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Sixers vs Celtics, Game 7 preview: adjustments, hope, legacy

What adjustments do the Sixers have to make to win Game 7 in Boston?

Chris Coduto-USA TODAY Sports

In this newsletter:

  • Thoughts on what's at stake, the impact on this team's legacy, and fandom.
  • Why the Sixers struggled in Game 6.
  • Why I'm not despondent about Game 7.

"Can you imagine if we can get this thing right? Really? If we can get this right, with the culture and the history that this city has, and the pride and the toughness that this city has, that is very luring. It's tempting."

That's a quote from former head coach Brett Brown, during his introductory press conference a long, long time ago now, talking about the potential reward for the rebuild the Sixers were about to go through. It's a quote that has been in the back of my mind in the aftermath of the Sixers' loss in Game 6.

It's stuck with me in part because whatever happens in Boston this afternoon, good or bad, will be used as a referendum of The Process. It's all a bit silly. But given how much this feels like a possible inflection point in this era of Sixers basketball, how this game is happening on the exact 10-year anniversary of Sam Hinkie's introductory press conference, and how much we all love to debate this topic, it feels inevitable that the debate will happen.

When that time does come I suppose I will join in, although longtime readers will know where I stand in the importance of pursuing MVP talent. But now is not the time for that. Not yet.

But the quote also hit me because over the last few days there's been a real, nervous energy when hearing people discuss this team, whether listening on the radio or browsing reactions on Twitter. And I get it – the Sixers blew a golden opportunity to close out the series in Philadelphia Thursday night, and now face a do-or-die situation against the favored team on the road. This was all very avoidable if the Sixers just turned in a mere shitty offensive effort on Thursday, which makes their failure to do so incredibly frustrating.

And the Sixers' track record – as an organization, as a star player, as a head coach – in these spots is what it is. They haven't succeeded in this spot the last two times they've been in it. They haven't gotten out of the second round. They have, at times, come up short. Their counterpart, while certainly not having a perfect track record (either in the past or in this series), has examples they can point back to, heights that they have reached that the Sixers have not.

But while it's easy to envision the worst case scenario, to imagine what will happen if and when the team comes up short once again, this Game 7 also brings with it a real opportunity. An opportunity to rewrite the narrative around the team, to make their mark in the history of this great sport, to cement their legacies and to endear themselves in this generation of Philadelphia basketball fans. There's that much at stake this afternoon.

To be clear, the Celtics are the more complete team, with the deeper roster, with more of a track record to stand on and playing on their home floor. They should be favored. But that doesn't make it the virtual certainty that many seem to think it  is. In fact, I'd give it closer to a coin flip status than a Celtics lock.

There are a number of different ways this could play out that would lead to the Sixers having more points than the Celtics when the clock strikes zero, from Joel Embiid or James Harden dominating, to Tyrese Maxey going off, to the Sixers' role players being unconscious from 3-point range, to Jayson Tatum going cold or Boston missing shots or a rookie coach making rookie decisions. We've seen all of that happen at various times over the course of the first six games of the series. The Sixers just need one of them to happen one more time.

This was all much easier to believe in after Game 5, when the Sixers' commanding victory in a hostile environment put the Sixers on the door steps of reaching the Conference Finals for the first time in 22 years. They came up short on Thursday night. Winning three straight against this team, dubbed by many as the favorites coming into the playoffs, was always going to be tough to accomplish, and the Sixers didn't bring anything close to their A-game in Game 6.

But most iconic moments in sports are often preceded by some form of failure, as usually even the winning team comes up small a few times along the journey. Otherwise, there would be no drama, and the moments that are etched deep into the back of our collective psyche wouldn't have been as memorable. The most rewarding moments in sports don't usually come stress free. It just doesn't work like that.

Kawhi Leonard's quadruple doink doesn't happen if the Raptors don't fail to close out the Sixers in Game 6. Vince Carter's missed game-winner happened only because the Sixers similarly failed to finish the job two nights earlier in a series they led 3-2, placing them one shot away from having lost a key part of Allen Iverson's legacy. Right now, the Sixers' struggles down the stretch in Game 6 is the defining moment of this series in the minds of many 76ers fans, but that's only because the next defining moment hasn't happened yet. Teams can, and do, rebound from disappointing performances to have signature moments.

This would all be easier to believe in if the past wasn't what it was. But if you can divorce yourselves from the prior results, and just look at what this team has accomplished so far in this series, there's reason to believe that they are different than they were in prior years. From Harden's offensive outbursts to big plays from PJ Tucker, from lights-out 3-point shooting to strong half-court defensive efforts, this team has rebounded from adversity often this season, and multiple times in this series.

Which sets up what could be an iconic moment for Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers this afternoon. A decisive Game 7, on the road, against their longtime nemesis in another chapter of one of the greatest rivalries in professional sports, a little more than a week after Joel Embiid joined the Pantheon of All-Time greats when he hoisted his first MVP trophy, with the fate of the franchise seemingly on the line.

This is legacy defining shit, and these are the moments we, as basketball fans, live for. But rather than look at the opportunity in front of us, we assume it will turn out for the worse, since up to this point it has.

I guess what I'm asking is, can you imagine if they got this thing right?

So, about that offensive performance in Game 6....

Following a clear-path foul with 5:57 left, Tyrese Maxey (citation needed) hit a pair of free-throws to put the Sixers up 83-81. At that point, the Sixers had overcome their potentially disastrous 1-11 shooting to start the game and come back from  a 16-point first-half deficit, and were in solid position to close the series out and advance to that seemingly mythical Conference Finals round that had eluded them for so long.

The Sixers would score just one bucket the rest of the way: a Jaden Springer jumper in garbage time, as the Celtics closed Game 6 out on a 14-3 run over the final nearly six minutes of play, with the Sixers making all but nine of their final 10 shots from the field (h/t Tom Moore).

If you combine their equally disastrous start (outscored 15-3, shot 1-11 from the field) and end (outscored 14-3, shot 1-10) you have a grand total of six points on 2-21 shooting in nearly a quarter (over 11 minutes!) of game time. It's honestly pretty amazing that the game was even close.

Per CleaningTheGlass, the 90.5 points per 100 possessions the Sixers averaged on Thursday night tied for their worst offensive output of the season. When confined to the half-court, the 73.8 points per 100 plays the Sixers averaged on their initial shot was not only the worst all season, but the next closest game was 77.3, nearly four points per 100 plays better than what the Sixers were able to barf out in a closeout game.

What caused the Sixers' offensive shortcomings? There have been three general explanations for the junk we saw on Thursday, with two coming from the team and the third from outside punditry.

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