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'Disappointed' Rivers intends to return to 76ers

BOSTON — After losing in the Eastern Conference semifinals for a third year in a row, Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said he intends to return as the team’s coach next season, while Sixers guard James Harden said he hadn’t begun to think about what his offseason decision-making process would be like ahead of determining whether to opt into his contract for next season or become a free agent.

“Yeah,” Rivers said after his team fell 112-88 to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the conference semifinals Sunday afternoon. “I think I have two years left.”

Rivers, who was hired after the NBA’s bubble in the winter of 2020, has presided over three straight seasons with improved records, going from 49 wins in 2020-21 to 51 victories last season to 54 this campaign — the most Philadelphia has had in any season since 2001, when Allen Iverson won the NBA’s MVP award and led the 76ers to their last Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals appearances.

The 76ers had hoped that Joel Embiid winning this year’s MVP award would foretell a similar path through the playoffs. Instead, it resulted in a third straight loss in the conference semis, after losing in seven games to the Atlanta Hawks in 2021 and in six games to the Miami Heat last season.

When asked where his relationship stands with Rivers and whether he believes he should be back as coach next season, Harden simply said, “Our relationship is OK.”

Embiid, meanwhile, was effusive of his praise of Rivers, though the center also said that — as the league has seen with the recent firings of Monty Williams in Phoenix and Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee — the coaching business is a tough one and he is glad he isn’t the one making these decisions.

“Coach has been fantastic,” Embiid said, “and he’s done a great job, in my opinion.”

Philadelphia had two chances to advance past Boston in this series. But after leading 83-81 with just under six minutes to go in Game 6 Thursday night, Philadelphia was outscored 14-3 on its home court to close the game and see the Celtics keep their season alive — only to then get obliterated in the third quarter on Sunday, losing it 33-10 to see Boston’s three-point halftime lead balloon to 26 after three quarters.

That made the final 12 minutes nothing more than an extended party for the sellout crowd, which celebrated Boston making it to at least the Eastern Conference finals for a fifth time in the past seven years.

“We played great all year,” Rivers said, “and this loss absolutely diminishes that, what we did this year, in some ways.”

Harden, meanwhile, was asked directly about what his plans are for the summer after spending his first full season in Philadelphia, where he led the league in assists and helped Embiid win MVP but ultimately fell short in the playoffs once again.

“I haven’t even thought about it,” Harden said.

This summer, Harden can either opt into his $35.6 million player option for next season or decline it and become an unrestricted free agent.

When asked a short time later what he hoped his next opportunity would look like after free agency, Harden said, “I just want to have a chance to compete.”

Across Philadelphia’s four losses in this series, Harden shot just 12-for-55 — including 3-for-24 from 3-point range — while he went 37-for-61 in the team’s three victories.

“They did a really good job,” Harden said of Boston’s Game 7 defense, which forced him to shoot 3-for-11 from the field, including 1-for-5 from 3. “Robert Williams was in the paint, you know what I mean? We made him pay early, and then we kind of went away from what was working and kind of everything slowed down.”

Now, Philadelphia will head into the offseason after another disappointing second-round exit. With the defeat, Rivers now has 10 Game 7 losses as a head coach, twice as many as any other coach in NBA history (6-10 record), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. He has lost five straight Game 7s.

Rivers has also now lost in the second round of the playoffs six times since leaving the Celtics following the 2013 season, and he hasn’t reached the conference finals since doing so with Boston in 2012.

He said he and the 76ers would spend a lot of time thinking about the missed opportunities they had in this series — specifically in Game 6 — this summer as they attempt to digest this latest playoff setback.

“Disappointed,” Rivers said, when asked of being in this situation once again. “I’m disappointed. I thought we had the right group. I really did.”

“It’s funny,” he continued. “I look out, and I talk about keeping receipts sometimes, you know what I mean? I don’t think one person in this room picked the Sixers. Not one. But we did. And we chose to believe that we could win anyway, and we almost pulled it off.

“Game 6 will be something we’ll think about. Game 7 will be something we think about. But as far as our guys fight, against everybody who picked against us, they didn’t care. They thought they could still win this series. And that’s something good about our team. I thought overall we were fighters.”

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