June 15, 2021
Up double digits at halftime despite a sloppy first half in Game 4, the Sixers had the series in their hands ready to be taken. But 24 disastrous minutes later, Philadelphia fumbled away what Doc Rivers called, "a golden opportunity" and ended up taking a loss, creating uncertainty as the series heads back to the City of Brotherly Love.
There were many reasons this game went south, some of which we covered in our coverage late Monday night, but any evaluation of the loss has to start with their two most important players. Let's begin.
There are many differences between the Joel Embiid we've seen in 2021 and the Joel Embiid we'd seen the rest of his career. One of the biggest changes is connected to the ecosystem around him — with a new head coach and modified roster in place, Embiid has learned to trust his teammates, winning with his passing if teams overload his side of the floor. By his own admission, belief in the people around him has helped Embiid get to a new level as a player.
"Now it’s like, when things get tough who was going to show up, and that's my job, just be aggressive," Embiid said after a win in mid-January. "Aggressive doesn't mean scoring. It also means, especially with the way guys on other teams are guarding me, I can do so much and create shots for my teammates. I might not get those assists, but the simple kick-outs are going to end up [with] easy shots. Every year you learn and you're in different situations."
The older, wiser Embiid was nowhere to be found on Monday night. He shot the ball poorly, responded by trying to shoot his way out of it, and completely lost sight of the team concept during perhaps the worst offensive half of his playoff career. Embiid's 0-for-12 mark from the field in Monday's second half represents the most shots any player has taken without a make in the last 25 years of playoff games. He was that bad.
Embiid's ability to do just about everything on offense carried the Sixers through a lot of this season, with cold shooting stretches for teammates masked by his insane shotmaking ability inside the arc. He is the team's best player and deserves to carry himself that way. But there's a difference between remaining confident and getting tunnel vision, unaware of everything happening around you. Instead of using the attention he draws to get the ball to open teammates, Embiid just tried to power through on his own. Seth Curry was one of the rare players having a good night on Monday, and Embiid couldn't be bothered to hit him on simple reads:
After the game, Doc Rivers had a laundry list of reasons that he determined were the cause of Philadelphia's stinker in Atlanta. One of them seemed to directly implicate Embiid, who played the second half as if he was the only guy on the floor at times.
"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."
Embiid continued down this path into the game's final minutes. You could see his teammates calling for the ball as he tried to go through multiple Hawks players in the post, outstretched arms waiting for him to see the coverage and respond to it:
Personally, I am all for teams living and dying with their stars. But it doesn't mean you play without discretion, and Embiid's worst habits as a player came roaring back to the forefront after fading from view for most of this season. Some of his misses, including the final miss at the rim with time winding down, can be explained away by a lack of burst stemming from the knee issue. Playing braindead basketball
For some, Simmons' second-half stat line will speak for itself — three points on one field goal attempt, one rebound, and two assists. Admittedly, it does go a long way toward explaining how and why the Sixers lost on Monday night. When one of your best players is borderline invisible for the entire second half, it's tough to win games.
I'm not sure that putrid line even does justice to the problem. Positional labels might mean less than they ever have, but they are still tied to responsibilities players have on both ends of the floor. A normal point guard, especially a max-level guard, would see the half Embiid was having and direct floor traffic away from the big guy at some point. They could run some pick-and-rolls to call their own number or create an easy look for the struggling big man. Hell, they would at the very least be able to have a conversation with a teammate trying (and failing) to win with hero ball, leading either with words or actions. But that's not who Simmons is.
"We've got to make sure we're organized, getting in our sets and move the ball," Simmons said after the game. "We're not a team that's gonna go iso every time, but we need to move the ball and get everybody involved and make the right plays."
Doesn't that sound like the responsibility of the point guard? Half of the time, the issue is Simmons never even thinking about attacking or seizing a play. On this play, for example, he serves absolutely no purpose, setting a screen for Seth Curry and getting the switch they probably wanted, only to waste the opportunity by standing in place and playing hot potato when the ball comes his way:
There is never a thought in his mind to try to attack Bogdan Bogdanovic. His head never turns toward the rim, and he chooses to give the ball back to Curry, who is guarded by a player with a similar size advantage over him. Simmons is looking for someone else to take responsibility for the offense, and Curry was happy to oblige.
