With about eight minutes to go in the third quarter Wednesday night, Philadelphia 76ers guard Josh Richardson tried to throw an entry pass to teammate Joel Embiid, who had established post position in the middle of the lane.
The pass was awful. Richardson jumped to throw it and it was loopy and wide right. Embiid waved at it hopelessly as Boston Celtics center Daniel Theis easily stole it. About five seconds later Embiid waved again, this time at Marcus Smart as the Celtics’ guard got a basket and a foul.
From that moment onward, the 76ers pretty much put the white flag up on Game 2 of this series and perhaps their season too, falling 128-101 to Boston. Their energy level, particularly Embiid’s, crashed as the Celtics galloped up and down the floor. At the time of the turnover it was a 10-point game. By the end of the third it was up to 23 points.
Maybe there are more symbolic moments available to be used to define this 76ers campaign but that one is just as good as any. The table was set, there were good intentions, there were good people involved and it was still a failure.
This is an expensive team with an audacious strategy from an aggressive front office and a group of players who believed they were on the cusp of superstardom. Embiid, for example, declared at the start of the season that he planned to win Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year.
Now they are a 6-seed down 0-2 with a $150 million payroll on the books for next season and everyone involved knows there’s likely going to be changes up and down the line. Maybe they get a win or even pull out two against the Celtics — though that is unlikely if Jayson Tatum keeps playing like a passed over MVP candidate — but it will almost certainly not change the reality.
It’s plain to see on the 76ers’ faces and in their body language. Like many teams before them over the decades and probably many teams to come, they are going through the motions of the end of the dreaded letdown season.
This one was prolonged by the pandemic and given an injection of hope when the delay allowed them a chance to get Ben Simmons (briefly) back healthy. But it also took away their biggest strength, their 29-2 record on their home floor, which they will not have as Game 3 arrives.
They had hope going into Game 2 because they believed unforced errors had cost them Game 1, plus Boston had lost Gordon Hayward for the series. They had Embiid, the perfect weapon against undersized Boston, who had “playoff face,” according to coach Brett Brown. By the end of Game 2, it was a thousand-yard stare. Embiid had 34 points and 10 rebounds, which sounds awesome outside the context of how the game actually played out.
Just another disappointment in a season full of them. Brown has tried everything in his coaching bag with this group. It’s just not working. And by all accounts, it’s not because he’s not a good coach or because the players have serious issues with each other, it’s because the collection of players on this team at this time just doesn’t work.
Simmons made a celebrated 3-pointer in a 47-point win over Cleveland on Dec. 7, the second of his career. After the game, a jovial Brown tried to capture the moment.
“This is what I want, and you can pass it along to his agent, his family and friends. I want a 3-point shot a game, minimum,” Brown said. “I’m fine with whatever is open. But I’m interested in the 3-point shot.”
Simmons played 36 more games for the 76ers this season and attempted three more 3-pointers. Does that make Simmons petulant or Brown flimsy? No. It’s just a mismatched circumstance, like so many others around this squad.
Nearing the end, Brown is still trying to relay the proper messages and cajole his team to be the best they can be.
“You make sure the group understands there’s enough character and talent in the room to re-group,” he said after Game 2. “If the planet were normal, you’d be going back to Philadelphia.”
It is not normal.
The Celtics were a team in this position a year ago, as they limped through a humbling first round playoff loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the same manner. It was clear that Kyrie Irving, once believed to be the premium addition that would carry Boston to title contention, was out of there. Al Horford, it turned out, was soon to leave Boston too. Now in Philadelphia, the prime piece of last summer’s gamble toward playing huge in a league that is increasingly small, Horford must wonder if there’s some sort of black cloud following him.
The 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, who traded for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to add to Kobe Byrant and Pau Gasol, ended up with a 45-win season and a first-round exit. Every season has a team or two with this designation, the only difference usually being the profile of the disappointment.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the bubble, Jimmy Butler has the Miami Heat believing they not only have a shot at stealing the East this year but they have huge acquisition plans for the rest of Butler’s four-year deal. Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra love Butler’s mindset and how it has led to the Heat rising up into a group of overachievers.
In Miami they say that Butler is like the son of Udonis Haslem and Dwyane Wade, the combination of the two most definitive players in team history. In Philly, Butler feels more and more like the one who got away.
The late David Stern used to routinely remind owners, players, media and anyone who would listen that the NBA is a zero sum game. For every team rising, one must be falling. For every overachieving team there is an underachieving one. And on the cycle goes.
History will likely be written that the 2019-20 76ers were a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. It’s a sad list to be on, but it’s not a lonely one.