PHILADELPHIA -- The ball never found Joel Embiid.
Perhaps the pass from Ben Simmons with 5.5 seconds remaining in overtime and the Philadelphia 76ers trailing by one lacked some zip, or perhaps Embiid could've met the bounce a bit sooner with a longer stride. A stronger down screen from Marco Belinelli for Embiid might have blocked Boston Celtics big man Al Horford's inside route to the ball.
"I knew [Horford] was fighting for the ball," Simmons said. "I was assuming Jo was going to come a little further out. Horford read it a little quicker and obviously went and got it."
These are the tiny events with enormous consequences at the very margins of basketball that determine outcomes like Philadelphia's 101-98 loss to Boston in Game 3 of their conference semifinals series Saturday. In a parallel universe governed by kinder spirits for Philadelphia, Embiid nabs the pass and drains a one-legged fadeaway, finds a shooter or takes a big dribble or two en route to the rim, as he did in the first half over Aron Baynes.
Instead, the ball was controlled by the most poised and versatile player on the floor -- "Playoff Al," as rookie Jayson Tatum affectionately dubbed him. After he was wrapped up by Embiid and the whistle sounded, Horford palmed the ball with one satisfying slap, tossed it to the official and nodded casually to his teammates, as if motioning for the dinner check.
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It was an appropriate nightcap for a player with such an understated approach and nuanced skill set, one whose greatest value can be found in those same hidden margins where the fate of basketball games is determined. On the preceding possession, with the Celtics trailing by one with 8.4 seconds remaining in overtime, Horford wiggled free of a fronting Robert Covington beneath the hoop, snatched the inbounds pass out of the air, collected the ball, then lurched upward again to lay in the decisive bucket with two hands.
"He's a stabilizer for our group, no question about it," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "When things get going poorly, everybody just kind of looks to Al. Including coaches, we all just kind of stare at Al and wait for him to say something. And then when he says something, we all feel better and take a deep breath and maybe we can go into overtime and win this thing. He's unbelievable."
For the Sixers, this sequence of five seconds was merely the culmination of a night of gut-wrenching miscues:
Simmons missed a wide-open dunk on a drive with just over five minutes remaining in regulation.
JJ Redick threw an errant pass with the game tied 87-87 and 4.7 seconds remaining in regulation.
Embiid lobbed a lazy pass to Belinelli that was picked off by Terry Rozier in the game's final minute, with the Sixers clinging to a two-point lead.
And though it's subject to some debate, Simmons opted to attempt a putback following an offensive rebound with 17.2 seconds remaining in overtime and the Sixers leading by a point.
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"It sucked to lose this way," Embiid said. "I felt like we had control of the whole game, especially when we made that run at the end of the first half. We felt really good, but we made a couple mistakes at the end, and it wasn't good on our part."
The Sixers players have been steadfast in their refusal to attribute any of their failings in a series they now trail 3-0 to their youth. Following the game, Embiid again rejected the premise.
"I don't like blaming youth," he said. "We made mistakes. It doesn't matter how old we are, and it doesn't matter that we've never been in this position."
Though coach Brett Brown has maintained that the exceptional nature of playoff basketball is still new to most of his young roster, Embiid is quite correct that the Sixers' struggles are largely the result of a failure to execute. When playing well, the Sixers have an inventive trifurcated attack that de-emphasizes the pick-and-roll sets that dominate the league. The Sixers predicate their offense on early opportunities largely initiated by Simmons, clever motion sets that yield good stuff for their shooters, and more traditional post-ups for Embiid, who dominates down low.
On Saturday, the Sixers generally performed well in early-offense situations -- 28 points in 15 possessions. But they struggled in the half court against a brilliantly choreographed Celtics switching defense that excelled in ball denial and whose lanky wings made life difficult for the Sixers' shooters on the move.
The Sixers' least productive offense in Game 3? Posting up Embiid. On the 15 such occasions that resulted in Embiid either shooting, fouling, turning the ball over or passing to a player who attempted a shot within one dribble of receiving the ball, the Sixers scored a total of eight points, per Second Spectrum research. It was a harvest that starved Philadelphia's offense not just in its poor efficiency, but in grinding the game to a plodding, 92-possession pace -- far too slow for a Sixers team that requires speed and propulsion.
"You walk that line of the game needs to be slowed down because [Embiid] needs a touch and you walk a line that movement trumps that feeling," Brown said. "Somewhere in the middle, you figure it out. I think for me, it's you recognize that Aron Baynes and Al Horford do a really good job on him. Trying to find different ways, better ways, to get him touches is more on my mind at times than at times the frequency of it."
Then there's the matter of Tatum, who torched the Sixers for a game-high 24 points on 11-for-17 shooting from the field. This past week, the franchise's most iconic legend, Julius Erving, stated that the Celtics rookie should've been selected first overall in last June's draft. For the Sixers, who traded what's likely to be a high first-round pick in the 2019 draft along with their No. 3 selection for the right to bypass Tatum and select Markelle Fultz, the optics of Tatum's splendor have been a stroke of tragic irony in an otherwise blessed season.
Time and again Saturday, Tatum shined. Inside of 90 seconds remaining in overtime, he deked Embiid on a one-on-one drive with a head fake and up-and-under at the rim, which Embiid normally protects with a lockbox. Then, on the ensuing possession, Tatum absorbed contact from Embiid as he beat the Sixers again off the dribble. Both were crucial baskets that kept the trailing Celtics within a possession of the Sixers, primed to pounce when Philadelphia flailed.
This Boston team -- short-handed, far less athletic than its opponent and quite young in its own right -- seemingly never flails. Stevens has spent five years sculpting an ethic of precision, a drama-free laboratory where grown men, irrespective of their experience, can succeed if they abide by the principles of spacing and synchronicity. He has crafted exquisite systems on both ends of the floor that can be applied consistently, even if the component parts change, which is an achievement unto itself in a league in which individual talent still reigns supreme.
"This is my second year with Coach Stevens, and I learned to just trust his instincts and judgement," Horford said. "He sees certain things, he understands them."
Amid all the oddities in the catalog of moments Saturday evening, there was yet another spectacle:
With the Celtics leading by two in regulation and only 1.7 seconds remaining on the clock, the Sixers managed to get Belinelli free along the right sideline for a spinning, fadeaway jumper from the right corner that dropped through at the buzzer.
Belinelli's right foot was squarely on the arc, making the basket a 2-pointer to tie the game at 89-89. But to two of the four technicians who operate the confetti cannons in Philadelphia, the hysteria and celebration triggered by the shot signaled a Sixers victory, and with it a blast of thousands of slips of rectangular paper that took several minutes to remove from the court before overtime could begin.
Following the game, the technicians groused about the miscue as they wheeled the cannons and accompanying gas tanks through the bowels of Wells Fargo Center. Who was the first to flip his valve? Why didn't the traffic cops on the headset give the cue? One of the two cannon operators who fired prematurely -- he declined to give his name -- blamed a cameraman standing nearby who signaled a 3 when Belinelli's shot fell through the net. "Can you f---ing believe that?"