The 76ers’ trade-deadline deal for James Harden was supposed to make them NBA title contenders, but it didn’t happen in his first postseason here.
Harden and the Sixers were eliminated in a disappointing 99-90 loss to the Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinal playoffs Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Heat advanced to face the winner of the Celtics-Bucks series in the conference finals, while the Sixers’ season ended in the second round for the fourth time in five years.
The loss was the first by a home team in the series and prevented a deciding Game 7 on Sunday in Miami.
Coming off of a 120-85 Game 5 dismantling in Miami, Sixers forward Tobias Harris again cited “a lack of effort” and the need to be more mentally tough, among other reasons.
That is disconcerting with so much at stake.
The Sixers’ absence of toughness was a real issue. The Heat seemed to get every loose ball and were more physical and active on the offensive glass than Philadelphia.
Sixers star center Joel Embiid stressed the difference in physicality afterward and said power forward P.J. Tucker provided the Heat with grit the Sixers lacked.
“For sure,” said Embiid, asked if the Sixers could use help in that area. “Once you get to the later (playoff) rounds, you need those guys.”
Embiid struggled mightily with his shot, hitting just 7 of 24 field goal attempts as the right thumb injury seemed to bother him. He tied Tyrese Maxey for team-high honors with 20 points, but the Sixers couldn’t score enough to prevent the Heat from pulling away in the third quarter.
The Heat’s Jimmy Butler, Embiid’s former teammate in Philly and the best player in the series, tallied a game-high 32 points. Embiid lamented the Sixers losing Butler to the Heat in 2019, saying, “I still don’t know how we let him go.”
Butler called out “Tobias Harris over me?” as he walked into the Heat locker room following the victory, in reference to the Sixers essentially choosing to keep Harris over him.
The first-half left leg injury to Danny Green meant more minutes for Matisse Thybulle, who continued to struggle at the offensive end and didn’t have one of his better defensive outings. Sixers coach Doc Rivers turned to Shake Milton 2½ minutes into the second half when the Heat pulled ahead by six after trying Furkan Korkmaz, who didn’t get the job earlier, either.
Harden went scoreless in the second half while taking just two shots after having 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting at the break. Rivers ran the offense through fringe reserve Shake Milton with Harden on the floor in the third quarter because Harden, a three-time scoring champion with the Rockets and a former league MVP, didn’t look to score.
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“We were searching for whatever we could get at that point,” Rivers said. “That’s not a good place to be, but it was the place we were in and you just try to do what you can do to get your offense going.”
As for why he only attempted two field goals after halftime, Harden said, “We ran our offense and the ball just didn’t get back to me.” That’s a little curious because the ball was typically in Harden’s hands as the point guard.
Rivers’ response to the same question? “Listen, I don’t want to make this a referendum on James,” he said.
“I’m sure since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden, but that’s not who he is anymore,” Embiid said. “He’s more of a playmaker.”
Harden, who didn’t get to the foul line, said he plans on picking up his $47.4 million option for next season and wants to be a part of the Sixers going forward. “I’ll be here,” Harden said.
For the Sixers to get past the second round for the first time since 2001, president of basketball operations Daryl Morey is going to need to make some roster upgrades, especially with the bench, and the players here must improve, too. There’s a lot of work that has to be done.
Tom Moore: tmoore@couriertimes; @TomMoorePhilly