Aldridge: 76ers lament ‘unacceptable’ officiating after blowing golden Game 2 opportunity

NEW YORK — Nick Nurse signaled timeout once. Then, twice. He did not succeed in convincing any of the three referees working Game 2 of this series to grant him one. Seconds later, the basketball bounced away from Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey. Maybe the season, too.

Everywhere, all at once, the work that the 76ers had done throughout Game 2 of their first-round series with the New York Knicks was coming undone, at the worst possible time — up by five with less than a minute left. They’d overcome an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit. They’d overcome haymakers thrown by unexpected Knicks like Deuce McBride and Bojan Bogdanović — and, for a second straight game, Josh Hart. They’d kept All-Star and certain all-NBA guard Jalen Brunson under wraps again; Maxey had rallied after missing the shootaround with an illness, and blasted through 44 minutes, scoring 35 points. Joel Embiid, still far from his normal self after his knee surgery, played 39 minutes and went for 34 points and 10 rebounds.

They were up 101-96 with 47.3 seconds to go. They were about to have, as Nurse had hoped before the game, a good road trip, and a split.

And then … the bottom fell out.

New York scored eight points in those final 47.3 seconds, while the 76ers watched a near-certain win that would have given them home-court advantage over the second-seeded Knicks fall through the floor.

First, the delirious Madison Square Garden crowd celebrated Donte DiVincenzo’s go-ahead 3 after Maxey lost his balance, and the ball, while Nurse’s pleas for a timeout went unheeded, and Hart stole the ball from the prone Maxey. Hart passed the ball out to DiVincenzo, who missed from behind the arc. But Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein got the offensive rebound, while Embiid boxed out the 6-3 Hart rather than the 7-foot Hartenstein.

Hartenstein got the ball to Knicks forward OG Anunoby, who whipped it back out to DiVincenzo — who, this time, didn’t miss. After Philly did get a timeout granted, Maxey got a running start from the backcourt and drove hard to the cup. But Hartenstein’s contest was good enough to keep the ball out of the basket. Anunoby was fouled with 6.6 seconds left and made both free throws and Embiid’s heave from 35 feet at the buzzer hit the rim and bounced away.

Knicks 104, 76ers 101. Final.

And, a deadly quiet visiting locker room.

“Unacceptable,” Embiid said of the officiating. “Tyrese got fouled a couple of times. We just had the same thing happen against Miami, with Tyler Herro. That’s just unacceptable, to put us in that situation. Yeah. That’s (expletive) unacceptable. And to lose a game like this, especially in the playoffs.”

Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse reacts toward a referee during the second half of Game 2 against New York. (Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

A 76ers spokesperson said the team intends to file a complaint — not an official protest — with the NBA regarding the officiating in Games 1 and 2, claiming the team was “disadvantaged” by two calls in Game 1 of the series, a 111-104 New York win Saturday, per the league’s Last Two Minutes report.

The team will argue that Nurse should have been granted a timeout Monday night, before Maxey’s turnover.

Also, because a pool report request with the game’s officials was not submitted within 15 minutes of the end of the game, referees did not speak with a designated pool reporter after the game ended about the final sequences. 

“Just gotta rebound,” Maxey said afterward. “Can’t turn the ball over. I can’t turn the ball over. And we’ve got to get the rebound.”

“This is worse than Game 7,” Embiid, wearing dark glasses, said a couple of minutes later. Everyone knew what he meant. The Sixers have bad memories of opponent playoff 3s bouncing on the rim, and bouncing, and falling through. This was after Embiid pulled out his phone and showed reporters a picture of Brunson, before the ball was inbounded on the critical play, holding a generous portion of Maxey’s jersey in his hand.

But Philly had done more than its part in giving the game away. The sequence was staggering:

• With Philly up 101-96 at 47.3 seconds, Kyle Lowry missed the second of two free throws, which would have put the 76ers up by six.

• Lowry then stripped the ball from Brunson as he drove the lane on New York’s next possession. For a moment, Lowry had the ball, and the game, in his hands. But DiVincenzo then grabbed the ball back from him and hit Brunson in the corner. Brunson was 7-of-28 from the floor at that point. He chucked up a 3. The ball bounced on the rim, high into the air … and fell through the basket with 27.1 seconds left, making it a 2-point game.

But the 76ers still led. They just had to get the ball inbounds, and the Knicks would have likely had to start fouling.

• Nurse signaled for a timeout before Lowry inbounded the ball. But he did so from the sideline. Other coaches, in that situation, walk onto the court and scream timeout until they get one. He didn’t.

“I called timeout,” Nurse said. “The referee looked right at me, ignored me. (The ball) went into Tyrese. I called timeout again. Then, the melee started. I guess I have to run out onto the floor to make sure to get his attention.”

Lowry then inbounded the ball. Maxey was open, for a second. But the inbounds pass bounced off his hand. He jumped to secure the ball. Nurse signaled timeout a second time. Again, he didn’t get one. Maxey then stumbled, and fell, as Hart pulled back, then reached down and took the ball away.

You make the call.

“We should be 2 and 0,” Embiid said. “So, we’re good. We’re gonna win this series. We’re gonna win this. We know what we’ve got to fix. We did a better job today. So, we’re gonna fix it. But we’re the better team. And we’re gonna keep fighting.”

The playoffs test you. Hart sh0t 31 percent on 3s in the regular season. The Sixers are devoting bodies and energy toward keeping Brunson as cold as possible for as long as possible. Through two games, he’s shooting 16-of-55 (29.1 percent) from the floor. Julius Randle is out for the postseason. And yet … New York is up 2-0. Because Hart has hit eight 3s in two games. Because McBride, again, hurt Philly off the bench. Because Hartenstein is doing damage inside when Embiid leans off of him to challenge the Knicks driving to the rim.

But the Sixers can’t switch their coverages up and let Brunson cook them the way he’s cooked everyone all season. They’ll have to live with Hart making 3s for the rest of this series. It’s harder to live with kicking a near-sure win away and watching another season in the Embiid Era roll precariously close to the cliff.

(Top photo of Tyrese Maxey and Kyle Lowry: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

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