Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid

I’m sure by the time most of you are reading this, libations are in hand to calm the nerves and celebrate or to wash away the pain of tragedy. Either way, I’m happy to serve you to the best of my abilities. They say the two best words in sports are “Game Seven”. Sure, when you’re a distant observer. It’s easy to enjoy when you’re not dying with every play or covering one of the teams involved. Anyway, the tri-state area found itself staring a game 7 in Philadelphia on Sunday night. The Sixers and Hawks (3-3) engaged in one final battle to determine who would be advancing. The Sixers simply failed to execute down the stretch, and fell victim to their own faults, 103-96, to finish an incredibly disappointing series.

Before we get to the Father’s Day clash, some context is needed.

Contextual Notes

The Hawks were without De’Andre Hunter (right meniscus surgery), Cam Reddish (right achilles soreness), and Brandon Goodwin (respiratory condition). 

Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, John Collins, and Clint Capela.

The Sixers were without Danny Green (right calf strain).

Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

First Half

Furkan Korkmaz struggled mightily in the early-going on the defensive end of the floor. The Hawks knew he wasn’t strong enough to fight around pin-down screens. So, they ran a number of actions to get Kevin Huerter in rhythm, and it was successful. He unlocked the basket for the Hawks early on with a pair of jumpers. That fight around the screens is monumentally important in such a high-leverage situation. It would’ve been passable if Korkmaz was knocking down his looks, but he opened the game 1-for-3 from deep. To me, there needs to be a very short leash on Korkmaz when teams identify that weakness. If he’s not starting the game hot from the perimeter, you can’t have him on the court. He can’t be getting minutes and providing little-to-nothing on either end.

“I think it’s a great lesson for us, but not a lesson we want to learn in a game 7.”

Joel Embiid responded well after struggling throughout game 6. Although he wasn’t settling on the perimeter the same way he was in game 6, Embiid clearly didn’t trust his teammates. To be fair, if I were in his spot, I don’t know that I would, either. But, he has to know he can’t do it all himself. He needed to do the things that made the Sixers potent all season, even if the last few games have fractured a portion of those positive spirits. It’s hard to be too critical because he scored 8 points on four field goal attempts in the first quarter. But, he was blatantly over-dribbling and trying to create shots for himself.

That hero ball is something that Rivers has harped on getting away from. When his teammates see that, they lose a bit of confidence in themselves. So, even if Embiid thought being a hero was necessary, there are repercussions extending beyond whether or not he’s able to execute.

Rivers agreed with that sentiment after the loss. “Offensively, to me, is what let us down tonight. I thought our defense hung in there as long as it could,” Rivers said. “We couldn’t make shots. I didn’t think we trust passing tonight. I think it’s a great lesson for us, but not the lesson we want to learn in a game 7.”

Getting Simmons Involved

Doc Rivers did a much better job of running actions to get Ben Simmons more involved in the offense in the first quarter. Rather than just sit idly in the dunker’s spot, Simmons was flashing in the post and sealing defenders off for positioning. Rivers also ran a handful of actions to get one side of the court cleared out for Simmons with Gallinari defending him. From there, Simmons felt a bit more comfortable attacking the basket and was more aggressive in doing so. Although, he was still passing out of shots and finding teammates. The binary of setting up his teammates for looks was positive in the first frame, as he registered 3 assists.

The Sixers had one excellent possession the entire first half, and it came as a result of multiple passes within the flow of the play. Philly cracked Atlanta’s interior with dribble penetration off of swing passes, and the result was a Simmons dunk. Fittingly, it was his only field goal of the first half of game 7.

That one play was a microcosm of what was missing from Philadelphia’s offense in the first half of game 7. They weren’t moving the ball effectively at all. Instead, they were targeting mismatches down low with Harris and Embiid. Even when they would put together a series of good passes, said passes weren’t actually progressing the offense at all. So, the Sixers were getting low-percentage shots off of ineffective ball movement throughout the half.

Out Of Sorts 

Although Simmons dished out 8 assists in the first half of game 7, he had a couple opportunities to score pushing the pace in transition. Instead of turning on the jets to push ahead of everyone, Simmons was speeding up to get away from the Hawks lurking behind him and then slowing down once he sensed he was safe. But, that’s the exact opposite of what Simmons should be doing even when he’s going through such a rut with his confidence. Rather than push the pace, which is Simmons’ comfort zone, he was slowing down in transition and further stalling the offense. So while he collected a handful of dimes, you could make the case that he actually regressed even further in game 7.

Second Half

Even with the Sixers starting to find an offensive rhythm in the third quarter, they really couldn’t create any separation because of the mismatch that Kevin Huerter was for Seth Curry. It was really a credit to the Hawks for identifying it early and making a point to take advantage of it. By the same token, there were too many possessions in which the Sixers even allowed Curry to find himself rotated onto Huerter. Between the floating jumpers from the middle of the floor and the fouls on said shots, Curry had no answer for Huerter. That matchup, by itself, kept the Hawks in the game in the third quarter of game 7.

