I won’t dare attempt to inhabit the mind of a typical Sixers fan, but I have to imagine that if there was one condition that they wanted met by the team’s 2021–22 campaign, it would have been a simple one: Anything different than last season. Well, following a 99-90 Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat, which handed the Sixers yet another second-round exit, Philly is right back where it was a year ago.
Last June, it was a Game 7 loss to the Hawks that bounced the Sixers from the playoffs, but the loss itself was quickly overshadowed by the particulars of how it came about. It was Ben Simmons’s limp five-point performance, punctuated by his refusal to simply dunk the basketball into a wide-open hoop, that threw the entire organization into a tailspin. The questions arrived immediately and were existential: Could Ben Simmons ever play for the Sixers again? Could Embiid carry this team by himself? Was it time for Doc Rivers to go?
Over the course of a year, we saw those questions answered, not always satisfactorily. Simmons’s standoff with the Sixers lasted longer and became far more acrimonious than anyone ever anticipated, Embiid hit a new level and kept the team near the top of the Eastern Conference, and Doc Rivers stuck around to annoy everyone. More importantly, GM Daryl Morey eventually pulled off what appeared to be a season-saving trade, when Simmons was swapped for James Harden in February. Harden brought his own spotty playoff history with him, but here at last was a superstar capable of running with Embiid, one whose basketball instincts were diametrically opposed to Simmons’s. If nothing else, James Harden likes to shoot the ball.
And yet, here we are. Harden attempted just nine shots despite playing 43 minutes in Game 6, scoring just 11 points. He shot the ball twice in the entire second half, and for the first time in his career managed not to attempt a single free throw in a game in which he played at least 40 minutes.
Harden’s Game 6 disappearance is in many ways more maddening than Simmons’s Game 7 choke job. Though it did not come with an image as indelible as Simmons passing the ball away while standing under the hoop by himself, it is harder to explain. Simmons’s refusal or inability to score could at least be understood as a manifestation of the peculiarities and anxieties that have always defined his pass-first game. But Harden’s whole thing is putting the ball into the hoop, whether it be from 25 feet away, at the rim, or after one of the dozen or so fouls he can be expected to draw every game. That he was so incapable of doing any of those things with his team’s season on the line only leaves us with a few conclusions to draw. Either the apparent mental hitches that have previously dampened his playoff performances are hardwired and impassable, or his physical regression has started much earlier than anyone anticipated.
Harden himself didn’t provide much of an explanation for his poor performance. When reporters asked him why he wasn’t more aggressive, he said, “We ran our offense, the ball, you know, just didn’t get back to me.” When asked if Rivers was calling any plays designed to get Harden the ball, he blurted out, “Next question.”
Even more maddening for the Sixers is the fact that they once again must consider a series of questions that are echoes of those that were raised by last season’s disaster. Is Harden really the answer? How many more years can Embiid be expected to play at this level? Seriously, what is Doc Rivers still doing here?
If there’s a silver lining to this, it’s that the Sixers will likely find the answers to those question without enduring the same sort of psychodrama that preceded Simmons’s eventual exit. Harden said after the game that he plans to exercise his player option, and even a compulsive deal-maker like Morey must understand that a little bit of continuity is needed right now. They’ll have all of next season to get Harden and Embiid fully up to speed as a duo, and will probably win a ton of games as long as both of those guys stay healthy. What happens once they reach the playoffs is anyone’s guess, but it can’t all just end like this again, can it? Can it?