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June 23, 2021

Doc Rivers was as much at fault for Sixers' loss as Ben Simmons was

You don't have to do more than a cursory Google search of Ben Simmons' name to figure out who most people, locally or otherwise, blame for the Sixers' second-round defeat. The familiarity of his issues in the second round has pushed even his most strident defenders to reconsider if he should be in Philadelphia long-term.

But those conversations have allowed an important fact about the Sixers' second-round series to slide into the background: Doc Rivers was every bit as bad as Simmons was across seven games against Atlanta, running into issues that have haunted him across years and years of playoff failures.

No, this was not another one of his league-leading defeats after being up 3-1 in a series, the Sixers only managing to create a 2-1 lead before collapsing. But it was every bit as bad as the defeats that have defined his post-2008 championship run as a head coach. From the very beginning of the series, Rivers opted for strategies and made decisions that obviously harmed the Sixers, and he continued on with those choices right up until they were defeated in Game 7.

It all started in Game 1, when the Sixers opted to begin the series with Danny Green on Trae Young and Joel Embiid dropping hard to the rim, conceding what amounted to most of the floor to Young as a scorer and throwing the same, predictable look at him for almost 24 straight minutes. That choice backfired immediately, with Young dominating Philly in the first half of Game 1 en route to a tight win to open the series. Worse yet, Rivers amplified the initial haymaker thrown by Atlanta, going to an all-bench lineup that turned a double-digit deficit into a 20+ point hole that the Sixers were never quite able to climb out of. The Sixers essentially gave away the game and homecourt advantage with an initial plan that nearly every credible analyst would have torn apart had they been handed it before the series. 

The second half of that game could be used as proof that Rivers was ready to adjust quickly, with Philadelphia slowly bleeding Atlanta's lead out over the final 24 minutes. Even there, you can find sources of rage. The Sixers' pressure defense rattled a young group of Hawks initiators late in the game. Why not try that late in other games during the series where you needed to try to turn the tide at the last minute? Heck, why not try it more in the middle of games to disrupt Atlanta's offensive rhythm, trying to create some unexpected value out of the second unit that struggled all series?

Keeping their adjustments simple and straightforward was the right move for Philadelphia at first. The simple act of sliding Ben Simmons over to Trae Young and mixing up their defensive coverages more allowed them to briefly take control of this series, slowing down Atlanta's offense while riding Joel Embiid to success on the other end. This is a team that finished with the No. 1 seed for good reason — their Plan A was enough to outlast every other Eastern Conference competitor during the regular season, and maintaining the structure that had worked so well is an admirable goal.

But when Plan A doesn't work, that's where a head coach needs to figure some things out. When Embiid was in the process of a second-half meltdown in Game 4, it was Rivers who needed to find who and how to work around the problem. It's not as though they didn't have answers, even with players who were bad throughout the series — when Rivers made a conscious effort to play through Simmons in the second half of Game 3, the Sixers were able to pull away and ice the game. Would keeping Simmons involved have stopped his eventual series death spiral? I personally doubt it, but the Sixers also barely bothered to try.

There are reasons to be more forgiving of Rivers' bench-mob sins than I think most have been since the series ended. Using Tobias Harris as the lone star next to bench units was basically the only way you can avoid toxic combinations involving Simmons and Dwight Howard while keeping Embiid in the same minute blocks he was in during his best-ever season.

But Rivers' failure to experiment in the second round was really an indictment of the lack of experimentation they did in the regular season. I am not a believer in Simmons at center lineups on the defensive end of the floor, but the Sixers not only didn't give those a chance to get real burn, they also refused to alter their defensive concepts to make those work. A lineup with Simmons at the five and athletes around him should be unleashed to switch as much as possible, beating teams with speed rather than strength. That never happened, and by the time it became clear they needed those groupings in the second round, Howard drowning in his role as backup center, it was too late to expect any shred of competence from the alternative setup that would have filled the void.

The biggest indictment of Rivers, frankly, came by way of his Game 7 approach. There were definitely tweaks to what they did — Embiid came out early in Game 7 in an effort to get him back on the floor and aiding bench groups sooner, a defensible choice from Rivers. What isn't defensible is the continued reliance on an ineffective bench seven games deep in a series, 84 games into a season where they had proven themselves ineffective at pushing Philly toward victory. In a do-or-die Game 7 with one of his starters already out for the series, Rivers went 10 players deep.

