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June 17, 2021

What they're saying: Historic Game 5 loss could spell the end for this version of the Sixers

It's awfully dark outside, Philadelphia. 

Scouring the city's sports landscape on Thursday morning, you would've thought Sixers fans were walking into a funeral for a series that, while on life support, isn't over just yet. Even if it feels that way. 

It's a traditional Philly wake, where the team isn't quite dead, but the mood — and conversation — surrounding them certainly makes it feel like it is. However, in a city prone to panic over its sports teams, this latest loss feels like it's truly the end. Not just for this season, but possibly for this version of the Sixers.

But it isn't. Not yet at least. And by tip-off of Game 6, those same fans will be talking themselves into their team winning the last two games and taking the series, even after the historic collapse on Wednesday.

Sure, the Sixers could defy the odds and win in Atlanta on Friday — do you really see them losing three in a row to this team? — setting up a Game 7 in Philly on Sunday night, one in which the Sixers would almost certainly be favored. 

Originally, that was going to be the focus of this story — that it's not over yet and, despite the evidence presented in Games 4 and 5, there's reason for Sixers fans to believe they can still advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. But that's the last thing on the minds of Philly sports fans today, as they still try to process the team's second straight second-half collapse that has the No. 1 seed on the brink of elimination in the second round of the playoffs.  

And so instead of trying to put a positive spin on this situation, if that's even possible, I've decided it's better to give Sixers fans their requisite 24 hours of mourning, their Philly wake, to attempt to process what happened in the second half of Game 5 — again, if that's even possible. 

For those of you who are trying to stay positive in the face of a 3-2 series deficit heading back to Atlanta, I apologize. Perhaps your time will come, but even a cursory look at the timeline and you'll see that it isn't now. 

But for those of you who are firmly in the doom-and-gloom, trade-Ben-Simmons and blow-up-the-team camp, what follows is for you. It won't make you feel any better, no. It will probably make you feel worse. But maybe we need to get a little darker still before we can see the light. Or maybe this truly is the end for this iteration of the Sixers. I guess that's up to them.

Let's take a look at what's making the rounds on Thursday morning as a city tries to come to grips with their current situation... 

That loss came out of nowhere

David Murphy |

Let's set the mood right at the top, with David Murphy's column about how the initial impact of the loss might not be its only consequence. After all, this is the kind of historic loss that has a lasting impact on the organization, whether because it's the catalyst for big offseason changes or because it simply changes the perception of what this team is and where it is headed. 

Some losses, you see them coming. You expect them. They follow a script. Reality presents itself from the first pitch, from the opening kickoff, from the drop of the puck or the jump of the ball. Joe Jurevicius runs 71 yards with everyone else in slow motion. Shaquille O’Neal settles in on the low block and starts doing business. Donovan McNabb is intercepted, and then L.J. Smith fumbles. The rest of the game is a process of acceptance. The end of the season arrives, but it does not flatten you like a bus.

This was not one of those losses. This was a 3 a.m. phone call. It was a car door in a bike lane. It was an arena full of hollow shells, 20,000 stomachs sucked out of 20,000 mouths: gone like a 26-point lead, gone like a playoff series, gone like the maddening promise of a new era. They stood empty and ashen-faced, staring at the court like it was a blinking cursor on a blank page. This was Joe Carter rounding the bases. It was Ryan Howard lying alone in the dirt. The final helpless seconds ticked down. The clock said zero. The scoreboard said Hawks 109, Sixers 106. None of it made any sense. 

Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Wednesday night might not have been the end of a chapter, or even the end of the season. [...] Right now, though, we are still in the moment, and it sure feels like one that won’t easily fade.  []

Putting it in perspective

Dan Gartland | Sports Illustrated

Above, I mention that this was an historic loss. And it was, by every measure. For starters, there's this stat from NBC Sports Philadelphia producer Casey Feeney:

But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Look at some of these stats from Dan Gartland of Sports Illustrated...

To say the loss was historic isn’t overselling it. Here are a few stats to illustrate that.

• 26 points is the largest blown lead in Sixers playoff history.

• The Sixers’ win probability was a staggering 99.7% late in the third quarter.

• 99.7% was the same win probability the Falcons had when they led 28–3 over the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

• Joel Embiid and Seth Curry were the only Philly players to hit a shot from the floor in the second half. It was the only time in the past 15 postseasons that two players accounted for all of their team’s field goals in a half.

• The Hawks also erased an 18-point deficit to win Game 4. In the past 25 years, Atlanta was 0–41 after falling behind by 18. It just completed 18-point comebacks in back-to-back games.

• The Sixers are the only team in the past 25 postseasons to blow 18-point leads in consecutive games.

