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The Sixers Had Another Nightmare Finish Against Boston

Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts against the Boston Celtics during the third quarter in game six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on May 11, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia 76ers finally had a chance to advance past the second round for the first time in decades. They entered the fourth quarter on Thursday night up two on Boston. And then they shot, and they shot, and they shot, and they missed, they missed, and they missed. They missed all six three pointers they took in the fourth quarter. They shot just 5-for-20 in the quarter and 0-for-8 from three. Joel Embiid did not touch the ball in the last four minutes. It was baffling and bad in about equal measure.

The Sixers rallied from a 16-point first-half deficit to take that lead into the fourth, but could not close things out. Jayson Tatum, who didn’t score at all in the first half, hit four three-pointers in the final minutes as the Celtics forced a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 95-86 win.

The Sixers offense down the stretch was particularly brutal. Embiid, who tied with Tyrese Maxey for a game-high 26 points, hit three jumpers early in the fourth, mostly working on Al Horford, but did not take another shot after missing a pull-up 19-footer with 3:56 left. The Sixers scored five points in the final six minutes of the game; their last field goal before a garbage-time jumper came with 6:13 remaining. James Harden missed all four of his shots in the fourth. De'Anthony Melton got four shots and missed them all, too. Maxey was just 1-for-3 in the quarter. In crunch time, the Sixers offense evaporated. They got some good looks. They just missed wildly.

“To start that fourth quarter, I was aggressive and got the ball,” Embiid said. “And we scored a few times on that. And I just think our offense kind of stalled a little bit. We stopped moving the ball. And we stopped making plays for each other, like we had been doing all night.”

It may have been coincidental, but the Sixers momentum seemed to sputter during a weird moment midway through the quarter. Tatum fouled Tyrese Maxey after a steal with six minutes left; it was ruled a clear-path foul, and Joel Embiid hit two free throws for an 83-81 Sixers lead. The game continued, and the Sixers won a challenge on an out-of-bounds call with 5:25 left. At that point, the refs ruled that Embiid had not been eligible to take those clear-path free throws. Maxey had to take them. Maxey hit both shots just like Embiid did, but the game ground to a halt due to all the reviews.

“Honestly, I have no clue what the rule is,” Maxey said after the game. “I didn’t know what was going on. That was just a weird scenario. But I mean, I guess it didn’t really change anything. He made two, then I made two.”

The last time the Sixers won a playoff series against Boston was in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. It was a nerve-wracking series for fans. The Sixers had blown a 3-1 series lead against the Celtics for the second straight year. In ’81, the Sixers had big leads in the next three games and lost all three. Julius Erving didn’t want to hear about any of that in ’82. “We’ll be reminded about it, but that should help if you don’t let it become a distraction," he said. "I won’t. Because I’ll stop answering questions about it. Like now.”

The Sixers were run out of the gym in Game 5. They scored just 27 points in the second half in Game 6, then a record for futility in the shot-clock era. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s George Shirk wrote that the team “has dragged art of folding to new lows.”

But then the Sixers won Game 7 in Boston in a rout. On Sunday, the Sixers will get a chance to make that history repeat, instead of their drearier and more recent track record. Will they actually do it?

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