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June 20, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers complete stunning series loss to Hawks with Game 7 stinker

The Sixers lost their third home game of the second round in a stunning Game 7 stinker on Sunday night, and the Atlanta Hawks ended their season with a 103-96 victory despite Trae Young struggling all night. This will likely go down as a franchise-altering loss for Philadelphia.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers have changed coaches and shooters, but their best offense is often still running their best shooter off of a handoff and living with the results. The actions aren't the same as the JJ Redick package, but the effect is — stray away from Seth Curry at your own risk.

Frankly, it seems like Curry is the only guy Embiid really trusts right now. When the big guy is involved in actions with almost anybody else on the roster, he is often calling his own number and ignoring shot opportunities that seem to be there for the taking. With Curry, he senses almost immediately when his best shooter is free, and even when Curry isn't the guy getting the shot up, he's creating a chain reaction of rotations that eventually helps the Sixers get a clean look at the rim.

Curry being this good is a major positive at the end of a disappointing season, and they have him locked in on a team-friendly deal for two more years. 

• Nor much else positive to say in the immediate aftermath of another second-round loss for Philadelphia. 

The Bad

• Embiid could not get jumpers to fall in Game 6, and it was certainly fair to question whether he'd answer the bell in a pressure-packed Game 7 with some hot-and-cold performances over the last week. He made damn sure to open up the game with a bang, and a big part of that was playing with a level of purpose and physicality that simply wasn't there in Atlanta on Friday.

Maybe it was because he knew a friendlier whistle was on the way after his complaints on Friday night, but there was a much bigger point of emphasis to attack the basket. Embiid put Clint Capela between a rock and a hard place, dipping his shoulder into his chest and forcing him to pick up a pair of early fouls.

And then Embiid went missing for a while. The middle period of the game featured some of his worst decision-making all season on both ends, with Embiid racking up turnovers thanks to some poor passing out of the post and overdribbling that Atlanta punished. Frankly, defense was an even bigger problem — it's quite tricky to defend the Capela lobs from Young when Young is getting past the second level so easily, but Embiid also straight-up lost Capela on at least a few possessions, gifting Atlanta some painless looks at the rim you simply can't afford in a closeout game.

As if somebody flipped the on/off switch on his back between the third and fourth quarter, Embiid came out for the final 12 minutes and strapped the Sixers to his back. A pair of face-up jumpers and a transition three in the trail position later, the Sixers were front-running once again.

But the stars aren't judged for simply being pretty good for parts of the game. Embiid was no more influential down the stretch than his other two co-stars, and his costly turnover with 45 seconds remaining was basically the final nail in Philadelphia's coffin. 

Embiid is now being judged against the other standard-bearers of the NBA. Kevin Durant left it all out there in a loss on Saturday night. Giannis Antetokounmpo went out and dropped 40 points and secured a road Game 7 victory. Hell, Devin Booker turned in a classic on Sunday in Phoenix's opener against the Clippers to start the Western Conference Finals, carrying his team the way a star is supposed to when the chips are down.

The big man can't do everything. But he can do more, and it should be expected of him.

• There are two things you absolutely have to do better than the other team to improve your chances of winning in Game 7: take care of the basketball and rebound. Every possession is precious, and if you're coughing those away or allowing the other team to get a second look at the basket, it's going to be tough to climb out of the hole.

Early on, the Sixers didn't look too interested in winning either of those battles. Two of their worst transition turnovers of the season, errant passes from Tobias Harris and Embiid, gifted the Hawks possessions that they promptly turned into points. The Harris turnover, in fact, forced Curry to take an early foul to avoid an instant layup/dunk for the Hawks, and Curry would pick up a second fairly quickly and have to dodge foul trouble most of the first half.

It continued on as the half wore on, with rookie Tyrese Maxey showing his youth a bit with a sloppy turnover in a halfcourt set. I think it's overly cliche to say they, "weren't ready to play" or something to that effect, but they made costly errors out of nothing more than poor self-awareness.

• I did try to warn you before the game that Doc Rivers sounded like he was going to stick with a typical-ish gameplan rather than switching anything up. Hell, he basically said that word-for-word during his Saturday media availability. But even if you went into the game expecting that, Rivers' decision-making in Sunday's do-or-die game exceeded even the most cartoonish exaggeration of how he approaches playoff games.

What I was not expecting was for Embiid to be one of the first guys to hit the bench, and for it to result in a lineup featuring the Simmons/Howard pairing of death. It is not an indictment on either guy individually, but they have been horrific together all year, and that did not stop in Sunday's Game 7.

The questionable lineup choices did not stop there, with Rivers choosing to go with a Howard-Harris-Thybulle-Hill-Maxey lineup next. It's one thing to try to do what brought you here, but what brought you here is praying that the starters would bail you out of the bad minutes behind them.

Rivers coached this game like it was a regular-season game before the All-Star break, their minds already drifting to the tropical vacations they're going on during some time off. Putting four bench guys and Tobias Harris on the floor for multiple minutes in a Game 7 sounds like something you would make up if you were trying to concoct a scenario where the coach was actively trying to get fired.

