Philadelphia 76ers

Tight loss to Knicks stings, but Nurse and Embiid's pride in Sixers is perfectly valid 

“I just said that I was proud of them because I thought they fought,” Nurse said after Game 6.

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The lines about luck and fate and unknowable factors beyond the Sixers’ control were not especially compelling a year ago.

This time around, the Sixers couldn’t reach a Game 7 or get past Round 1, suffering a six-game, all-consuming series defeat to the Knicks. But the Sixers didn’t wilt as they had in humiliating, season-ending losses the last two postseasons to the Celtics and Heat, nor did they collapse and blow chance after chance to beat a decidedly less talented opponent like the 2021 Hawks. 

In Nick Nurse’s first season as head coach, the Sixers played their part in a series stuffed with great games and lost it. The Knicks scored 650 total points and the Sixers scored 649.

“I just said that I was proud of them because I thought they fought,” Nurse said Thursday night following Game 6. “That’s all I’ve ever said. When we get out there, we’re going to fight no matter what the score is, if guys are out or injured. Whatever’s going on, we’ve got to go out there and fight. And they certainly did that in this series and for the majority of the season.”

Nurse always aims for high-effort, low-mistake basketball. By and large, his players were exemplary vs. the Knicks on the effort piece.

Joel Embiid averaged 33 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.5 blocks while grinding through his latest miserable mix of playoff health issues, including Bell’s palsy. With the Sixers’ season teetering over a cliff, Tyrese Maxey somehow hauled it back to solid ground with his 46-point, ultra-clutch Game 5.

Cameron Payne shifted from out of Nurse's rotation to draining jumpers and delighting the home crowd in Game 3. Buddy Hield did the same in Game 6. Nicolas Batum and Kyle Lowry lived up to their reputations as composed, quick-thinking veterans. 

“We got better,” Lowry told reporters. “I think the guys in this locker room, they competed at a high level. The things Joel showed us in this series playing on one leg; Tyrese’s growth; (Kelly Oubre Jr.'s) toughness. I think the team just showed the competitive nature. It was fun. After 18 years, you’d think it gets easier, but it just sucks even more when you lose, especially with a great group of guys like this. It was fun to be a part of.” 

After his strong Game 5, Tobias Harris … did not go out on a high note. He was profoundly peripheral in Game 6, posting zero points on 0-for-2 shooting, four rebounds and three assists. 

Still, broadly speaking, Nurse’s team wasn’t light on scrappiness. 

“One thing I’ll say is everybody in that locker room tried,” Embiid said. “We played hard. I know it wasn’t enough, but I can tell you that everybody in that locker room cared. 

“We gave up a lot of offensive rebounds, but it’s not because we wanted to. We tried our best. At times we could’ve tried harder, but sometimes it just doesn’t work your way. But everybody in that locker room cared and everybody in that locker room wanted to win. And we tried. We played so hard and we pushed ourselves. I’m just proud of them.” 

Nurse will want greater precision and fewer botched plays in his second season. For instance, after Embiid’s layup cut New York's lead Thursday to 114-113 with 20.8 seconds left, the Sixers didn’t manage to intentionally foul the Knicks for nearly 10 seconds. And Embiid was the one to do it, committing his sixth personal and watching the final moments from the bench. 

“I thought we started making some strides,” Nurse said. “Listen … you know some of the ups and downs. There was a time we had a whole bunch of guys out. All anyone kept talking about was Joel was out, but we had a whole fleet of guys out. And the challenge was, ‘Can we get them to a compete level? Can we go out there and compete?’ We had to raise up our level of just competing. 

“But special situations, end-of-game stuff, ATO stuff, it was just probably not as sharp as I would’ve liked to have had it, right? I think they did really (well). Even in a lot of these games, we ended up executing a lot. We got a lot of good shots … late in the game, so they were doing a lot of that off the board and they did a good job.” 

As far as the future, nothing looks very certain besides Maxey and Embiid being a brilliant duo that can get better (and needs to).

“He has a chance to do something special next year again,” Embiid said at the podium postgame, referring to the 23-year-old Most Improved Player winner on his left. “I hope he becomes All-NBA this year, but I think he can be in stuff like MVP conversations. I think he can take that next step.” 

And whatever faces surround Embiid and Maxey on the 2024-25 Sixers, we know the gist of what Nurse will push for. 

“I still think playing hard goes a long way in this league,” he said, “so we’ll keep at it.”

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