The Sixers also did a really poor job of protecting against the lob threat in the second half. Even with the dribble penetration, there was no faith or instinct to rotate over to protect the rim when Embiid lifted up to stop the basketball. With that lack of trust and execution, Embiid was forced to vacate the lane to stop the ball, as is instinct. When that happened, Young was feasting on lobs to Capela. There was only one possession of note in which a helper took away the lob threat by blocking out Capela. The result was an Atlanta turnover. Imagine that!

Simmons was much better at speeding up the pace in transition in the third quarter. He was hitting his teammates ahead for open looks every time he got the ball in the open court. The issue, of course, became that the Sixers’ touch around the rim also faded. So, they left a handful of points on the board.

Rivers’ Rotations

I didn’t have too much of a problem with Rivers’ rotations in the second half of game 7. The Hawks gave Onyeka Okongwu extended run off the bench, so the Sixers really couldn’t go small with Simmons at center even if they wanted to do so. The simple fact of the matter is that you need your best players to be fresh for crunch time. George Hill certainly could’ve played fewer minutes. But, it was very obvious that Tyrese Maxey wasn’t going to be the spark plug that he was in game 6. So do you go with Milton, who has been dreadful ever since game 2?

The bench lineups certainly weren’t great. But, there’s also something to be said for trying to maximize every minute that your best players are on the court by playing them together. When you have a horribly inconsistent bench like the Sixers do, you need to do what you can to get the most value of the minutes in which your starters are all on the floor together. You do that by keeping them as fresh as possible so that they can be at their best every minute they play together. The problem with the inconsistency from the bench is that you never know which starter to play in that unit to get the most out of it. It’s a guessing game. Champions don’t have to play guessing games. 

The Defining Moment

Perhaps the defining moment of the game and series was Ben Simmons’ decision to inexplicably pass out of an open dunk to Matisse Thybulle, who cut down the baseline for a finish. Thybulle was fouled and sent to the line. He split the free throws. So, instead of an easy dunk, the Sixers got one point out of the possession.

Embiid was visibly frustrated by Simmons’ decision to pass out of the dunk. Embiid made that frustration clear after the game. “I thought the turning point was when we–I don’t know how to say it–but I thought the turning point was just we had an open shot and we made one free throw and we missed the other,” Embiid said. “Then, they came down and scored. We didn’t get a good possession on the other end.” Perhaps those words are the final blow of Simmons’ tenure in Philadelphia. 

The Clock Might’ve Struck Midnight On Ben Simmons

That was really all you needed to see from this series. That one play from game 7. The Sixers fell short of expectations, once again, in the second round of the playoffs. There’s plenty of blame to go around. But the theme that remains through these failures is Ben Simmons’ shortcomings. Every season of his career has concluded with everyone–fans, media, the NBA family–clinging to the hope that maybe he’ll return with improved touch around the rim, a hint of a reliable jump shot, and consistent aggressive play.

None of that has happened. This series, Simmons reduced himself to a mere shell of what he is at his best. He got into his own head. But instead of being reduced to strictly layups and passes, Simmons’ entire game fell apart. He was little more than a fifth body on the floor after the third game of this series. That was all she wrote.

1-seed or not, the Sixers needed all three of their max contracts to carry the load. It was never going to happen with one of the three being reduced to a short yardage running back. Simmons’ completely fractured confidence buried the team because his whole game shut down. A team that had relied upon its facilitator and creator was left out to dry by that very player.

“We gave them life from game one.”

The NBA playoffs are an incredibly unforgiving environment. Game 5 will haunt the Sixers for a very long time. Simmons’ 4-for-14 performance at the free throw line was the nail in the coffin for his own play. Embiid, as good as he was in the series, had horrendous fourth quarters in both of games 4 and 5. He also averaged 7 turnovers per game over the last three games of the series.

Horrid execution in the second half of game 5 was the defining moment of the season. A 26-point lead blown in a losing effort was not supposed to be the way this thing ended. But, the Sixers’ inability to create offense in that half fractured their trust in each other. They destroyed the equity they built with their fans this season. Their supposed second-best player lost all belief in himself. 

Tobias Harris certainly felt the pain of a blown opportunity. “We gave them life from game one. You got to give them credit, too, because they took it,” Harris said after the loss. “They’re a hungry team. A tough matchup team, as well. Game one, they came in here from the jump and was ready. I think, throughout the series, we had those two games with the big leads that we let slip, and they took advantage of that.”

The Blame Extends Farther Than Ben Simmons

The bottom line is that everyone contributed to this collapse in different ways. The Sixers proved themselves to be a mentally soft team when Danny Green went down for the series in game 3. Now, they’ve blown an opportunity with a wide-open path to the Finals this season. They head into the offseason with nearly as much work to do as they had last offseason. 

I suppose that’s the beauty of sports. That failure makes the championships–however few and far between–that much sweeter. But, progress needs to be made before the face of the franchise gets tired of the same checkpoint season after season. Joel Embiid is the ticket to a championship. The Sixers may ultimately have that sweet championship to validate all of the failures. But, major changes will need to be made first. That starts with Ben Simmons, whether it’s in Philadelphia or elsewhere.