The Bucks and Nets effectively played seven guys each on Saturday night and rode their stars all the way through overtime. That's what a Game 7 tends to look like. Rivers has been in more of these than anybody, and maybe you saw exactly why, because this was a strategic and planning nightmare. 

• Harris has often been the guy capable of carrying the offense when the Sixers either can't or won't get the ball to Embiid in the post. Switch-hunting was a method to get him rolling all year, and he had some ultra-favorable matchups in Sunday's game, taking guys like a gimpy Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter down to the mid-post.

But Harris was the culprit for a lot — and I mean a lot — of stagnant offensive possessions for the Sixers. Days after Rivers compared him to Bernard King, a master of catching an entry pass and immediately pivoting into a scoring move, Harris played the slow and directionless basketball that was emblematic of his Philadelphia career before Rivers arrived.

That's not to say he played without confidence. Harris took (and promptly missed) a first-half pull-up three in transition that we've rarely even seen him think about this season, inspiring memories of his standout season in L.A. He clearly wanted to leave an imprint on this game as a scorer, but that hope did not turn into production, with Harris clanging a bushel of midrange looks off the iron.

A Game 7 slowing down in the final quarter is one thing. When you emerge at the end of a physical, drawn-out battle, some choppy possessions late are understandable. But you need to seize the early moments (whether we're talking time of game or time on the shot clock), and Harris was unable or unwilling to do so. And eventually, he reached a point where it felt like he was chasing the game, taking out of character shots that never had a chance to drop.

I admire that he kept getting shots up and didn't shy away from the moment, and I honestly can't believe he ended up with the final line he did. That doesn't mean he played particularly well. 

• The Simmons/Howard lineups give Simmons at least some cover for the continuation of his offensive disappearing act. Putting him on the floor with a guy who actively makes his life more difficult in the meat grinder of Game 7 is an objectively terrible choice, and was not going to help him get going when the Sixers turned to the second unit.

It's not as though he did much with the minutes he played with Embiid on the floor, though. We saw the same routine on offense as we did for most of the last few games, with Simmons' primary involvement coming as a screener on handoffs for Curry. Mind you, that's not the worst way to use Simmons with the groove Curry is in right now, but it absolutely can't be the only way you're getting offensive value out of him.

The Sixers certainly tried some other things. They ran some double-drag actions designed to get Simmons the ball in the post in the first half, with one resulting in a miss at the rim while guarded by Danil Gallinari and another with Simmons never looking up at the rim. That last bit was a theme throughout Game 7, even when they weren't in halfcourt sets — Simmons' desire to push the pace himself was curiously absent despite some urging on from the crowd on Sunday, choosing to play the long and slow game instead.

(His outlet passing, on the other hand, was very good. Simmons was rewarded for his passing plenty, but it felt like there were a fair few opportunities that were left on the table by teammates when he found a way to get them the ball on leak-outs. Simmons threw a terrific outlet to Harris in the third quarter that was left hanging on the rim, a symbol of a frustrating night for him.)

When Simmons was actively involved, the Sixers were quite often at their best on both ends. He made a terrific hustle play and one-arm rocket pass to the opposite corner to create a three for Philadelphia in the first quarter, and the Hawks were desperate to get him away from Trae Young, making an effort to trigger switches whenever possible. Young beat Simmons with some terrific crossovers, but Simmons' length continued to make it tough for Young to get clean looks against him even when he found an early window of separation.

Look, if I squint hard enough, I can imagine a world where an optimized Simmons is considerably more impactful on both ends than what we saw on Sunday and the last few games of this series. But when he won't even look at the rim when he is wide open under the basket in crunch time, that feels like something that can only happen in an alternate universe. 

Given the complete turtling from him over the last four games combined with the loss of patience for him in this town, I genuinely think he can't be on this team next season. That's my snap reaction at the moment, and maybe it changes with further thought, but talking about the possibility will dominate the city this offseason.

The Ugly

• When Kevin Huerter outplays your max contract point guard and the $30 million a year scorer in a Game 7, you probably should be thankful you got sent home. You weren't going to win a title this way regardless, and this will force some deep reflection for everybody in the organization. 

• The officials couldn't seem to decide if they wanted to let both teams play or not. Young and Embiid both got ultra-friendly whistles early on, including on a sequence in the second quarter where Embiid could have easily picked up a technical foul for a push after a play where he was called for an offensive foul. Less than a minute later, Young was livid when a second foul on Simmons was taken off of the board after the officials ruled a timeout came first, with Young blowing up on the referees right in their faces.

To me, you let guys play with emotion in this sort of environment unless it is just absolutely unthinkable to let it go. This one worked out in Philadelphia's favor but felt like an opportunity to let it "even out" on the tech scoreboard. 

• As always, I want to thank everybody from the bottom of my heart for riding with me this season. It was funky, it was unorthodox, it challenged all of us to stay invested when they only had seven guys to play at times, but it was a welcome distraction from a lot of real-world issues.

We're going to have a lot to discuss this summer, and I hope you'll continue to rock with me.

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