Deep breaths, Sixers fans, deep breaths. The Philadelphia 76ers (2-2) were back in action on Wednesday night. They hosted the Atlanta Hawks (2-2) in game 5 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series. The Sixers were looking to put Atlanta on the brink of elimination before heading on the road for a close-out game. The Hawks were looking to put Philly on the brink before heading back home for a close-out game 6. Philadelphia blew a 26-point lead in an epic second half collapse to lose, 109-106, and put itself on the brink of elimination.
Before we get to the stories of the game, let’s set the scene.
The Hawks continued to be without De’Andre Hunter (torn right meniscus), Cam Reddish (sore right achilles), 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, who continues to nurse a strained right calf. Doc Rivers stuck with his game 4 lineup, starting Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Joel Embiid opened the game with quite the statement. It might’ve been the atrocity he put forth in game 4, Clint Capela’s words after game 4, or the fact that he was left off of the All-NBA First Team this season. Heck, it probably was a combination of all of it. Whatever the case, the big fella was locked all the way in as the Sixers pushed through the first quarter. He started the game 6-for-6 from the field. Unlike in game 4, he wasn’t settling on the perimeter at all. Embiid was leveraging his imposing size to get right to the rim for finishes through contact. If he wasn’t doing that, he was utilizing his jab step to create space on the perimeter before splashing midrange jumpers.
On the defensive side of the ball, Embiid’s agility did not appear even the slightest bit compromised by the knee injury. He was completing timely rotations from the weak side of the court to disrupt shots around the rim. Aside from some early floaters from Young and a handful of jump shots around the perimeter, the Hawks had no way of scoring because of Embiid’s presence at the rim. Quite simply, he was a man possessed. Atlanta’s best option was to strike when he was recharging on the bench.
The JV Swing Unit
After the first unit departed, Rivers rolled with a Shake Milton, George Hill, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Dwight Howard second unit. It was about as hideous as it sounds, at least according to the eye test. Fortunately for Philadelphia, Atlanta’s second unit was equally hideous. The reserves were a net positive when they departed, but that was solely because neither team could put the ball in the cup. Rivers has been quicker to move away from those all-bench lineups in this series. But, there are times when he still feels comfortable going bench-heavy. That’s something I expect him to keep doing if the Sixers advance. But, my guess would be that he pulls it out even less frequently in those environments.
After the team’s off-day film session on Tuesday, Doc Rivers broke down Ben Simmons’ self-admission of not being aggressive enough in game 4. Rivers agreed that Simmons was not effective in pushing the pace and distributing the ball to his teammates. But, he disagreed with Simmons’ admission that he didn’t look for his own scores enough. Simmons seemed to follow that lead in game 5. While he wasn’t seeking field goals the way he was in the second half of game 3, Simmons was getting the ball up the court and pressuring Atlanta’s defense to rotate appropriately when he had the ball in his hands. Even if the assists weren’t accruing, Simmons was igniting sequences of extra passes to pull the Hawks out of rotation and get Philly open looks on the perimeter.
The Simmons Free Throw Issue Continues
The Sixers would’ve been up by more than 22 points at halftime had Simmons connected on more than two of his eight free throw attempts. The issue is not getting any better. It hasn’t mattered whether the games are at home or on the road, the Sixers are trailing or leading, or the first or second halves of games. Simmons has zero confidence at the charity stripe right now. You can see it in the way he’s missing his freebies. He has no idea where the ball is going on a shot-to-shot basis. If it doesn’t cost the Sixers this series, it certainly could cost them the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals.
It feels short-sighted to bubble up an entire series outcome to one guy making or missing free throws. But, both the Wizards and Hawks have utilized the hack-a-Simmons strategy to disrupt the flow of Philly’s offense when it’s hot. Not only are the Sixers leaving points on the board ore times than not, but they’re being forced to accommodate the horrendous free throw shooting with near-perfect defensive stands. That’s not going to work as these playoffs go on. Rivers may ultimately have to bite the bullet and sit Simmons in those stints. But, weighing the cost of sacrificing defense against the gain of a more fluid offense ultimately may be the only option.
