Revisiting the Sixers’ 3rd-Quarter Collapse in Game 7 vs. Boston Celtics

Sixers, Embiid
Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) watches from the bench as the 76ers fall behind the Boston Celtics during the second half of Game 7 in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series, Sunday, May 14, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Sunday, May 14, 2023, the Earth quivered slightly from the collective release of bated breaths from the entirety of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ fanbase as their team headed into the locker room at halftime down just three points despite facing an immense amount of adversity in the first 24 minutes of Game 7.

What would go on to become one of the worst Mother’s Days in Philadelphia history didn’t start off as a blowout, despite Joel Embiid and James Harden struggling heavily in the first half while Jayson Tatum was halfway through an unprecedented scoring performance.

Behind the elevated play from their role players, particularly with some uncharacteristically aggressive outside shooting from P.J. Tucker, the Sixers seemingly survived Boston’s best shot through two quarters, instilling hope into the fans that if the MVP and Harden showed up for the second half, they could advance past the second round for the first time in Embiid’s tragic postseason history. Then, the third quarter happened.


Sixers/Celtics 3rd Quarter Play-by-Play for Game 7

Sixers
Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) shoots at the basket as Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) defends during the first half of Game 7 in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series, Sunday, May 14, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

(12:00) After a discouragingly slow start in the first half from Joel Embiid, the Sixers made it a point to come out of the intermission and get him going. On the first possession, James Harden spoon-fed him two straight touches. The first, an isolation on the left flank against Jayson Tatum. After the MVP dribbles into a double team with Al Horford coming to help, he resets the ball back to Harden before settling into the mid-post against Horford. He gets the ball back and works his way toward the lane. After drawing a double, he finds Tobias Harris open for three in the right corner. Splash. 55-55, tie ballgame.

(11:33) The Celtics come back with a sloppy possession that goes nowhere. Eventually, Marcus Smart wound up with a post-up against Tyrese Maxey with seven seconds left on the shot block. He wills in a tough turnaround fadeaway. 57-55 Celtics.


The Sixers Start to Unravel

Sixers
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, center, drives toward the basket past Philadelphia 76ers guards De’Anthony Melton (8) and Tyrese Maxey (0) during the second half of Game 7 in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series, Sunday, May 14, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

(11:09) Embiid goes straight into the high-post against Horford on the left side of the court. He faces up, and quickly draws a double before firing a pass into the right corner that nearly skies above P.J. Tucker’s head. Tucker’s able to corral the rock and swing it over to Tyrese Maxey wide-open on the right wing in one upward motion. Maxey leaves it short, but Tobias Harris was questionably whistled for an illegal screen anyways.

(10:54) Boston takes its time getting into their action, ultimately coming up with a pick-and-roll (PnR) with Jaylen Brown handling the ball and Tatum setting the screen. Brown gets Tucker on the switch and misses on a contested pull-up middy at the stripe.

(10:34) The Sixers elect to go slow after grabbing the rebound, walking into a Harden-Embiid PnR. Harden refuses the screen and finds Embiid rolling toward the stripe. The big man goes into a face-up against Horford before getting stripped from behind by Marcus Smart. During the scrum for the rock, Embiid is called for a kicked-ball violation resulting in Boston taking possession.

(10:15) Boston runs several different screen actions to try to draw a mismatch. Finally, they get Embiid guarding Tatum on the right wing. Tatum blows by the MVP and gets a lay-in through a half-hearted crowd of Sixers, adding to his 25-point, 9-16 shooting start from the first half. 59-55.

(09:49) Harden gets to the rim driving right off of an Embiid screen, elects not to go to the floater or try to finish through the help, but finds P.J. Tucker open in the left corner for a triple. Unfortunately, he’s well-cooled back to room temperature at this point and bricks it.

(09:28) Tatum draws Embiid on a switch again after the Cs go into a semi-transition opportunity following the rebound. The MVP does a much better job walling off his drives, but Tatum hits on a side-step 3-ball from the left corner. Timeout Sixers, 62-55.

(09:09) With the brief stoppage in play, Sixers’ head coach Doc Rivers comes out with… a Harden-Embiid PnR that’s well contained by the Cs defense. Harden kicks into the left corner, and Tobias Harris bricks a triple that’s tightly contested by Tatum.

(08:49) Boston elects to go slow after securing the rock. Tatum gets Embiid on another perimeter switch and drains a triple from the top despite a good contest. 65-55.

(08:21) The Sixers go back to the Harden-Embiid PnR, and the Beard draws Horford on the switch. He goes to work before nailing a patented step-back three. 58-65.

(07:59) Boston goes fast after the make, drawing mismatches with Harden fronting Horford on the low block and Embiid matching up with a trailing Tatum after the inbound. Philadelphia prevents the entry pass to Horford, but Tatum takes Embiid to the hole and draws a foul. He hits both free throws, 67-58.

(07:50) The Sixers run three different screens that lead nowhere. Maxey winds up losing his dribble trying to attack Tatum. Embiid ends up with the loose ball but has to fire a 33-foot jumper over two defenders that misses everything, which results in a shot clock violation.

(07:26) Melton comes in for P.J. Tucker and harasses Jaylen Brown for the majority of the possession. The Celtics set a screen to get Maxey onto Brown, who misses a midrange fader over his shorter defender.

(07:08) Harden goes quick after the rebound, driving left and collapsing the defense before kicking it out to Harris on the left flank. Harris and Embiid play hot potato on the left wing before Tobi gets it back in the left corner and misses long on an open triple.

(06:56) In semi-transition, the Cs find Brown in rhythm for a slightly contested three. 70-58.

(06:42) Joel Embiid isolates against Horford from behind the arc, dribbling into a turnaround fadeaway that’s blocked. Harris wrestles with Horford for the rebound, but the ball spills out of bounds giving Boston the possession.

(06:25) The Sixers are sitting in a zone with Maxey on Tatum. The Cs run a high PnR, with Horford springing Tatum for an open three, which he buries. 73-58, timeout Sixers.


The Point of No Return

Sixers
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) shoots at the basket as Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris, left, and guard De’Anthony Melton, behind center, defend during the second half of Game 7 in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series, Sunday, May 14, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

After that Tatum triple, the game was never in question again. Between the Celtics playing with confidence, picking their spots, and Tatum hitting several tough shots en route to the highest-scoring individual Game 7 of all time, the Philadelphia 76ers’ confidence was completely deflated. In just under six minutes of playing time, the Sixers allowed an 18-6 run, committed three turnovers, and Harden and Embiid combined for just three points on 1-3 shooting.

The Beard’s hesitation was palpable, and Doc Rivers’s lack of creativity on offense only grows more infuriating the more one watches it. This wasn’t a short stretch of hot shooting from one team and sloppy play from the other. No, it was a slow dissection of a wounded animal hanging on for dear life.

For what it’s worth, Embiid didn’t seem scared during the run. If anything, he forced the issue, going virtually one-on-five over and over again to no avail.

Following the timeout, the Celtics would score another 10 straight points before the Sixers got another bucket. Philly never really recovered from that six-minute stretch, and Boston continued to pile it on. By the time that merciless third period ended, the lead was 88-62 Celtics, who had won the quarter 33-9.

Now, the Sixers look forward to the horizon with new Head Coach Nick Nurse installed. However one might feel about the hiring, there’s no telling if Philadelphia would have won that game if Nurse was calling the plays. One thing can be safely assumed, though: that a Nurse-led team probably wouldn’t have repeatedly spammed a Harden-Embiid PnR that wasn’t working while their opponent was in the midst of a 33-9 run. Let’s hope not, at least.