You can see it in Brett Brown’s face as he looks down at the stat sheet. It’s the look of someone who is trying to make some sense of what has happened, sifting through data in the hopes of finding some reason to believe, some confirmation that what occurred was not as bad as it appeared. He looks like he has tried everything he can, realizing that any potential solution is beyond his capabilities to fathom or implement. There’s also the dawning recognition that he will not likely be the one given the chance to remedy to situation .
You cannot see it in Joel Embiid’s face, covered as it is by his hands, but it’s easy to imagine the expression lying behind them — a mix of frustration and cluelessness, the exasperation of a man who has played well, who has given all he has and still not only come up short, but nowhere near his goal.
All of this is to say that the Sixers lost again on Sunday, and it was bleak. Fans looking for signs of optimism moving forward are forced to grasp at proverbial straws as Philadelphia has now been eliminated from the playoffs, swept by the Boston Celtics. A season that began with championship aspirations has now ended ignominiously, all their talent outweighed by this talent fitting together in a mishmashy manner, the most dispiriting team of this postseason.
The Sixers were leading late in Game Three. They tried to hold on to a 94-92 lead with less than two minutes left. Joel Embiid was double-teamed by Jayson Tatum and Enes Kanter. He pivoted, trying to find some space. No luck. He searched for an outlet. He appears panicked as he realizes there are none. He is forced to attempt a crosscourt pass to Matisse Thybulle in the corner. Marcus Smart leapt and deflected the ball to Jaylen Brown who streaked the length of the court, converting a lay-up and a free throw to put the Celtics up one.
The very next possession, the Sixers again tried to put Embiid in position to score, this time as the roll man, but again, he was swarmed by Celtics defenders. When he gathers the ball, rising to shoot, four Celtics are within arm’s length. The shot is blocked by Tatum and gathered by Brown, who passes it back to Tatum and is fouled by Josh Richardson, his arms reaching out like a supplicant’s. It was called a clear-path foul, giving the Celtics two shots, possession, and effectively the game and the series. It was a fitting end to the game, and practically their season, for what is a clear path foul if not a desperate attempt to stop the inevitable.
In the NBA, talent generally wins out, but this Sixers team proves that this is not always the case. In terms of pure ability and star power, few teams can compete with the Sixers, but in terms of resilience and cohesiveness, pretty much every one surprasses them. All season long, I had just been waiting for the Sixers to put it all together. That moment never came.
Throughout their series with the Celtics, the Sixers reeked of desperation and fatalism, trying whatever they could to make things work while never seeming to actually believe that things would be any different this time around. Lacking other options, they just kept trying the same things that brought them here: Embiid called for passes that only came sporadically, Al Horford futilely attempted to spread the floor, Tobias Harris took another errant jumper, and four games in a row slipped away.
Few teams in recent memory have been more depressing to watch than these Sixers. Even the Sixers teams of the Process that struggled to win even ten games a year were less agonizing. There were no expectations so the losses didn’t come with any dashed dreams and they were, at least in theory, building the groundwork for something better to come. Also, you occasionally got to watch Tony Wroten score twenty points which ruled. This season, any such delights were immediately undercut by the team’s inability to deliver on promises of contention or even cohesion.
When The Process began seven years ago, Philadelphia was a middling team that appeared unlikely to make any real noise in the playoffs, stuck in a purgatory where they could compete every night but not contend. They had reliable veterans, but no young players who could be counted upon to become much more than they were, no star or potential stars to build around. There was no avenue to greatness that did not begin with tearing things down.
Things are a bit different now. In Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, they have two of the best young players in the NBA but they are surrounded by pieces who do not complement them well — whether or not they even complement each other remains an open question — and now appear as far away from a title as they were after being eliminated in the playoffs eight years ago.
Perhaps things would be different if Simmons were healthy, but there’s not much reason to think so. While they once fetishized assets and flexibility to a fault, now they are stuck with a bloated roster that cannot be altered without giving up so much that the quest to improve may cost more than it is worth. In their impatience to build a contender, they let go of so many players that could help them now. I’m not saying that having some combination of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes, Landry Shamet, and Mikal Bridges instead of Al Horford and Tobias Harris would have changed the outcome of the last four games, but they would have at least would made the whole thing less dispiriting, kept some of that process magic around to make you dream about the future. Somehow, in spite of all their restless movement — the trades, the extra draft picks, the dozens of players who have come through Philadelphia the last several years — they’ve returned to standing in the same place.