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Doc Rivers will return to coach 76ers next season

76ers coach Doc Rivers (left) and guard James Harden.Michael Reaves/Getty

The first piece of the 76ers’ offseason is set: Doc Rivers will return to coach next season, early exits and all. Another question mark seems somewhat settled, James Harden wants to stay in Philly and the Sixers want him back. All signs point to yes, but no deal — one that could be worth nearly $50 million next season — is guaranteed.

Outside of NBA scoring champion Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, the rest of the roster is fair game headed into another offseason following a second-round exit, this one in six games to the Miami Heat.

The Sixers lost in the Eastern Conference second round four times since 2018 — once as a No. 1 seed — and were swept in the first round in 2020. They haven’t advanced past the second round since 2001 and only twice (1985 the other) since winning their last NBA championship in 1983.

Ten years ago, the Sixers were the plucky underdog that knocked off the top-seeded Bulls to reach the second round. Tired of the early exits, the 76ers soon launched the tirelessly debated Process that yielded Embiid but not much else. The Sixers aren’t about to start again, not with Embiid still in his prime, the Wells Fargo Center packed nightly, and a core that theoretically has pieces that could shape a contender.

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Under owners Josh Harris and Dave Blitzer, team president Daryl Morey and Rivers, can this franchise ever win a championship, at least while Embiid is under contract through the 2026-27 season?

“We’re right there,” Rivers said Friday. “We’ve put ourselves in the argument.”

It was another disappointing end in Philadelphia after the Miami Heat knocked them out in the Eastern semifinals.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Oh, there’s plenty of arguing in Philly.

Like, why is Rivers coming back? Is Harden worth a max deal? Whose fault is it that Embiid can’t stay healthy?

And there’s this debate, brought back to life after the Heat smoked the Sixers in Games 5 and 6: How could the Sixers have ever let Jimmy Butler go after the 2019 season?

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Tobias Harris over me?!” Butler, the former 76ers guard, said as he walked into Miami’s locker room.

The Sixers have settled into a comfortable routine of 50 wins, a top-half seed in the Eastern Conference, and letting them go as far as Embiid can take them.

“We have one of the best, if not the best, players on the planet,” Morey said. “We have to do more. All of us.”

No player will have to do more next season than Harden. The crazed excitement and all those fake beards fans wore when the Sixers acquired Harden from Brooklyn for Ben Simmons faded in a hurry. The Sixers realized in a heartbeat — and fans watched in horror in the playoffs — that Harden was no longer the three-time scoring champion, former MVP Harden. Rather, the Sixers acquired a 32-year-old diminished Harden who came up empty against the Heat. Harden had four turnovers, four baskets and did not score in the second half in the Game 6 loss.

“We all know he’s a very skilled player,” Morey said. “We’ll figure out how to use him.”

James Harden had nothing to save the Sixers in their ouster against Miami.Tim Nwachukwu/Getty

Morey and Rivers used the usual caveats that a full offseason program and training camp will help the Sixers better figure out how to use Harden. Morey said the Sixers could thrive with Harden “if we can unlock what he brings us.”

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So here’s the hiccup. Harden has a $47.4 million player option for 2022-23 and, should he pick it up before July 1, would be eligible to sign a max contract extension for nearly $223 million through the 2026-27 season. Harden said after Game 6 he would do “whatever it takes to help this team continue to grow,” meaning he could opt out of his deal and agree to return for less money. OK.

Morey said Harden is in next season’s plans.

“That’s been the plan since the trade,” Morey said.

Doncic, Mavs force Game 7

Luka Doncic has his first victory in an elimination game.

Now the young Dallas superstar gets another one — and another Game 7 to boot.

Doncic scored 33 points and the Mavericks beat the Phoenix Suns, 113-86, Thursday night at Dallas to force a deciding game in the Western Conference semifinals.

The home team has won all six games, none with a margin closer than 7 points. A trip to the West finals will be at stake Sunday in Phoenix.

The Mavericks won when facing elimination for the first time in three tries with the 23-year-old Doncic, their three-time All-Star point guard.

Luka Doncic's Mavericks finally came through in an elimination game to force a Game 7 against defending West champion Phoenix.Ron Jenkins/Getty

The two losses came against the Clippers the past two seasons, including Game 7 in Los Angeles last year after the visitors won the first six games, a first in the playoffs. Dallas is playing beyond the first round for the first time since winning the title 11 years ago, when first-year coach Jason Kidd was the point guard.

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“I don't know if he was playing as if he was trying to do something different,” Kidd said. “I think he enjoys the moment. You guys have seen a little bit longer than I have up close. He's not afraid of the stage. I think you guys call it the first time winning an elimination game. He'll be in this situation a long, long time.”

The Suns, seeking a second consecutive trip to the conference finals, are going the distance in a series for the first time in two postseasons with Chris Paul and Devin Booker. The previous three went six, including Phoenix’s loss to Milwaukee last year in the NBA Finals.

Booker scored 19 points but was shut out from 3-point range (0 of 4) while going 6 of 17. Deandre Ayton had 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Paul added 13 points.

The top-seeded Suns were held to a season low in scoring, regular season or playoffs, for the second time in the series. They shot a playoff-low 40 percent with 22 turnovers, the most all season.

“I don’t have enough time to talk about everything that’s eating at me,” coach Monty Williams said. “I didn’t think we understood the desperation they were going to play with. Couple that with the turnovers that we had tonight, it’s a recipe for what we just got.”

The 37-year-old Paul is now in line for his eighth Game 7, while the 27-year-old Booker is about to play his first.

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“Greatest two words in sports,” Booker said. “I’m excited to feel the energy. I’m excited to be a part of it. It’s a great opportunity.”

Reggie Bullock scored 19 points for Dallas, going 5 of 11 from 3-point range after being held scoreless and getting just five shots total in Game 5. Jalen Brunson added 18, and Spencer Dinwiddie had a series-high 15, all on 3s (5 of 7).

Doncic played through an apparent left leg injury that sent him to the locker room when he would have been out of the game anyway in the second quarter. He returned to the bench and rode a stationary bike before re-entering the game.

Soon after, the Mavericks went on a decisive 19-5 run to finish the first half, turning a two-point lead into a 60-45 halftime edge.

It was a home-team replay of the third quarter from Game 5, when Phoenix went on a 17-0 run for an 18-point lead and ended up winning by 30.

Doncic, who had 11 rebounds and eight assists, fought his shot while fighting the injury early, but had a 3 on the late first-half run and scored 10 in the third to help the Mavericks push their lead to 22 (94-72).

Paul avoided the problems with fouls that cost the Suns in the second loss in Dallas. But he was never much of a factor, getting just seven shots.

Booker was stuck on 8 points while Dallas pulled away in the second and third quarters, opening the second half with a miss on an ill-advised 3 and not scoring again until the Suns were down 21 late in the third.

“I think we won this game on the defensive end,” Doncic said. “We’ve got another game. That’s fun. It’s playoffs, and we’re going to give our energy.”