Joel Embiid after victory over Celtics
Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The Philadelphia 76ers (2-1) were back in action on Sunday. They had a date with the Atlanta Hawks (1-2) at State Farm Arena in game 4 of their best-of-7 Eastern Conference Semifinal series. The Sixers were looking to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series before heading back to Philadelphia for game 5. The Hawks were looking to tie the series at 2 games apiece before going back on the road. In one of the most bizarre games of the season, the Sixers coughed up an 18-point lead en route to a frustrating loss, 103-100, to even the series.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without wing Danny Green, who is expected to miss the next 2-5 with a strained right calf. It’s certainly a significant loss for Philly. But, if you have to reflect on this season thinking, “what if they didn’t lose Danny Green?”, the team wasn’t a real contender anyway. It’s a big loss, but someone will have to step up in his place. That isn’t an impossible task, either.

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

Brandon Goodwin (respiratory condition) and Cam Reddish (right achilles soreness) were unavailable for the Hawks in game 4. Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, and Clint Capela.

McMillan, feeling the desperation of his team trailing 2-1 after getting their heads beat in on Friday, elected to make an adjustment and started Huerter for Solomon Hill. Hill was giving Atlanta nothing on offense. The presence of Huerter figures to give the Hawks an additional shot-creator in that starting unit, which improves their shotmaking and playmaking versatility and opens up flexibility within the flow of the Atlanta offense.

First Half

The Sixers opened the game with a few possessions intended to get Ben Simmons going on offense. They ran the same Chicago Slice action that they ran in the second half of game 3. That action got Simmons some touches out of the mid-post from the left and right sides of the floor. But, the plays just weren’t yielding buckets.

Dan Olinger of Liberty Ballers did a great job of breaking the action down:

Philly should’ve been down by double digits early in this game due to a brutal stretch of turnovers stemming from miscommunication and missed shots. However, the Hawks went through an equally bizarre sequence of missed shots. It wasn’t like the Hawks were settling for low-quality jumpers, either. Atlanta was getting a healthy dosage of looks at the rim. But, they were just flat-out missing those attempts. I suppose a perfect summation of the first quarter was that Embiid and Simmons combined for 17 rebounds, and Philly connected on just better than 46 percent of its field goals and still won the frame by 8 points.

Joel Embiid left the bench during a television timeout and went to the locker room, but returned. Nonetheless, whether it was the torn meniscus or something else ailing the big fella, it was something to monitor for the rest of the game and the remainder of this series.

Garbage Into Gold

Seth Curry has been absolutely sensational in these playoffs. After a relatively rocky regular season, Curry has had an incredible playoff shooting the ball. The first half of this game was more of the same. He knocked in a contested midrange jumper and buried a trio of three-point shots under duress. Curry’s volume is never going to produce outrageous numbers. But, he makes back-breaking shots from all over the floor. In game 4, he made a handful of crowd-silencing buckets to extend Philly’s lead when the Hawks were reeling to string together positive sequences on both ends of the floor.

Furkan Korkmaz gave the Sixers next to nothing in his first appearance in Danny Green’s spot. While his lack of offensive production didn’t matter because the rest of his teammates were carrying the load, he left a lot to be desired on defense. Atlanta was targeting him and trying to get to the cup every time he was the primary defender. Given his lack of athleticism and unimposing frame, it was basically a bucket or a shooting foul for the Hawks. Surprisingly, however, Korkmaz opened the game with a pair of defensive stops guarding Trae Young on the move. That isn’t to say Korkmaz on Young should be tested. But, it might not yield a negative outcome for Philly every time the matchup ensues. 

Second Half

The Sixers were far too willing to sit in drop coverage in the third quarter. Philly stopped showing the size outside of the screen that showed in games 2 and 3. As a result, Young was compelled to turn the corner and penetrate the interior. Due to Capela’s looming presence as a lob threat, the Sixers couldn’t help off to stop Young. So, Young was getting uncontested floaters in the third frame. That was never a wise defensive scheme for this series, given Young’s prowess as a ball-handler and three-level scorer. Nonetheless, that was the look Rivers went with in the third quarter.

The real damage was that he let it go for far too long. Young was able to get going and, by extension, Atlanta’s offense started to cook. In a game where the offense wasn’t matching Atlanta’s run bucket for bucket, it certainly did not seem like sensible game management. Now, maybe you’re trying to go on auto pilot for a few minutes to preserve energy. That is at least somewhat understandable. But, in that environment, you also have the home team down double digits. Why not just put them on their death bed?

