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May 06, 2018

Sixers' brutal Game 3 loss to Celtics a microcosm of erratic season

Red, white and blue confetti started billowing out of opposite corners of the arena, surrounding Sixers players after Marco Belinelli hit an improbable, perhaps game-winning shot. A quick replay, however, showed that Belinelli's shot was a clear two-point attempt and that the Sixers still had work left to do if they wanted to get a home win over the Boston Celtics.

It was perhaps the perfect summary of Philadelphia's season – even the confetti guy couldn't help but get ahead of himself, proclaiming the Sixers a victor before they'd even done the work to earn it. The Sixers are one of the league's most talented teams with years to go before their best players hit their respective peaks. That's no excuse for what we're seeing in this series against the Celtics, one which Philadelphia could easily be leading 2-1 if they could just stay out of their own way.

The Celtics' leading scorer on Saturday evening? A 20-year old rookie going through the playoffs for the first time. The big man flustering Embiid on both ends of the floor? That's Al Horford, a player most people in Philadelphia believe the young center is outright better than. There are no excuses to hide behind for being down to Boston 3-0, none except for "Brett Brown is getting outcoached," and I hate to break it to you, but Brad Stevens was a better coach than anybody in the Eastern Conference long before these playoffs even started.

So all the moaning about youth and long roads ahead and the ceiling for this group can wait a little bit in the wake of a 101-98 defeat in Game 3. They have not been good enough, period, and their worst tendencies as a group have resurfaced at the worst possible time.

Choking with the game on the line

Go right on down the list and look at the guys who committed egregious turnovers when the Sixers could least afford them. There's JJ Redick, the hired gun who was brought in to be a steadying presence in these moments. There's Embiid, the franchise player who wants the ball in his hands with the game hanging in the balance. And there's Ben Simmons, the player you trust more than anyone to put a pass safe and on the money.

They didn't get it done by any stretch of the imagination. In Redick's case, he didn't give his teammates a chance, throwing an errant pass on a possession that could have been decisive for Philadelphia and ended up forcing them to make a buzzer beater just to reach overtime.

Redick explained it was supposed to go to Embiid after the game, which is pretty obvious on the replay, and Simmons colliding with the big man is basically the only thing that prevented that from happening. Simmons saw something different, at least based on what he told the media afterward.

"I was just reading [Marcus] Morris, he was overplaying me and I was trying to behind the screen and look for the lob, we had that against Miami. I guess we were just all on a different page."

In their 90th game of the year, the Sixers are admitting to not being on the same page on a play being run to win it with time running down on the clock. That's a failure that extends to all parties involved, including the coach responsible for drawing the plays up.

Brown has been the sacrificial lamb so far, though he didn't exactly just keep forcing the same thing and expecting different results when it came to his end-game approach. After Redick's turnover came on a play without a timeout to end the fourth quarter, Brown called multiple timeouts on end-game plays in overtime.

The first, of course, ended with an Embiid turnover and Horford going to the free-throw line at the other end. But if you pay close attention, there was an easy path to success for the Sixers on the set they drew up.

It's not Brown's fault the Sixers couldn't execute a dribble handoff, or that Embiid threw a ridiculously careless pass instead of one into space for Belinelli. The screen Ersan Ilyasova set for JJ Redick's man was executed perfectly on the other end, and if the two guys involved at the beginning can just avoid fumbling the ball, Belinelli is turning the corner with two options: a shot opportunity or an open Redick in the corner.

We'll never really know what Brown had in mind on the team's final real possession, as Simmons threw a pass to Embiid that ended up being intercepted by Horford and effectively ended the game.

"I knew [Horford] was fighting for the ball, but I was assuming Jo was going to come a little bit further out," said Simmons. "Horford read it a little quicker, and obviously just went for the ball."

Any fault you would place on the coach, in my eyes, belongs on decisions he has made (or not made) with the rotation. Outside of the ridiculous buzzer beater, Belinelli has been near worthless for long stretches of the series, and Dario Saric hasn't done much of anything. The Sixers are in desperate need of a curveball in the form of someone like Justin Anderson, who would help the Sixers lock things up more on defense, at the very least.

There's a very thin line between trusting in what brought you here and beating yourself over the head with a plan that simply isn't working. At some point adjustments have to be made, and you have to stop letting Belinelli get cooked on the perimeter by Jayson Tatum. The closest we saw to a real change was T.J. McConnell's involvement down the stretch, after a completely ineffectual Robert Covington continued to be so in the fourth quarter.

Set aside what could be the solution and focus on this — the guys who are out there haven't been good enough, and aren't succeeding at running things they've executed all year. Some people will point to that and say, "That's coaching!" and while Brown deserves to be put under the microscope here, I lean toward putting it on the guys who are actually out there failing at basic basketball plays.

Ben Simmons has completely lost his sense of place in this series

To Philadelphia's delight, Simmons did not come out and shy away from attacking in the opening moments of Game 3. With the crowd roaring at every touch, it looked like Simmons would leave an imprint on the game in one way or another.

Boy did he, and it wasn't in a good way. Simmons continued his stinkbomb of a series by either flubbing his opportunities or failing to show any understanding of the moment. The worst example came at the end of overtime, when he caught an offensive rebound following an Embiid miss and did not have the sense to tuck it under his arm and preserve the lead Philadelphia had worked hard to build.

I asked Simmons about the play in Philadelphia's locker room after the game, and he expressed no regret over what he saw as a natural basketball play.

"I got a shot that I practice a lot, right next to the rim," said Simmons. "You never know what can happen after that. You have a wide-open shot that I make a lot of the time, and I missed it ... Think it was just natural instinct. Right next to the rim, that's a shot I take every practice, every day, every game, I take one of those. And I missed it, tap in or whatever, that's the game, you miss shots or you make them. You win or you lose."

