Tatum, Embiid, and Rivers
Breaking down an epic performance and an epic failure
BY DAVID THORPE
Late in the fourth quarter of Game 6, with the Sixers up 3-2 in the series and the scoreboard at 83-81. Anyone watching the game knew it would come down to the final moments.
Both teams were playing incredibly hard—as one would expect in a series with two terrific teams full of current and former All-NBA stars.
The Philadelphia crowd was antsy but excited by their team playing inspired defense all over the court. Guys like Tyrese Maxey and James Harden were flying around, contesting shots and stealing dribbles.
Buckets were hard to come by, especially for Jayson Tatum. The Celtics’ best player the past few years, had been perhaps their least potent in this game. Through the first 44 minutes of the game, Tatum was 1-for-14 from the field and had missed all six of his 3-point shots.
At the 4:16 mark, after catching a pass in the left corner, Tatum scooted his right foot back behind the 3-point line, and pulled a contested 3 with Joel Embiid’s long arm in his face. There were 11 seconds left on the shot clock.
A miss would give the Sixers control of the game with under four to play. The Sixers, per ESPN’s Gamecast, had a 60-plus percent chance to win the series as Tatum rose into the air; a miss might bump them to 65 percent, and a miss plus a score on the other end might get them to 70. Instead, Tatum’s shot—just his second make in 15 tries in Game 6—ended the series.
It took a few days for that truth to pan out, that everything changed as the clock moved from 4:16 to 4:14. Tatum’s made 3 raised the Celtics’ chances of forcing a Game 7 to nearly 55 percent.
Those 45 minutes should be memorialized in the NBA Hall of Fame, for reasons both sublime and tragic. From the moment Tatum’s shot fell through the first 41 minutes of Game 7, a new narrative took shape: One great player soared as another floundered, and an experienced coach failed to make adjustments.
Even absent context, the numbers are astounding—but context matters. Embiid and Tatum were both first team All-NBA this season. Embiid won his first MVP trophy. He led the NBA in scoring again, registering the highest scoring average (33.1 per game) for a full-time center since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971-1972.
Out for Game 1 of the series, Embiid was excellent from Game 3 through Game 6 (he was still nursing a pained knee in his Game 2 return), scoring 123 points in total. Against a healthy Celtics defense—top three in the league—Embiid scored 30, 34, 33, and 26, respectively. After dropping 39 in the Game 1 loss, Tatum had scored 101 points from the start of Game 2 to 4:16 left in the fourth of Game 6. Simply, Embiid had outplayed Tatum, propelling the Sixers to a 3-to-2 lead. More importantly, they now had a chance to finish the Celtics off at home and finally get Embiid to his first conference final.
Here is where the numbers get nuts: Tatum’s corner 3 ballooned into 63 points over the next 45 game minutes, to include most of Game 7. In that same span, Embiid scored 15 points. In the final four minutes of Game 6 in Philly, Tatum hit four 3s. Embiid scored nothing. By the 4:41 mark of Game 7’s second quarter Tatum had already logged more points (16) than Embiid would get for the game.
What the hell happened?
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