Sixers creating the wrong kind of playoff tradition

Published May 18, 2022, 3:00 PMPolo Bustamante

Playoff flameouts are becoming a habit for Joel Embiid, James Harden, Doc Rivers, and the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Philadelphia 76ers tempted fate when they brought together Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Doc Rivers. On paper, this core was supposed to be a championship contender. To some (ahem, Kendrick Perkins), this was the second coming of the early 2000s LA Lakers. What could go wrong when a post monster, a perimeter killer, and a motivational coach team up?

What most people failed to realize was that Embiid, Harden, and Rivers all carried with them huge playoff red flags.

Embiid was undoubtedly the driving force of the 76ers this season. Without an All-Star partner for most of the season, he raised his game to higher MVP levels, carrying the team to the upper half of the East. As good as he is, Embiid always takes a beating in the regular season. Because of that, he’s never at full strength in the playoffs.

In 2018, he suffered a facial fracture that caused him to miss the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs. In 2019 it was knee tendinitis that slowed him down. In 2020 he seemed healthy, only for Coach Brett Brown to reveal that he was playing with an ankle injury. Last year, he tore his lateral meniscus. Embiid always soldiered on, playing through pain, just to keep his team in the hunt.

It’s the same story this season. Midway through the series against the Toronto Raptors, Embiid tore a ligament in his right thumb. Rather than sit out the rest of the playoffs, he played through the pain. In the series-clinching game of the first round, Embiid was hit in the face and suffered an orbital fracture. 

Embiid once again powered through the pain and even brought back the mask from his 2018 run. But it was obvious that the multiple injuries in this year’s playoffs severely limited him. He was far from his MVP self, averaging only 19.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.8 assists against the Miami Heat. He couldn’t carry Philly in the playoffs like he did in the regular season when he averaged a 30-11-4 line.

The Sixers supposedly injury-proofed their team by acquiring another MVP-level player in Harden. They moved heaven and earth to get a player that they can not only pair with Embiid, but can also carry a team by himself if needed. Harden showed during his time in Houston that all he needs are shooters and lob threats to make a team work, something Philly already had.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, Harden has a checkered playoff history. He’s known for shrinking during crucial games in the playoffs. In February, Zach Lowe analyzed all of Harden’s fourth quarters in each postseason game Harden has been in. His conclusion, which he shared on his podcast, is that Harden’s numbers are bad, especially in crucial games (elimination and 2-2 series games). Then again, the number-crunching by Lowe wasn’t needed to know that Harden’s biggest playoff moments are memorable in the wrong way. There was the iconic Manu Ginobili block in 2017, the 27 straight missed 3-pointers in 2018, and his 2-for-11 game against the Lakers in the Bubble.

Game 6 against the Heat is just another moment to add to that list. Facing elimination once again, Harden softened. After scoring 11 points in the first half, Harden completely disappeared in the second half. He took only two shots and didn’t score any points during that stretch. It’s ironic that Ben Simmons scored more than Harden in the infamous Game 7 in last year’s playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks.

Running the show in Philly is a coach known for blowing the most 3-1 series leads and his failure to adjust during the playoffs. His biggest mistake this year was keeping Embiid in the game during garbage time of their blowout win against Toronto. That led to an unnecessary injury to his most important player, one that could have been avoided. Giving actual minutes to DeAndre Jordan was just icing on the terrible coaching cake he was baking in the playoffs.

The problem moving forward into next season is that the Sixers haven’t learned from this season’s elimination. Embiid will still go hard in the regular season, at the expense of his playoff health. Harden already said he’s opting in for next season. He will still act like an MVP even if he’s far from MVP form. Rivers already publicly declared that he thinks he’s doing a “terrific job,” so there’s that. 

Unless things in Philly drastically change, the Sixers flaming out of the playoffs could be a new tradition to watch out for next season.