I'm calling shenanigans on that one. Tossing up another shot when you have the lead and no shot clock in the game's dying moments is something you'd expect from a mid-level NCAA player, not the No. 1 overall pick expected to lead a franchise to the promised land. For a guy who thinks and often plays the game as well as Simmons does, it's almost completely inexplicable. You don't get to have people laud your basketball IQ and then toss up a shot at the rim in that situation and think that explanation is going to fly.

Teams that are down 3-0 have a record of 129-0. Just think about that number. The number to me, zero, happens more out of spirit than talent... Why couldn't we be the one?

What has been more disconcerting for this observer, however, is Simmons' total unwillingness to attack the mismatches the Celtics are handing him in this series. One of the big problems through the first two games came down to matchup issues from the plays being run. The Sixers were not getting favorable switches, which made it harder for Simmons to attack Boston's paint-walling defense.

That was not the case in Game 3, as Philadelphia used shooters to screen for Simmons to get him more favorable matchups. Simmons was a victim of his own hesitation to attack, whether it was on switches in the halfcourt or one-on-one opportunities in transition. 

Shane Larkin, a bad defender on a good day, ended up switched onto Simmons repeatedly throughout the game. But the rookie took almost no time to attack him, and even when the possessions ended up with good results, you were left wondering why Simmons was choosing not to force the issue, picking up his dribble instead.

We're at a point in the season where, "That's not his game!" isn't a good enough excuse. You get the mismatch, you attack it. That's playoff basketball, and Simmons isn't playing it.

Joel Embiid is getting suckered into his worst habits

When Embiid pulls a move off correctly, it's poetry in motion. He loves hitting opponents with "Dream Shakes" in the mold of his idol, Hakeem Olajuwon, and he threw down one of the most vicious hammer dunks you're ever going to see on Aron Baynes in the second quarter Saturday night. The box score looks prolific enough, with Embiid putting up 22 points and 19 rebounds in 41 minutes of action. That he played that many minutes was barely even thought about, which is a win in itself.

But Boston's strategy of staying home on Philadelphia shooters and letting Embiid go to work in the post is bringing out his worst tendencies as a black hole on offense, and it's a big reason for Philadelphia's general lack of success on offense.

The Celtics are good at this because they have a lot of guys on their team that can defend their man one-on-one (a luxury, by the way, that the Sixers do not often have). When Embiid sees an individual matchup and little/no help coming, he starts backing players down, and the crowd responds by cheering him on.

But he doesn't necessarily have the arsenal of moves that he needs to in order to get away with this style of offense, particularly in the playoffs against a team with multiple guys who can make his life miserable.

"Throw it to the big man and let him dominate" might sound sensible (okay, maybe not) when Shaquille O'Neal is blabbering about it on Inside the NBA, but there's a reason the league has gone away from running offense like this. It's inefficient — Embiid was 10/26 against Boston on Saturday — it relies on a humongous human being having dexterity and court vision while players pound on their back, and it turns a lot of other players on the team into ball watchers.

Of course, it also hurts that the only reliable ball-handler on the floor for this play is a guy who can't shoot a jumper. Even if Embiid was interested in finding his outlet, teams don't have to close hard at Simmons and can spend more energy shading coverage toward Embiid in the post and mucking the game up in the paint.

The disappearance of Markelle Fultz has really loomed large here because the Sixers can't run anywhere near enough pick-and-roll with the Simmons/Embiid combo because of how teams defend the former. If you had a guard who teams were afraid of as both a shooter and a driver, it's a much different story, but the Sixers are limited in the amount of sets they can run that free Embiid up at the basket without making him work for them on their own. It's why you see so much basic offense at the end of games, with Redick serving as his perimeter safety valve.

It's on Embiid to get better once he's down in the post from both a touch and countermove standpoint, and it's on the front office to surround him with players that can make his life easier on offense. Maybe one is already on the roster, but Fultz is not getting that chance in this series.

Their backs are now against the wall

Saturday's game was a must-win by any stretch of the imagination because no team in NBA history has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit in a seven-game series. The Sixers would have to buck one of the great historic trends in sports to do so, and in a building where they've already wilted under pressure in a game where they had it going.

Whether the team is able to recover from this and make a series out of it is yet to be seen. Most of the players in the locker room fled the scene of the crime after the game, uninterested in talking to the media following the game, so it's hard to say what the mood of the squad is heading into a do-or-die Game 4 on Monday night.

The most outspoken member of the group remains their coach, who refused to call it quits on their season following the demoralizing loss.

"Teams that are down 3-0 have a record of 129-0," said Brown. "Just think about that number. The number to me, zero, happens more out of spirit than talent. There's a breaking point we all have, and I believe that if we can maintain our spirit, why couldn't we be the one? And I mean that. That's my goal with us, is to fight, keep our mind believing some of what I just said, I hope all of it, and let their bodies recover and give us a chance. That's all I know, I can't see any other way to approach this that makes sense to me, so that's what we're going to do."

Maybe the Sixers do have the talent advantage, and maybe what Brown says rings true. But with the way they've lost the last two games and the way one of their young studs is playing, it's really hard to see where the lift in spirit will come from. The Sixers have just suffered two demoralizing losses back-to-back, albeit in different ways, and now have to pull themselves off the canvas to win just one of those, let alone four in a row.

If they pull it off, more than a tip of the cap will be due to Brown and his squad. For now, they have earned the scrutiny that comes with going down 3-0 in a playoff series to a team missing multiple stars, and they have a long summer ahead if nothing changes between now and Monday.

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