• The Hawks’ comeback from a 22-point halftime deficit is the largest ever in a playoff game after the first round.  []

Yikes. But it actually gets worse. And we're not talking about the fact that Simmons has now posted the second worst free throw percentage in a single playoff run...ever. Only Ben Wallace in 2006 was worse.

No, we're talking about the coach... 

What's up, Doc?

Kevin Kinkead | Crossing Broad

Doc Rivers was brought in to provide a fresh voice and get the most out of his young stars. For the most part, he's done just that. But now that the playoffs have arrived, some of the biggest knocks on the coach, like his unwillingness to make major adjustments, are starting to show. And that's led to his team being on the brink of blowing another postseason series, something that's become a hallmark of Rivers over the years, despite the winning he's done.

That's not great. And the ways in which it's happened have been even more concerning. 

Now, the Sixers could be the latest team added to Rivers' résumé of postseason failures. And considering they're the No. 1 seed in the East going up against a team that fired its head coach just two and a half months ago — not to mention that they've been an overwhelming favorite to win the series all along — all of that could weigh heavily on Doc's legacy, writes Kevin Kinkead of Crossing Broad.

How do you live that down? If the #1 seed Sixers lose to the Hawks in six games, or fall at home in Game 7, then what? How much more does Doc’s stellar career become tarnished by another hideous early playoff exit?

It just feels to me like his legacy is somewhat on the line here. You’re never going to erase the amazing things he did with that Celtics team, but the narrative that “three Hall of Famers carried him to a ring” is going to echo louder. More young NBA fans will remember the playoff exits more than the playoff wins. It’s going to be more difficult for people to evaluate the totality of Doc’s career achievements as a player and a coach when the thing they are most familiar with is postseason choke jobs.

One of the things I found interesting was that Doc mentioned in his introductory press conference that he had considered taking a break from coaching after leaving the Clippers. Everybody feels burn out at some point, or needs a change of scenery, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wonder how much was left in the tank before the Sixers job became available.  []

Simmons in the crosshairs

Brad Botkin | CBS Sports

Of course, after that performance on Wednesday night, the majority of the blame is being put on Simmons. Our own Kyle Neubeck took him to the woodshed earlier this morning with a column on how little the guard has changed since his arrival and how it's impossible to win with him in the playoffs without him taking that next step, something he's either been unable or unwilling to do in his career to this point.

And Kyle is hardly the only one singling out the Sixers guard. Here's more from Brad Botkin of CBS Sports...  

This is supposed to be his gig. You know all those apologists who love to tell you about all the things Simmons does for the Sixers that we causal basketball consumers can't possibly fathom? One of the things they point to is his shot creation. They love to tell you how it doesn't matter if Simmons scores because he creates opportunities for other people to score. 

Yeah, not so much. The dirty little secret these apologists either don't understand or don't want to cop to is that when you aren't a threat to shoot or score yourself, your ability to create for others is severely limited. It's why Lonzo Ball, who was heralded as a brilliant passer coming out of college, never had much impact running an offense, because the most effective way to create openings for your teammates is to draw defenders away from them and toward yourself.

No defender is coming toward Simmons unless it's to intentionally foul him. He can't shoot. He won't shoot. I honestly don't know which it is, exactly, but either way, his offensive game hasn't developed one iota since he came in the league. He is an absolute zero on that end when it really comes down to it in winning time.   []

It's the whole damn team

Zach Kram | The Ringer

The Sixers' collapse was epic. And historic. And potentially franchise-altering. It was one of the worst collapses in NBA history. It was all those things. But not as many people are framing it the other way: that the Hawks made an incredible comeback. They did, for sure, but as Zach Kram of The Ringer points out, that comeback never happens if not for the Sixers absolutely crumbling down the stretch. And while Simmons has been taking the lion's share of the blame, to quote a certain Eagles player, "it was the whole damn team." 

But no team comes back from a 26-point deficit without considerable assistance from its opponent, and the 76ers were rather forgiving down the stretch Wednesday. In the run of post-Process stumbles, now growing longer every game, the 76ers played all the hits.

Ben Simmons was once again a nonentity on offense. He attempted just four field goals, making two, and shot 4-for-14 on free throws as the Hawks employed a Hack-a-Ben strategy to great effect, strangling the Sixers’ otherwise potent offense and forcing Simmons to the bench for key fourth-quarter possessions. In NBA playoff history, the only players to shoot as poorly from the line as Simmons on so many attempts are centers Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Shaquille O’Neal, Ben Wallace, and Andre Drummond.

Joel Embiid was much better than Simmons in Game 5; the injured center scored a team-high 37 points, beginning with an electric 8-for-8 showing in the first quarter. Yet just as he ran out of gas in Game 4, missing all 12 of his field goal attempts in the second half, Embiid struggled down the stretch on Wednesday, shooting 1-for-5 in the fourth quarter and boinking two key free throws in the final minute.