Not What The Doctor Ordered

That wasn’t the only questionable decision Rivers made in the second half. Shake Milton gave the Sixers a much needed energy boost in his minutes between the late third and early fourth quarters. Instead of rolling with the hot hand, Rivers went back to Korkmaz in crunch time. It wasn’t as if Korkmaz did much in the way of proving himself as a hot hand, either. He knocked in a triple and a midrange jumper in transition. To his credit, Korkmaz did make a big three down the stretch, as well. But, giving Milton extended run when he had the rhythm would’ve been the logical thing to do.

Beyond that, Rivers chose to rest Harris in the middle of the fourth quarter when the Sixers trailed by a bucket. In those minutes, although brief, he had Simmons and Thybulle on the court together. Unless you’re going zone–and you would not go zone against the Hawks in that situation–there’s no justifiable reason to have them on the floor together in crunch time. Now, maybe you’re looking to give Harris a rest. That’s reasonable. But, why do it with five minutes left in regulation and your team down two points? Doing it earlier in the frame–when Philly actually had some leverage–would’ve made much more sense.

“We got Joel right in the sweet spot and it didn’t go in. I can live with that.”

When all was said and done, the Sixers, who led by as many as 18 points in the second quarter, controlled their destiny with sixteen seconds left in the fourth quarter. They ran a pick-and-roll with Harris and Embiid, getting the MVP runner-up a look at a layup with ten seconds left. But, the poetry of basketball is that sometimes even the cheapies don’t fall.

A frustrated Rivers walked away satisfied with the look the Sixers got out of that pick-and-roll. “The shot we got Joel, I think we would take that shot all night, whether you have it going or not,” Rivers said after the loss. “That doesn’t mean you make them all. So, that was one of the few plays that I thought we executed extremely well. We got Joel right in the sweet spot and it didn’t go in. I can live with that play. I just couldn’t live with the way we played all game.”

“From the beginning of the game, even before I went back to the locker room, I just felt like I didn’t have it tonight.”

The thing about being the MVP runner-up is that the hits come with the glory. If we rightfully give Embiid the game ball for most of the victories, we also must ask where he was when his team loses, too. Monday’s 4-for-20 showing is not who Joel Embiid is or has been this season. It was an anomalous performance for the big fella. It happens. We also have to account for his body. It’s hard to read how that knee feels on a daily basis. But if he’s out there on the floor, it is only fair to criticize the team’s leading scorer and best player when he isn’t scoring efficiently or playing his best. Embiid simply must be better if the Sixers are going to win this series and plural still these playoffs.

If he’s going to have the occasional stinker, fine. It’s not supposed to be easy to be as good as he has been all the time. But, the body language he played with, in conjunction with his horrendous performance, sent a bad message to the rest of his teammates, too. For really the first time this season, we were served a flashback to 2019-20 Embiid, who moped around the court for most of the season. His expression in front of the cameras was just the tip of the ice berg in terms of the less-than-happy environment fostered within last season’s miserable squad. The good news is that recent history suggests that this is not who Playoff Embiid is.

Embiid, himself, didn’t offer up any excuses for his horrendous performance. “From the beginning of the game, even before I went back to the locker room, I just felt like I didn’t have it tonight,” he said following game 4. “You can see from the beginning of the game, it was tough. For me, not dominating, especially defensively, it’s easy to tell. So, I’m sure they saw it.” 

“I definitely should have been more aggressive and attack more.”

While we’re on the topic of Who needs to be better?, Simmons cannot have halves in which he only takes one shot in the playoffs. Such is especially inexplicable given that he dominated the second half of game 3. He has proven he can do it. So, that means it’s selective aggression. Would a game 4 on the road with a chance to go up 3-1 in the series be a good time to select aggressiveness? Personally, I cannot think of a better opportunity to assert one’s strength, speed, and size to be aggressive. With Embiid having a horrible game, Simmons had the opportunity to step up and give his local doubters something to applaud. So, It’s quite unfathomable that Simmons just couldn’t find it in himself to pursue more shots. Such is especially inexcusable when he proved he could do it just a few days beforehand.

Simmons, to his credit, did not excuse himself from such criticism after the loss. “I definitely should have been more aggressive and attack more,” he said after the loss. “I think the space was a little off this game. We didn’t get to our spacing. We weren’t as aggressive that second half.”

The Sixers (2-2) will head home to host the Hawks (2-2) in game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Wednesday. TNT will start covering the game at 7:30 PM EST (we know damn well that the action won’t start at 7:30 PM EST).