LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Since they arrived at the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort, the Philadelphia 76ers have stressed the importance of Joel Embiid‘s improved reads out of double-teams to the Sixers’ success.
But in the final two minutes of Game 3 of Philadelphia’s first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, Embiid made crucial mistakes — a terrible pass that went directly to Celtics guard Marcus Smart and a forced shot that was blocked by Celtics forward Jayson Tatum. The mistakes led to six Boston points, part of a 10-0 run to end the game that allowed the Celtics to claim a 102-94 victory Friday and take a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series between the league’s oldest rivals.
“I thought I got better at passing out of the double-teams, and it happened,” Embiid said afterward. “I turned it over. That was a big mistake. That was on me. It happens, and you move on.”
The problem for the Sixers, though, is those mistakes have put them on the verge of being sent home by the Celtics from the playoffs for the second time in three years — and in humiliating fashion, at that.
It was a minor miracle the Sixers could even have a shot to win the game at the end, considering how their offense performed. Philadelphia finished the game shooting an abysmal 29.5% from the floor, and an even worse 9-for-39 (23.1%) from 3-point range.
“We just couldn’t make a shot,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “We truly couldn’t make a shot. The good news of 20 offensive rebounds is a fantastic effort, but lots of that were there’s lots of rebounds to get. I give our guys credit for continuing to shoot the shots they should’ve. I give our guys credit for going to the offensive boards. Twenty is a large number. But it’s tough to win when you shoot 29% for the game and 23% from the 3. It’s really difficult to do that. We got to the line, we did a lot of good things.
“We just did not make shots.”
Due to those Embiid mistakes — coupled with Josh Richardson getting blocked by Tatum on the following possession — Philadelphia didn’t even get a shot to the rim while the Celtics rattled off eight consecutive points to put the game away. After the Sixers have spent the past six weeks declaring that Embiid would be able to operate out of those double-teams successfully in these moments, it was a particularly deflating series of events.
“I think the last two plays are disappointing,” Brown said. “I don’t think you can minimize that, or say it any other way. I do feel like he’s made tremendous progress in the environment that didn’t favor him at the end of the game during crunch time. I’ve gone back and seen those two plays. If we had to do it again, there’s other targets that were open. We made the wrong read, and there’s the game.
“I’m glad we got him the ball. I wish we did better after we got him it.”
Embiid was dominant in the first half, racking up 22 points and 10 rebounds before the break while going 6-for-11 from the field. But in the second half, Embiid shot just 1-for-9 from the field, making his lone field goal with less than six minutes to go in the game, and finished the night with 30 points and 13 rebounds — along with being minus-18 in his 35 minutes on the court.
“I mean, we were just running the offense,” Embiid said of his lack of production in the second half. “Mostly thinking back in that third quarter and the start of the fourth, it was a bunch of plays, you know, just like, set screens and stuff, and just running through calls and stuff. If I’m going to set a screen, if the ball finds me, good. If it doesn’t, we can use me to kind of set my teammates up to help them and get some shots. You know, it was a bunch of pick-and-rolls when we used me as a decoy, and that’s probably the reason. But we could have done more.”
At this point, whether the Sixers could have done more is irrelevant. All that matters is that they find themselves in a 3-0 deficit heading into Game 4 on Sunday afternoon. Still, despite the loss and the deficit the Sixers now find themselves in, both Embiid and Brown remained defiant afterward about their team’s chances of beginning to fight its way back into the series.
“You can’t give up,” Embiid said. “You’ve got to keep fighting. You’ve got to play hard. You’ve got to come in on Sunday … I don’t want to be swept. I don’t want that on my résumé, so like I said, I’ve been playing my butt off, and I’m going to come in and do everything that I can to make sure that we win a game and take one game at a time.”
Typically, the Sixers would have been playing Games 3 and 4 of this series at home as the lower-seeded team. And while Brown said during his television interview between the third and fourth quarters Friday that the “crowd” — as in the crowd noise being pumped into the arena to present some sort of home-court feel for the “home” team in this neutral-court environment — helped his team stay in the game, the Sixers will be the first team to face elimination inside the NBA’s bubble when they take the court at 1 p.m. ET Sunday (ABC).
Still, Brown said those circumstances — and the fact no NBA team has ever come back from down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series — doesn’t have him thinking Philadelphia’s season has already come to an end.
“I’m not rolling over,” Brown said. “I understand, I get it, everybody would assume this series is over because we’re out 3 and 0. I’m not trying to be Knute Rockne with my sincere opinion. We’re going to come in and play the game and get a win.
“It’s to keep a series alive. I truly mean that. That’s my message to them, that’s my message to my staff, and that’s what I think.”