In the last two decades, the Philadelphia 76ers have never made it past the Eastern Conference semifinals. There have been three instances when the Sixers have forced a deciding Game 7, only to see their postseason end in disappointment. None may have been more heartbreaking than Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals, where Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors sent them home at the buzzer.
Philadelphia’s misery, though, may finally be over in 2023.
Joel Embiid continued to pile on the points against the Boston Celtics, posting his third-consecutive 30-point game in the Sixers’ 115-103 Game 4 victory over the Celtics. Running through Embiid proved critical as it helped Philadelphia alter Boston’s frontcourt defense and quell their runs. Holding a 21-point lead in the TD Garden is no small feat, more so when you can get the crowd to boo the home team.
The Sixers are in prime position to close out the series at home, where they are 3-1. The lone loss came in Game 3 against the Celtics, but Philadelphia followed that up with a 116-115 OT win. It certainly helps that they are at full strength with the consistently stellar play of Embiid, who returned in Game 2 after sitting out two games due to a sprained right knee.
Beyond Embiid, however, the Sixers would want James Harden to show up for Game 6. After going for 45 points in Game 1, Harden was held to under 20 points in three out of the next four contests. He has, however, made at least 50 percent of his shot attempts in the last two games (both wins) and Philadelphia is hoping he has found his groove and the right balance with creating for himself and working within the confines of an Embiid-centric offense.
Of course, the Sixers are thinking beyond Harden in that the rest of the squad would be able to fulfill their roles in Game 6. Tyrese Maxey, who scored 30 points in Game 5, was one of the beneficiaries of the driving lanes and open 3-pointers generated by Embiid’s activity. It wasn’t just Harden who picked his spots as Maxey proved to be dangerous when he went to work and when Boston made the mistake of forgetting about him.
The Celtics fielded more players off the bench and scored more as compared to Philadelphia, but it won’t matter when the Sixers just need one bench player to have a good night. In Games 1 and 4, it was De’Anthony Melton and Georges Niang, respectively, but in Game 5, it was Danuel House Jr., who led all bench scorers with 10 points. It will be interesting to see who shows up next, but with Boston likely to play with desperation, a victory for Philadelphia may require a whole-of-bench approach.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers must be happy to be in this position, even if it came against his former team. His defense has proven to be crucial in this series, more so in Game 5. Stopping Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown may be a near-impossible task, but making them work and minimizing the impact of their supporting cast makes the Celtics beatable. The poor paint scoring from Boston was a major reason for Philadelphia’s success in Game 5, and the goal for Game 6 might be to replicate it. Rivers has the potential to do that, as he has also gotten everyone to buy in and when your (oft-injured) franchise player is willing to go all-out, then the rest won’t hesitate to follow.
The Philadelphia 76ers have never been up 3-2 in an Eastern Conference semifinal series in The Process era until today, and while it is unfamiliar territory, that shouldn’t deter them from trying to close out the series in Game 6. After all, Game 7s haven’t been too kind to the Sixers and it is best not to push their luck right now, especially when they could be up against the luck of the Irish.