You could make a case that some coaches are too extreme in their approach to Game 7. Brooklyn and Milwaukee gassed their stars to the point that Kevin Durant airballed his final look of the playoffs, spent from 53 consecutive minutes of carrying the Nets. But Rivers trended the other way, using conservative minutes distributions and living in fear of foul trouble throughout the night. Seth Curry, Philadelphia's second-best player in this series, ended up playing less than 31 minutes on Sunday night. The quest to protect him from himself only served to leave the Sixers without one of their most impactful offensive players, and what's worse is that Rivers never figured out a way to help Curry from being targeted on defense when the Hawks needed buckets in the second half. Philly got the worst of both worlds.

Had Rivers simply wanted to buy his stars some extra rest in the first half to empty the tank in the second, fine. But we got treated to any number of awful combinations throughout the game, from the dreaded Howard/Simmons pairing to using four bench players at one time in the second half. His big fourth-quarter adjustment was playing Shake Milton almost half of the quarter after leaving him on the bench and ice cold for the first 36 minutes of the game. Milton being able to do anything in that spot would have been an absolute miracle, and his only make came on a play where he got away with an up-and-down travel in the final minute of the game.

The biggest criticism of Rivers dating back years and years is his inability to change in order to meet the moment. Opposing coach Nate McMillan doesn't have the reputation of a master manipulator, but he was willing to throw stuff at the wall to see what works. Atlanta's ultra-big lineup of Capela-Collins-Gallinari seems nonsensical on paper, but because McMillan had figured out that Simmons couldn't or wouldn't attack Gallo, the Hawks were able to extract max value from him on offense while avoiding any pain on defense. 

Philly's inability to hunt bad defenders is an indictment of the players for sure, particularly Harris, who made a living out of finding the weak spot in a defense all season. But Rivers owns plenty of responsibility for that failure himself. Philadelphia's Game 5 collapse was made possible because they couldn't damage perhaps the worst defensive backcourt in the playoffs (Young and Lou Williams), a pairing Tyrese Maxey promptly tore up by himself in the Game 6 road win two nights later. 

I would never go so far as to say the "worst" thing a coach did in a playoff series was a quote they delivered between or following games. But Rivers' immediate response to the Sixers' Game 7 loss was to soften the blow, to frame the failure of their previous season as proof the Sixers had taken a step forward.

"This team last year got swept in the first round. We had a chance to go to the championship, to the eastern finals. I'm not going to make this into a negative year," Rivers said late Sunday night.

Rivers, who has played and coached in rabid East Coast markets, knows much better than this. Did the Sixers have a better season in 2020-21 than they did in 2019-20? Undoubtedly. Does anybody want to hear that when you're in the process of squandering the best path to a Finals appearance your team has had in two decades? Certainly not. Rivers told anyone who would listen where the bar was for this team all season, and it wasn't a second-round loss as the No. 1 seed. Even his players have acknowledged the unique opportunity they had in front of them in the aftermath of this loss, making any coach's justification irrelevant.

"This was an opportunity, the way we set ourselves up, the way the stars aligned for us," Danny Green said Monday. "With the injuries, with us being the number one seed having homecourt advantage, with playing Washington and then not having to play Brooklyn or Milwaukee, the second round playing [winner of] Atlanta New York series...there's never an easy road to the Finals, never an easy road to getting a ring. But if you could ask for that over again, 10 times out of 10 I'm choosing that route. I'm choosing homecourt advantage and playing these teams."

"You couldn't ask for a better setup or a better opportunity to capitalize on, and you try to reiterate to those guys, look, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. But we can't skip any steps, we too much looking past the task, the challenge at hand and not focusing on tomorrow. Instead, I think we got, I wouldn't say we got lackadaisical or anything, we just skipped some steps and got too comfortable. We were looking ahead, like, oh who we playing next? No, we got to win now and win tomorrow."

This hire was sold as a means to improve accountability and take this core to heights they hadn't reached before. Yet veterans on this team are telling you that when it mattered most, the team was unable to keep their focus on the task at hand, choking away a series against a group they were already looking past. 

As with Simmons, all of these errors are more frustrating because they're the sort of mistakes we have seen Rivers make before and were used to discuss the downside of his hiring when it was made. With Rivers having a positive influence on the Sixers overall this season, it was easy to put his past failures in the rearview, especially when he proved willing to switch things up to win games in the regular season. Philadelphia's 2-3 zone that launched a comeback against Indiana on the road, for example, was an out-of-nowhere curveball that helped them steal a game, an inspiring sight out of a coaching staff that doesn't particularly love zone to begin with.

But just as we evaluate Simmons on his playoff failures rather than his regular-season production, Rivers' worth is ultimately going to be determined when he has to beat an opponent four times to advance. He was every bit as bad as the star point guard who is bearing the weight of Philadelphia's defeat, and if he does not reflect as hard as many are asking Simmons to this summer, odds are we will be having the same discussion at the end of Philadelphia's next season.

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