The supporting cast staggered under the pressure as well. Only Embiid and a scorching Curry (36 points on 13-for-19 shooting, including 7-for-12 from distance) scored in double digits, and no other Philadelphia player even made a single shot from the field in the second half. Tobias Harris shot 2-for-11 over the full game. Furkan Korkmaz, in the starting lineup with Danny Green hurt, shot 2-for-7. Shake Milton made just one shot from the field, continuing his season of inconsistency.  []

We can give a bit of a pass here to Embiid, who was the key to the Sixers getting out to that 26-point third quarter lead, and Seth Curry, who almost single-handedly kept his team ahead for much of the fourth quarter. In fact, those two were the only two Sixers players to make field goals in the fourth quarter of Game 5. 

And while Simmons is getting heat for missing all those free throws, Tobias Harris certainly deserves some blame for his lack of scoring when his team needed him the most. Add in Rivers' questionable rotations and (on a related note) absolutely uninspired play from the bench, and you can certainly see how there's plenty of blame to go around in this one.

Coffee is for closers

Ben Rohrbach | Yahoo! Sports

And if that's the case, the Sixers are probably low on caffeine.

After two epic collapses in a row — combined with a season of watching the Sixers squander late leads — it's pretty obvious the Sixers are having issues late in games. That should be when their stars are dominating, and lately it's been anything but from Simmons, Embiid and Harris. 

Wednesday's Game 5 in Philadelphia was one of the biggest choke jobs in NBA playoff history, complete with a scoring drought of four-plus minutes at the end of the fourth quarter, and the only positive the Sixers can take from it is that this latest collapse overshadowed an equally regrettable blown chance in Game 4.

Philadelphia was 1-for-7 from the field in the final five minutes of each of its three-point losses in the last three days, combining for one assist against three turnovers. The Sixers' only field goals were a Furkan Korkmaz 3-pointer to beat the shot clock and a meaningless Seth Curry 16-footer with 0.1 seconds left in Game 5.

In the clutch over the past two games, Embiid was 0-for-5 from the field, Simmons never shot and Tobias Harris missed both of his attempts. For the entire fourth quarters of Games 4 and 5, Embiid and Harris were a combined 1-for-15. Simmons did not attempt a shot in either fourth quarter. (He is 1-for-2 from the field combined in the two second halves.) That's $94.5 million this season for one bucket when it mattered most.  []

You're not going to win many games like that. 

This is the end?

Dan McQuade | Defector

Defector's resident Philly expert, Dan McQuade was down at the game last night and it give him big time 2008 Sixers vibes, which spelled the beginning of the end for that version of the Sixers. Could Wednesday's Game 5 loss be the beginning of the end for this version?

What if this is the end for this Sixers crew? Sure, the Sixers could’ve closed out this series in five games last night if they just held onto big leads. But they also could’ve been eliminated already if Shake Milton hadn’t played the best 14 minutes of his life last week. The Sixers have been chokers before: The team used the slogan “We Owe You One” after blowing a 2 games to 0 lead in the 1977 NBA Finals. They owed that debt for quite a while, and the slogan became infamous. In the end the Sixers won the title in 1983, and pretty much all was forgiven. These Sixers are good. They have built big leads because they are good. They could win the next two games, and go on to win the title. They could lose this next game, but recover a year wiser and win the title next season, or five years from now.

But what if they don’t? What if last night was the beginning of the end? What if Joel Embiid’s knees never get right, Ben Simmons continues to struggle to score, and Tobias Harris gets old? They’ve looked absolutely baffling on offense in the fourth quarter of consecutive games. Joel Embiid is hurt. Tobias Harris can’t score in the second half. Ben Simmons can’t score at all. He barely even had the ball last night. Nobody but Seth Curry can really even shoot. The bench is bad. The coach is… yeah. Doc Rivers led the Sixers to their best regular season in 20 years this season. I hope he won’t lead the team to its worst playoff exit in 44 as an encore.

Okay, that’s awfully dramatic. But this is how the Sixers have trained me. They won a title when I was four months old. I don’t remember that. Every other season in my lifetime has ended in a loss. What else should I expect for the future?  []

Feel better, Sixers fans? I tried to warn you it was going to get darker before it could ever get lighter.

Maybe the team will bounce back with a Game 6 win on the road on Friday night. Maybe they'll even win the series. But the good vibes following Game 4 are a distant memory. And it's hard to envision this team advancing to the Finals, no matter who wins the other Eastern Conference series. So maybe it's better for all involved if the Hawks mercifully end things for the Sixers and their fans this weekend.

I mean, honestly, do you really want to get your hopes up just to go through this shit all over again?

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