CAMDEN, N.J. — The Philadelphia 76ers practiced here Wednesday morning ahead of a return to Toronto for Game 6 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series against the Raptors on Thursday night, halfway to what would be an unprecedented collapse after taking a 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven series.
76ers coach Doc Rivers is the only coach to preside over more than one loss after taking a 3-1 series lead — something that has happened to him three times in his career. But when Rivers was asked about that playoff history Wednesday, he said there’s a need to go back and check the record.
“Well, it’s easy to use me as an example,” Rivers said after the team finished practice. “But I wish y’all would tell the whole story with me. All right?
“My Orlando team [in 2003] was the eighth seed. No one gives me credit for getting up against the [Detroit] Pistons, who won the title. That was an eighth seed. I want you to go back and look at that roster. I dare you to go back and look at that roster. And you would say, ‘What a hell of a coaching job.’ Really.
“I mean, the Clipper team [in 2015] that we lost 3-1, Chris Paul didn’t play the first two games, and was playing on one leg, and we didn’t have home court. And then the last one [when the Clippers lost to the Denver Nuggets in 2020], to me, is the one we blew. That’s the one I took. We blew that. And that was in the bubble. And anything can happen in the bubble. There’s no home court. Game 7 would have been in LA.
“But, it just happens. So I would say with me, some of them is … I gotta do better always. I always take my own responsibility. And then some of it is, circumstances happen. This one, let’s win it, and we don’t have to talk about it.”
In 2003, Rivers and the Orlando Magic — led by future Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady, who won the scoring title that season — took that 3-1 lead on the top-seeded Pistons. It was the first season the NBA went back to a best-of-seven first-round series. Famously, McGrady — who never made it out of the first round of the playoffs until the end his career with San Antonio — said after winning Game 4 to take that 3-1 lead, “It feels good to get in the second round.”
Detroit promptly won the next three games by a combined 61 points to actually move on to the second round, then eventually lost to the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference finals before going on to win an NBA title the next season.
In 2015, Rivers took that 3-1 lead on, coincidently, current 76ers star point guard James Harden and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, both of whom were then with the Houston Rockets, only to lose the final three games of that series. That included a stunning collapse at home in Game 6, when Houston outscored the Clippers 40-15 (mostly with Harden watching from the bench) to turn what was a 13-point deficit at the start of the quarter into a 12-point victory, before closing out the series in Game 7.
As Rivers said, though, the loss in 2020 is the most memorable one. The Clippers — led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, whom they’d acquired the previous summer, and the pick by many to win the championship — took a 3-1 lead on the Nuggets, only to blow double-digit leads in each of the final three games of the series to be sent home from the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort outside Orlando, Florida, in truly shocking fashion.
Right now, though, the 76ers are just trying to avoid adding to their already rough history. Just last year, the 76ers blew a 26-point lead in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Atlanta Hawks — before again losing on their home court in Game 7 in the game in which Ben Simmons passed up an open dunk late in the fourth quarter, beginning his path to leaving Philadelphia for good.
So far in this series, the 76ers routed Toronto in the opening two games, snuck out an overtime victory behind Joel Embiid‘s heroics in Game 3, then saw the Raptors more or less control Games 4 and 5. Rivers said that it can be hard for a team to close out another team but that after the way the series has shaken out, both teams know what they have to do to win Game 6.
“Being up 3-0, especially 3-0, I would say that [teams feel differently],” Rivers said. “A lot of teams don’t win those games. The Celtics are the only one that won that game [in the first round of this year’s playoffs]. Everyone else lost that game.
“From a coaching standpoint, you hate that, because you feel like, ‘Let’s just take care of it.’ Then you get to Game 5 the other night and they played better. We didn’t play well. We didn’t play with a sense of urgency. So clearly now, I think both teams have kind of served notice and both teams have the other team’s attention.
“If you don’t have that, then we’re all in trouble.”
When asked what it will take to make things go differently in Game 6, Rivers pointed to the pace at which the 76ers played — particularly offensively — in the first two games and said Philadelphia will need to get back to that if it wants to close Toronto out and avoid returning for a do-or-die Game 7 on Saturday night.
“Well, I still think the No. 1 thing is 63% of the time we took the ball out of bounds last game,” Rivers said. “So that means 37% of the time you’re just bringing the ball up after a made basket or free throw or something. So clearly that has to be better.
“We have to get more stops, because they don’t run … they run when they can, but when they don’t, they use the clock to 22 seconds. So then the game is a slow-paced game and a half-court game. So the two things: No. 1, we got to get more stops; No. 2, when we get stops and even on scores, we got to play at a better pace. We’re walking the ball up the court.”