Frankly, Simmons being involved in the play at all is an upgrade over what he did on many of Philadelphia's possessions coming down the stretch. There is more shooting on the floor and a new head coach, but Simmons continues to linger in the same areas of the floor with the same amount of effectiveness (none) that he has had in big moments in years past. Unless Simmons has a clear path to the basket in transition, he's getting rid of the ball and hoping someone else can solve the problem.
The easy out here is to blame the head coach for how the offense was run down the stretch, and that's a point with merit. Running the offense through a guy who was having a historically bad half, even if he was the player who carried you to this position in the first place, was a foolish way to go about things. Rivers' voice clearly resonates with this group, as he showed when he got on Simmons at halftime of Game 3 and dialed up sets that allowed Philadelphia to play through him and go on the run that won the game.
I don't accept Rivers' failings as an excuse for the guy who runs the offense for the team to wipe his hands of the situation in the spot where you need him most. Is it because of the free-throw issue that won't go away, scaring him away from touching the ball late? It almost doesn't matter. By his own admission, Simmons isn't doing enough.
"I definitely should have been more aggressive and attacked more," Simmons said Monday. "I think the spacing was a little off this game, we didn't get to our spacing. We weren't as aggressive that second half."
I'm not going to waste your time waxing poetic about Curry's night, not after an avoidable loss like this. But if the Sixers had simply let the man with the hot hand keep cooking in the second half, perhaps they would have ended up on the right side of the final result. Frankly, that's just another example of the Embiid and Simmons failures mentioned above.
The decision to start Furkan Korkmaz was not exactly a surprise even though Rivers talked about the decision as if he were in charge of the U.S. nuclear codes. Everyone could see it coming given Korkmaz's excellent Game 3 and overall fit with the starting lineup, and it was plenty defensible to see what he has alongside the other starters. Korkmaz would end up making a huge three late in the game, but he was absolutely brutal for most of the night, caught on screens defensively as the Hawks sought to hunt the newest starter for Philly.
Would you rather deal with that problem, or watch the Sixers try to play four-on-five offensively? Atlanta basically did not care to guard Matisse Thybulle throughout Monday night's game, with the Hawks basically daring him to beat them as a shooter whenever another Sixers teammate got rolling toward the rim.
Philadelphia only barely lost the minutes Thybulle played in on Monday, so perhaps you could make a case that they should give him a shot to start in Game 5. Given how ugly the numbers have been all season, I'm not sure they can get away with it.
None of this would matter if George Hill looked like the guy they expected him to be when they traded for him. Hill has been brutal in this Hawks series and doesn't look like he knows what his purpose is on the floor most of the time, a shocking development for one of the league's easiest plug-and-play guards. He is a living Office Space meme at the moment.
I could make a strong case that this series should already be over, and that the Sixers should be at home resting along with the Phoenix Suns. Philadelphia's Game 1 loss was a direct result of a poor and misguided initial gameplan, one that was obviously bad and took nothing from Atlanta's opening round victory over the Knicks. Game 4 was not a scheme or strategy loss (at least on the defensive side of the ball), and what really hurts is that the Hawks did not play particularly well on their end Monday night. Atlanta shot just 12-for-40 from beyond the arc in spite of the Sixers gifting them open look after open look in the halfcourt and in transition. This was an opportunity for the Sixers to steal one on the road, and they absolutely squandered it.
Now, they have left themselves exposed to any number of fluky outcomes that can happen in a three-game stretch. Maybe Trae Young gets rolling again for the first time since Game 1, shooting the Hawks to a win. Maybe Embiid's knee continues to get worse, with fewer days of rest in between games impacting his fitness. Maybe the Sixers don't get a heroic bench performance from somebody like Shake Milton, who helped paper over the cracks in a Game 2 victory that was probably closer than the final score indicated. When you're up against good teams, you can play well and still lose on sheer variance, especially when the opponent is getting up considerably more threes than you are.
Philadelphia still has homecourt advantage at the end of the day. Winning two out of the next three games is definitely doable and probably the most likely outcome if you were to simulate this series 100 times. But they only have this one shot, and they can't afford any more performances like this one. The Sixers chose a bad time to let go of the rope they've been holding onto all season.
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