PHILADELPHIA — The only way you really confirm trust is by winning the title in a lot of ways.
This is Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers’ philosophy after nearly 40 years of playing and coaching in the NBA, and he reiterated it roughly an hour before Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics on Sunday afternoon.
And here’s what Joel Embiid had to say after the 76ers lost a lopsided Game 3 on Friday night: “I think players have to show up. … I got to do my job. Everybody knows their role; they have to do their job.”
Embiid most certainly did not call anyone out by name then, but it is worth noting his teammate James Harden had a combined 5-of-28 shooting effort in Philadelphia’s losses in Games 2 and 3. And Embiid was quite aware of Harden’s performances when he said what he said.
So take all of that into consideration when Embiid fired a pass to Harden with about 20 seconds left in overtime of Game 4, with Harden converting for one of the most clutch shots in his career and making the difference in the Sixers’ 116-115 victory that tied the series 2-2.
There was a lot going on in that moment, as often happens in high-value playoff games.
After hitting his own clutch 3-pointer that put the Celtics up two points just moments earlier, Boston forward Jayson Tatum — not Celtics center Al Horford, who’d blocked Embiid three times in the second half — was defending Embiid as part of late-game strategy on the possession that was to determine the fate of the 76ers’ season.
Jaylen Brown, who has been locking down Harden most of the time he has guarded him this series, was practically standing on Harden’s toes in the corner to deny him the ball as it went to Embiid. Brown then made what he called after the game “a gamble at the wrong time,” leaving Harden alone to double-team Embiid as he looked ready to shoot and go for the tie.
Leaving a shooter wide open for a 3-pointer when you’re up by two isn’t the play, especially when that shooter has 39 points and had made 5-of-8 3s during the afternoon. (That total improved to 42 for Harden after his sixth 3 went in.) And even when the 2022-23 MVP had 34 points and his own matchup advantage, as Embiid did, it’s still the wrong choice.
Embiid left his feet ready to shoot his own vital shot but clearly felt Brown come to crowd him and knew what it meant: Harden was alone. Embiid threw a wicked sidearm pass that got to Harden’s hands, and the future Hall of Famer took care of the rest.
A week ago, Harden was 1-of-10 in his career on go-ahead 3-pointers in the last 30 seconds of playoff games. After his heroics in Game 1 and on Sunday, he is 2-of-2 in such circumstances during this series alone.
“I mean, that was an easy play,” Embiid said of the Game 4 winner. “It’s the trust that we talked about all season long.”
Rarely in their season and a half together have Embiid and Harden been better than they were in Game 4. Their partnership is pretty much the basis of the franchise’s success, though it has been a little unsteady at times.
Last week, Harden presented Embiid with what appeared to be a six-figure Rolex watch to celebrate Embiid’s MVP award. Embiid praised Harden effusively for helping him become a dominating offensive player, with Harden leading the league in assists (10.7 assists per game) and Embiid leading it in scoring (33.1 points per game).
But it’s a little more complex than that.
“[Look at] the Celtics last year [when they made the NBA Finals]. Each round, they saw trust grow; that that’s just how it works,” Rivers said. “The regular season is your first barrier, getting through that. And then you go through the playoffs, and you get tested and you find out if everybody’s going to trust and execute.
“Tatum and Brown have had their problems at times, and then now they have it. They play great together. But it took years for them. And Joel and James, more importantly, you saw him talking a lot today.”
There was trust, and there was execution, indeed.
The Celtics and the 76ers were regular-season powerhouses, regarded as title contenders throughout. On Sunday, Rivers said of this series: “We are in a bar fight, and we just got to keep slugging.”
The Celtics have won two games relatively easily, and the Sixers have won two games in the final seconds. Plenty of cases can be made for which direction this series is going or what statements are being made or, in the case of Sunday’s great Embiid-Harden showing, that real trust is being formed.
Maybe it’s pivotal; maybe it’s not. Maybe take Rivers’ sage advice and see if it grows.
“I just want to win no matter the who or the how, I just want to win,” Harden said. “And quite frankly, today was a do-or-die for us. We found a way to win, and that’s all that matters in the postseason.”