June 15, 2021
If you were in search of an explanation for the Sixers' Game 4 loss in Atlanta, you could have settled on any number of credible theories after the game. Joel Embiid was terrible, their defense was often putrid, they didn't move the ball, and so on down the line. But head coach Doc Rivers had one thing on his mind when asked about the game.
"We stopped passing," Rivers said Monday. "I thought we started the game off that way, then we got back to the ball movement, then we went back to hero basketball. Basically, everybody wanted to be the hero instead of just trusting the team, trusting each other. So when you do that you usually lose, especially when the other team outworks you the whole f--king game, and that's what they did today."
"We definitely got outworked out there," Tobias Harris added. "They got the 50/50 balls, offensive boards, all the way down the line. I mean, give them credit, they did. Second half, they did a good job of just defending, making us miss, and getting out and getting some looks out there and that hurt us."
For all the horrible things that happened in Monday night's game, the Sixers still had a chance to emerge unscathed if they had simply committed to finishing out possessions in the final five minutes. Hell, they could have outworked Atlanta on exactly one possession in the final minutes, and it probably would have been enough for them to get this game over the line.
Even that was too much for Philadelphia. John Collins has been an afterthought for a lot of this series and was gun-shy from deep early in Game 4, but he barreled through the Sixers in a big way in the second half, just running straight through lackadaisical box outs for offensive rebounds.
The biggest one came with a little over two minutes to play with the Sixers nursing a four-point lead. Philadelphia had forced a tough shot from Bogdan Bogdanovic, had inside position to pull in his miss, and Collins just bullied Tobias Harris off of his spot to extend the possession. Moments later, he was in the corner knocking down a three, and the hope of extending a narrow lead had been vanquished:
"I was really disappointed at how our approach was tonight," Rivers said. "I thought Collins was the toughest man on the floor, all night. You're gonna see everybody else's numbers, but I thought Collins was the guy tonight, just hitting the glass all night and keeping things alive. I just thought they were the more physical, tougher team. And it wasn't close tonight."
Getting outworked and outmuscled is a potential problem for any team good enough to advance to the deeper rounds of the playoffs, but it's especially rough when your identity is being the bigger, badder team at basically all times. The Sixers are in the midst of a season where they had the No. 2 defense in the NBA, three players who were just named to an All-Defense team, and a core duo that is 6'10" or taller. Their case as a contender has always rested on the idea that they can physically overwhelm teams, minimizing any concerns about their own offense by taking opponents out of what they want to do.
That thesis for contention has held up well in the playoffs so far, but it unraveled just as the Sixers looked to be putting this series to rest. Suddenly, concerns the Sixers have in the short and long term look a lot more pressing.
The No. 1 issue at the moment, as it has been for most of his Sixers career, is Joel Embiid's health. Embiid returned from a trip to the locker room on Monday night and played a terrific final stretch before halftime, only to follow that up with perhaps his worth half of the season and one of the worst halves he has ever played in the postseason. Embiid's 12 attempts from the field in the second half, a half where even one Embiid make could have sent the Sixers home ready to clinch a berth in the Conference Finals, are the most by a player in a half without a make in the last 25 postseasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Embiid has battled question after question regarding his health since being diagnosed with a small tear in his meniscus, and he has clearly battled some pain at times on the floor, grimacing and standing hunched over in between bouts of dominance. Looking back at his Game 4 and the health questions that arose from it, Embiid wasn't interested in going into specific details.
"I mean, I guess it's already known, I don't need to explain myself anymore," Embiid said of his mid-game locker room trip. "Just try to do the best I can...as far as being 100%, I don't think that's going to happen until the year is actually over. So I just gotta go on and manage it, just deal with it."
That's easier said than done when you're playing in a high-stakes playoff series. Embiid had an opportunity to take the lead for Philadelphia after Doc Rivers used their final timeout to draw up a look late, rolling toward the rim after setting a screen for Harris around the elbow. By his own admission, a healthier Embiid would have finished the look, or at least would have been in position to force Atlanta to foul.
"I just didn't have the lift," Embiid said after the game. "Probably got fouled too, but usually I would go up there, especially for a bucket like that, and try to dunk it. Try to get fouled and get an and one. But I just seemed to not be able to jump for obvious reasons...it's tough, but you know, got to [fix it] by Game 5."
The Sixers have a shorter break between Games 4 and 5 than they had between each of the last two games, as they travel back to Philly and get one day off on Tuesday before a pivotal game for control of the series on their home floor. Instead of heading home with plenty of room for error, as it appeared they would be when they went into halftime up double digits on the Hawks, they find themselves in a precarious position, hoping the star's admitted lack of burst doesn't send them into a death spiral.
You can't shake the feeling that it all could have been avoided. Perhaps because the team admits as much, and is disappointed to be returning home in this state.
"That game should have never come to that point," Rivers said of Embiid's miss in the final moments. "We missed so many opportunities...I can't wait to watch the film, but my eyes told me that we blew a golden opportunity tonight."
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports