fouls than attacking the hoop. And Embiid grabbed just four rebounds in the first three quarters of the game. And Harden only attempted four shots from inside the paint. And Embiid putting the ball under the rim and instead of slamming it home, shooting it to the perimeter. And Harden canceled an Embiid pick and then hit an ugly stepback 3. And Embiid looked like he’d never seen a double team before. And Harden turning an open layup into a flagrant foul for the Celtics, which seems like the premise of an unsolvable enigma. And Embiid and Harden combined for more turnovers (nine) than field goals (eight), and with the game falling out of reach for the Sixers amid a 24-3 run by the Celtics in the third quarter, joining forces for a violation of the back court, which, in some ways, could have been the most connected, the two seemed the whole game.

“I’ve got to be better,” Embiid said. We’ve seen this show from Harden before, but Embiid didn’t show a Game 7, especially one that represented a watershed moment for the franchise, 10 years after the day Sam Hinkie introduced himself as the Sixers. GM, it was the biggest disappointment. For years, we’ve seen others take the blame for the Sixers’ playoff failures. First it was Bryan Colangelo’s fault. Then it was Brett Brown’s fault. Then it was Elton Brand and Al Horford’s fault. Then it was Ben Simmons’ fault. Then it was Harden’s fault. But other than ownership, the only constant from the previous six seasons, all of which have ended with the Sixers heading home before the conference finals, a round they haven’t reached since 2001, has been Embiid.

The Sixers star is starting to develop a troubled playoff resume. This year, once again, his numbers plummeted in the postseason. He finished the playoffs averaging 23.7 points per game on 43.1 percent shooting, after averaging 33.1 on 54.8 percent shooting during the regular season. His assists dropped from 4.2 to 2.7 and his turnovers increased from 1.7 to 3.9. The Sixers might have the MVP, but it was Celtics star Jayson Tatum — who finished with 51 points on 28 shots — who was the best player on the court on Sunday.

The Sixers are now at a crossroads. It is not clear how they improve. The first decision will be whether he returns to Rivers. Asked after the game if he plans to come back, Rivers said: “Yeah. I think I’ve got two years left. [on my contract].” But he also acknowledged that “No one is safe in our business.”

Firing coaches seems to be all the rage these days. And the availability of a number of quality coaches – Mike Budenholzer, Monty Williams, Nick Nurse – could make for an attractive switch. However, laying the blame for this season at Rivers’ feet would be a mistake. Under his watch, the Embiid-Harden pairing formed the league’s most potent pick-and-roll, Tyrese Maxey improved as a player, and the Sixers racked up a ton of wins. A coach with the creativity of, say, a nurse might be an improvement. But that’s not solving all of the Sixers’ problems.

“I [think] he’s done a great job,” Embiid said. “He came here, I think we’ve gotten better throughout the year … we have a great relationship.”

Harden, when asked about Rivers, was, well, less enthusiastic. “Our relationship is fine,” he said. Not being a huge fan of his coach would be a problem, if we were certain that Harden planned to return to Philly. He has a player option on his contract, which he is expected to decline to become a free agent. There are also some kind of rumors and speculations that he would like to return to his former team, the Houston Rockets.

“I haven’t even thought about it,” Harden said when asked after the game about his contract plans. Complicating it is all he has about the Sixers. Harden would certainly like another payday. But at 34, and with his body and game clearly in decline, it’s probably not a great idea.

That said, what if the Rockets are willing to offer Harden so much money that it would require the Sixers to counter with a cap deal? It’s not a contract they should hand over, but thanks to Tobias Harris’ mega-deal, if they lose Harden, they don’t have the ability to replace him. It seems their options are to keep Harden by overpaying or lose him for nothing and, with it, his status as a championship contender. In other words: there are no good options.

For all that, Sunday’s Game 7 performance will be as big for as long. It really felt like the last stand for the Embiid-led team. Not only did they lose, they barely even put up a fight.

“I thought we had the right group,” Rivers said. “I really did.”

They didn’t. And for this current group, that might have been the last shot.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the top: the Philadelphia 76ers and the boldest process in the history of professional sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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