Philadelphia’s offense stagnated for an extensive period of time in the third quarter because the Sixers got away from their ball movement. For large portions of the post-intermission frame, the offense was comprised of non-Embiid Sixers watching while Embiid tried to manipulate double-teams to little avail. Fortunately for the Sixers, Seth Curry was lights out in the third quarter. Curry has been invaluable as the dead-eye assassin for Philly in his postseason with the Sixers. Once the Hawks started double-teaming Embiid, Philly’s safety plug was Curry spotting up for outside jumpers and he was knocking them in one after another.
“We got good looks up until the last three, four minutes.”
That was all fun and good while the lead was in tact. But, the fact that that remained Philly’s only source of offense when the Hawks showed the double was a stark foreshadow of issues to come. It isn’t even a foreshadow that, in a vacuum, is that surprising. Seth Curry can’t be your only source of scoring or creation in the half-court setting once the primary option is countered.
According to Tobias Harris, the Sixers were doing what was working. “Those two guys [Embiid and Curry] had it going. That was the offense we went to right then and there,” Harris said after the collapse. “We got good looks up until the last three, four minutes. But yeah, we ran the same set. We were going with it and that was it, really.”
That’s great when it is working. But the Philly offense drowned in quick sand as soon as that set stopped working. That was the point at which the team’s supposed best players needed to recognize that they needed to step up and counter what the Hawks were doing by diversifying the portfolio.
Those are faults of both Simmons (8 points on 4 field goal attempts, 4-for-14 from the free throw line, and 9 assists) and Harris (4 points on eleven field goal attempts, 3 assists). Max contract players need to step up and make things happen. But, it’s also what an attentive viewer comes to expect given Simmons’ limitation. In the moment, when the team is up 26-points, you can gloss over it. But, when the team blows that 26-point lead, it cannot be ignored. That is precisely what transpired in this game, though.
The Sixers lost their focus and the momentum shifted against them and never stopped. Philly couldn’t get anything going on offense. Meanwhile, with the defense letting its guard down, the Hawks swooped in and chipped away at the deficit. What was once a dominant Philadelphia advantage slowly transformed into one of the epic collapses in the history of Philadelphia sports.
You can direct your blame at Rivers’ decision to throw in an all-bench lineup that presented a sparkling rendition of a junior varsity basketball team. The Hawks cut the deficit to thirteen points by the time Rivers’ conceded to returning his starters. But, the collapse was already contagious. The significant part of the lead was erased with the starters, not the second unit, on the floor.
“They were trying to attack matchups, which that’s not how you play. That matchup will find the matchup.”
Down the stretch, the Sixers simply shrunk. They were consumed by the fear of what was being an inevitable collapse. That fear is paralyzing. A once confident, maybe even cocky, 1-seed cowered in fear. They watched as the young, inexperienced team dusted itself off and punched back. The Sixers forget how to run their offense. They forgot how to play basketball. Even when they found ways to score points, they lost sight of their defensive principles and the Hawks came right back to negate the previous basket. Eventually, the lack of organization on offense was too much to overcome, and the Hawks pounced on the opportunity. The biggest collapse that I’ve ever witnessed was cemented.
Doc Rivers offered an assessment of what he saw from the offense during the collapse. “You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to see that when the ball was moving and we’re just sharing, we’re really good. Then, the ball got stuck,” Rivers said. “It got stuck, to me, for most of the second half. The only movement sets we had going was the Seth actions. Then, the second unit started doing the same thing. They usually don’t do that. They were trying to attack matchups, which that’s not how you play. The matchup will find the matchup.”
“Watch the film, learn from it, bounce back.”
Even if the Sixers win game 6 and game 7, the memory of this game may have left too deep a scar to recover entirely. Even if the Sixers get to the Finals, I suspect the memory of this collapse, and some of the other disappointing moments of this series, will be enough to enact significant change. It’s not rocket science to see that Ben Simmons is next in line if this season’s expectations are not met.
After the collapse, Seth Curry insisted that the loss wouldn’t affect team’s collective mind going forward. “Shouldn’t [linger]. I mean, grown men over here. Watch the film, learn from it, bounce back,” Curry said. “We know who we are, as a team and as players. Just, one game should never affect the next.”
For now, the Sixers must be focused on one thing and one thing only: forcing a game 7. They’ll have a chance to do so on Friday night in Atlanta. Game 6 between Philadelphia (2-3) and Atlanta (3-2) is scheduled for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action (with alcohol) on ESPN.