As their playoff elimination sunk in, one common phrase kept getting tossed around by players throughout the Philadelphia 76ers' roster: Mental toughness.
Their loss to the Miami Heat in the second round exposed a lack of mental toughness as one of the team's core issues. The Heat played a much more tough, physical style of basketball throughout the series. Miami's roster is built around toughness, physicality and resiliency. The Sixers are severely outmatched in all three of those areas.
For all of the Sixers' roster weaknesses and questionable coaching decisions throughout the series, the team ultimately came unglued due to a lack mental toughness, a far greater trait necessary for all championship teams to have. Tobias Harris, after the team's 99-90 loss on Thursday in Game 6, reflected about how the team's lack of mental toughness cost them against the Heat.
"Mental toughness," Harris said. “I think so. Just mental toughness. That part of it, I don’t think we have yet. Seeing the Milwaukee game yesterday [Wednesday against the Celtics], that’s a team that’s been through the fire, being able to fight and keep going. At times for our group, too many things just affected us as a whole. We drop our heads too much. Our body language at times is crappy. We needed that to be better throughout this series. And I think that hurt us in this series.
"Our mental toughness for sure hurt us against that group. And they did a lot of things to kind of challenge that — the hustle plays, the 50-50 basketballs, everything. The physicality by them, as well. We needed to be better as a collective group at just holding our head and just fighting, just going right back at it. And I don’t think we did a great job of that."
The Sixers showed some resiliency at different times throughout the season, headlined by a fourth place finish in the Eastern Conference at 51-31 despite the Ben Simmons drama surrounding the team for much of the year. Joel Embiid, who by the end of the series against Miami looked physically beaten down, missed the opening two games against Miami before ultimately playing through both an orbital fracture and torn ligament in his thumb.
However, the Sixers as a team fell far short in the toughness category necessary for winning a championship. After battling back to even the series at two games, they collapsed and put together a pair of listless performances in Games 5 and 6. The team lost Game 5 by 35 points and, with their backs up against the wall, stepped out on the court with no intensity and essentially rolled over for Miami in Game 6. The Sixers were out-rebounded by 14 in Game 6 while playing with zero aggression. It was an inexcusable effort made all the worse with it coming with their season on the line.
Embiid, after the team's loss in Game 6, also did not shy away from talking about the Sixers' need for more toughness. A lot of his comments centered around P.J. Tucker, a player on the Heat who centers his game around playing with toughness, intensity and energy.
"When you have size and toughness, that goes a long way. You look at someone like P.J. Tucker, great player, but it's not about him knocking down shots, it's about what he does, whether it's on the defensive end or rebounding the ball," Embiid said. "Defensively, plays with so much energy, believes that he can get from point A to point B, and he believes that no can beat him, and he's tough. He's just physical and he's tough, and they have a few of those guys.
"Since I've been here, I'd be lying if I said we've had those type of guys. Nothing against what we have, it's just the truth. We never have P.J. Tucker, that's really what I'm trying to say. I think physicality, once you get to the playoffs or the later rounds, you need that, you need those guys that are really tough."
As Embiid noted, the Sixers' loss to the Heat made it clear they need an infusion of toughness and grittiness to the roster. The Heat, with few exceptions, beat the Sixers up and down the floor with relative ease. Changes to the roster will need to be made this offseason to build a more resilient, tough and balanced team. However, Embiid also looked inwards and carefully discussed how the onus is on the players to motivate themselves and perform at a high level.
"I believe that we have the right people. I think at some point you got to stop looking at coaching or front office, you got to look at the players," Embiid said on Thursday. "Maybe they're just not good enough. I'm not trying to blame anybody. The players also got to do their jobs, it doesn't matter how much a coach or GM talks to you or try to motivate you, if you still go out there and don't do your job, and the other team is more physical than you, that's on the players.
"I don't think at this point we should need anybody to motivate us. This is our job. If you're really serious about winning, I don't need anybody to be in my ear about playing hard and doing my job. This is what I get paid for and I love doing it."
Gripes can be made about the coaching from Doc Rivers, who the team announced will be retained through at least next season, throughout the series against the Heat. However, Embiid correctly goes into how it is not the coach's responsibility to motivate the players to play with energy and intensity out on the floor.
The next few months will be filled with people throughout the organization contemplating many uncomfortable questions about the roster and what can or needs to be done to improve it throughout the coming offseason. President of basketball operations Daryl Morey will have his hands full attempting to correct some of the team's major flaws, including a lack of mental toughness. When asked in his joint press conference with Rivers on Friday about what the team's primary goals will be this offseason, he did not commit to any specific answer.
“Defensively — very important,” Morey said. “I guess the reason I’m pausing … is I often feel like if you go into the offseason with, ‘We need to fix X,’ you end up closing off potential opportunities and avenues. And it’s also the day after [elimination], so I just think I need to meet with Doc and his staff and our staff, and just really get a full picture on what they’re seeing before I give an answer like that [on areas to improve the roster].”
There are many questions and things to improve on throughout the Sixers' roster. As was made clear both through the team's performance against Miami and the effective case being made from both Harris and Embiid after Game 6, adding more toughness to the roster needs to be near the top of the list of offseason priorities moving forward.