After missing 13 of his first 14 shots against the 76ers in a win-or-go-home game on the road in Philadelphia last Thursday, Jayson Tatum hit a 3-pointer to give the Celtics an 84-83 lead with about four minutes left in the fourth quarter. Tatum went on to cash three more triples in the closing minutes last week to lead Boston to a 95-86 victory and force a Game 7.
That game took place on Sunday in Boston and it was Tatum who led the way once again for the Celtics. Once again facing elimination, Tatum erupted for 51 points, the highest total ever scored in a Game 7 in NBA history. On the sidelines for the 16th Game 7 of his career, all Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers could do was watch and shake his head.
Rivers, who was behind the bench for the Celtics when Boston won the NBA championship in 2008, is now 6-10 in elimination games as a coach and has blown seven playoff series when his team held a 3-1 or 3-2 lead. Since 2015, Rivers is now 0–9 in potential series-clinching games in the second round, having blown two 3–1 series leads with the Clippers and lost two Game 7 appearances in three years with the Sixers. Overall, Rivers is 17-33 in potential elimination games. Not great.
The latest failure for Rivers began in the third quarter on Sunday when the 76ers managed a meager 10 points in the third quarter, tied for their fewest points in a playoff quarter since the introduction of the shot clock, as the Celtics opened up a 26-point lead with Tatum scoring 17 points in the frame. The game was basically over with 12 minutes left to play and Boston was able to cruise in the fourth to a 112-88 victory and a series win.
As the Celtics move on to the conference finals for the third time in four years with their third coach in four years, the season is over for the 76ers after the second round of the playoffs for the third year in a row. Nearly a decade into “trusting the process,” the 76ers have yet to make it to the conference finals and have not made it to the NBA Finals since Allen Iverson was on the team more than two decades ago.
While Rivers certainly deserves some criticism for his performance, the blame for this year’s failure also falls on the shoulders of reigning league MVP Joel Embiid and former league MVP James Harden, who scored a combined 24 points on 8-of-29 shooting (27.6%) in Sunday’s loss. More than doubled in scoring by Tatum alone, the Harden-Embiid duo combined for nine turnovers.
Holding a player option to return to the team next year, Harden will likely decline and head elsewhere. With two seasons left on the five-year, $40 million deal he signed in October of 2020, Rivers could also be gone if the front office in Philly decides to relieve him of his duties.
“I thought he’s done a great job,” Embiid said of his coach following Sunday’s collapse. “I don’t make the decisions. And I think he should be fine. We got a great relationship. He’s a great leader for all of us and a great motivator. But then again, you see what’s happening all over the league; it’s tough. I’m glad I don’t make those decisions. I think all those guys deserve to have jobs.”
Rivers who has compiled a 154-82 regular-season record with the Sixers but has gone just 20-15 in the postseason, certainly deserves to have a job. He just may not be worthy of coaching in another Game 7.