With under two minutes to play in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, the Philadelphia 76ers had the ball right where they wanted.
Josh Richardson fed All-Star center Joel Embiid in the post, where Celtics center Enes Kanter was ready to defend him. Embiid had just knocked down two key free throws to give his team a 94-92 lead, bringing his point total on the night to 30. But that’s where it would stay.
Upon catching Richardson’s pass, Embiid was soon double-teamed. He looked to get rid of the ball and sailed a crosscourt pass that Marcus Smart leaped up to deflect into the hands of Jaylen Brown, who pushed the ball up the court for an and-1 layup in transition. Instead of potentially leading by two possessions with 90 seconds to go, the Sixers found themselves trailing by one.
Smart’s key steal was yet another example of his positive impact.
“He just made a lot of winning plays,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He still hasn’t seen the ball go through the net like he’s used to, but it doesn’t even affect him. The guy’s all about one thing and that’s winning. He was great again tonight.”
The 76ers had another chance to put the pressure on the Celtics, though. On Philly’s very next play, the team once again got the ball to Embiid, who looked to attack off the dribble this time. As he attempted to get his shot off, however, Jayson Tatum swiped the ball from behind. Embiid ended up on the floor, slamming a fist in frustration.
With an easy transition bucket imminent, Richardson regrettably committed a clear path foul on Tatum, which meant the Celtics would get two free throws and maintain possession.
The back-to-back turnovers sunk the Sixers — and their playoff hopes. With Boston’s bonus possession as a result of the clear path foul, point guard Kemba Walker hit Al Horford with a step-back jumper and gave his team a four-point edge with 65 seconds remaining. In other circumstances, that lead certainly doesn’t mean game over.
But with this iteration of the Sixers, who shot an abysmal 29.5 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from three, it was. Philly stayed scoreless for the final two minutes of the game.
After the 102-94 defeat, Embiid said he thought he was fouled on the second of the two botched possessions. The league’s Last Two-Minute Report will reveal if the officials made the correct decision.
Regarding his other mistake, Embiid shouldered the blame. Passing out of double teams has been a constant point of emphasis for the 7-footer.
“I turned it over,” he said. “That was a big mistake. That was on me.”
Sixers coach Brett Brown called the two plays, “disappointing.”
“There’s the game,” he said. “I don’t think you can minimize that or say it any other way.
So, what now?
Nobody would have blinked an eye if the 76ers had just rolled over in Game 3, so the fact that the team put forth a competitive effort is a positive development. The Sixers’ 20 offensive rebounds are reflective of their effort, but, as Brown noted, 20 offensive rebounds require quite a lot of missed shots. Plus, Philly went 5 of 15 on those extra possessions.
“We just couldn’t make a shot,” Brown said. “We truly just couldn’t make a shot.”
That same level of effort will need to return Sunday in Game 4, if the Sixers want a chance at victory. Both Brown and Embiid insisted they are determined to earn a win and brushed off the notion that the motivation to do so solely stems from pride.
“Like, I understand,” Brown said. “I get it. Everybody would assume that this series is over because we’re out 3-0. I’m not trying to be Knute Rockne with my sincere opinion is we’re going to come in and play the game and get a win.”
Added Embiid: “I don’t want to be swept. I don’t want that on my resumé. Like I said, I’ve been playing my butt off. I’m going to come in and do everything I can to make sure we win a game.”
After each game, Embiid has vowed to do more and more and more — and he has. But his pair of fourth-quarter mistakes blew his biggest chance to carry his team.
“It sucks, but you can’t give up,” Embiid said. “We can do it.”