Series Two Sixers Wrap-up


Photo from Sports Illustrated

Max Rubenstein, Currents Associate Editor

Heading into round two, morale was low among 76ers fans at home, as MVP finalist Joel Embiid suffered a fractured orbital and mild concussion in the series closer against the Toronto Raptors in Round One. As opposed to the Miami Heat’s efficient dispatching of the Atlanta Hawks, who not long ago beat the Sixers in a franchise-altering 7-game series.

Without their starting center, Philadelphia lost a major factor in the flow of their offense and an imposing paint presence in their defense. To put it simply, the Sixers’ were entering the series supremely handicapped. While there were rumors of a potential Embiid return in Game 3 or 4, the roster was looking helpless against the first seed of the Eastern Conference.

To little surprise, Miami took the first two games, with former 76er Jimmy Butler exemplifying his two-way capacity and the young shooter Tyler Hero knocking down shots from deep. Without a leader, Philadelphia was in need of a player to step up, whether it be Tyrese Maxey, who has had a breakout season and postseason, or new acquisition James Harden. Unfortunately, neither stepped up to the level needed to match the competitiveness of the Heat.

Down 2-0 and heading back to Philadelphia, Embiid announced his return for game three, and the Sixers were able to take advantage of the excited home crowd and triumph in both Games 3 and 4. Joel’s return shifted the tides of the series. While he was putting up below average numbers–compared to his standards–the energy he was able to create allowed teammates like the growingly passive James Harden to have a breakout game, and facilitators to be put in less burdensome positions. 

Embiid’s impact was limited because he was playing with a mild concussion, fractured orbital, and a torn ligament in his thumb. Although he was still making plays, one could see his shooting form was inhibited by his injured thumb–a couple of shots even appeared to have no rotation–and there were several stoppages that saw Joel rolling against the floor after having been hit upon his fractured orbital. Nonetheless, fans like Radnor’s Matthew Ryeom still believed “even though MVPiid [Joel Embiid] is injured, we’re still going all the way.”

But Philadelphia would not go all the way; an increased intensity defensively from P.J. Tucker, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo saw the Sixers, most specifically Harden, struggling to find options offensively. The Sixers were, frankly, dominated the next two games, losing the series 4-2.

In typical Sixers’ fashion, much of the blame was shifted to Harden as he had only 11 points in Game 5 and 14 in the closing Game 6. Philadelphia fans are again up in arms, just as in the last Eastern Conference semifinals with target Ben Simmons. After trading Simmons,  Seth Curry, and Andre Drummond with the Brooklyn Nets for guard James Harden, the expectations were set sky-high by fans. While Harden did not play well during his experience as a Net, he was playing on an injury for most of this time, and it was apparent he wasn’t a great fit for the team overall. 

It seemed like a perfect pair to complement a pick-and-roll offense with a paint beast like Embiid and a knockdown shooter like Harden. However, Harden has not seemed to recapture the flame he had as a Houston Rocket, shooting very inconsistently and frequently, as seen in the final two games of the series, then disappearing from play. Especially with the lockdown defense from P.J. Tucker, Harden was getting outplayed offensively and defensively over the course of the series, he seemed to even lose motivation. 

While many, like Radnor’s Jacob Shalev, are again exclaiming “Harden should be shipped back to Houston,” it should be mentioned that Harden was never that much of a consistent shooter in his time as a Rocket, nor as a Brooklyn Net. But in Houston, where the offense completely revolved around him, there was no need for him to up his shooting percentages, as he still was averaging absurdly high points per game. As seen in players like college phenom Jimmer Ferdet, guards whose teams revolve around them often do not translate well to role changes.

Ben Selbach makes the point that “he is still pretty new and all these expectations never could be met…We’ll figure things out over the summer.” And while the fans have always wanted Doc Rivers gone, James Harden will likely remain the new enemy from within, given President Darell Morey’s history of patience and playing the long game. 

With a healthy Joel and a more present Harden, the 76ers may have been able to defeat the Miami Heat. But for a majority of the series, Miami looked to be the better team. Whether the strategy is blowing the team up or building it stronger, the Sixers are back to the cutting room table this summer.