June 16, 2021
The Sixers choked away a massive lead in the second half in a 109-106 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, putting their season on the brink and setting up a must-win game in Atlanta on Friday night.
Here's what I saw.
• Joel Embiid did not have to make up for his bad second half in Game 4 all at once, but he sure gave it his best shot in the opening stretch against Atlanta on Wednesday night. A day after he was named to the All-NBA second team, Embiid came out throwing haymakers on both ends of the floor.
The NBA's king of spite almost certainly caught up on what Clint Capela had to say after Game 4, and Embiid went right back to dominating Capela early. With Furkan Korkmaz remaining in the starting lineup, Philadelphia used the Turkish wing as the entry passer for most of the first quarter, knowing Trae Young would be the guy trying to "double" from the strong side. With Capela either on an island by himself or almost on an island, Embiid absolutely tortured him, hitting the Swiss big man with body blows, hook shots, and some deadly face-up jumpers.
(Unfortunately, this did not last the rest of the game. Maybe Mr. Capela had a point about wearing the big guy down...)
As has been the case throughout the series, I will make the argument that Embiid was even more impactful on the defensive end. For the first two-and-a-half quarters, Embiid was masterfully navigating the space between Young and Capela, preventing lob attempts and forcing the Hawks to live with a lot of tough runners in traffic, or even preventing shots from being considered in the first place. Whenever there was a breakdown, he found a way to clean it up.
But, well, the rest of the game also happened, so the dominant start will ultimately be forgotten. Too bad.
• If you had to rank the most important Sixers players in this series, where would you rank Seth Curry? He has been absolutely sensational on the offensive end of the floor, and though his defensive issues have hurt them at times, Curry turned in one of his best efforts on that end of the floor Wednesday, making it a whole lot easier to appreciate the shooting display he put on.
The Sixers have had a very simple philosophy under Doc Rivers this year: "Feed the pig." In other words, if something is working, you keep going back to that play and that player until the opponent figures out a way to stop it. During a stretch in the third quarter, Curry was the fattest hog on the East Coast, punishing the Hawks off screens and putting Trae Young in his personal torture chamber. By the time the quarter was over, he had nearly caught up to points leader Embiid, helping the Sixers survive a stretch where their offense was more than a little bit sloppy.
Curry's offensive versatility allowed the Sixers to move him all over the board on Wednesday — he was an absolute menace as a movement shooter, and when the Hawks were able to close hard on him, he was out of there and on his way to the rim. This dude is putting on an offensive clinic right now, and he may be the recipient of every ATO the Sixers run until the season is over at this rate.
• Many times on this website, I have lamented Matisse Thybulle's lack of a jumper and wondered how it would impact his playoff viability. Hell, I spent part of an article the other night showing just how much he can compromise their spacing when he's on the floor.
But you know what he deserves credit for? Always being ready to let it fly, never bothered by the coverage or situation. There are much better shooters on the roster who go through stretches where they can't bring themselves to let it rip even when the shots are wide open, as Tobias Harris and Shake Milton both did at times on Wednesday. Thybulle has no such hesitation, and you need that sort of fearlessness from role players in pressure situations.
• The Sixers have avoided the all-bench lineup for most of this series, but Rivers has struggled to find a combination of players to make things hum for the second unit. We may be at the point where George Hill should be dropped for a game just to see what they can come up with without him on the floor because this group is desperate for answers right now.
Tyrese Maxey could certainly be worse than Hill on the defensive end of the floor, where the veteran is mostly holding up his end of the bargain, but the bench guys badly need some pace to break them out of their current slumber. Too many possessions are being wasted with guys just standing around waiting for something to happen the first 14 seconds of the shot clock, which is a recipe for disaster when you don't have the individual shotmakers to justify that choice.
Hill seems to be getting minutes for no reason other than, "He's a veteran who we expected to be good," and that's just not a good enough reason at this stage of the playoffs. Rivers has been very good at pushing the right buttons and getting guys out of the lineup who are going through swoons, but Hill has been an exception.
• We should be talking a lot more about Tobias Harris' struggles within that specific bench group. He sort of has to be the guy leading the rest of the bench because of the toxic Simmons-Howard combination, but he has struggled to replicate the success he has had hunting mismatches next to other starters.
Some of that is because the Sixers are struggling to even get him the ball, which highlights their lack of a trustworthy point guard on the bench (and the Hill problem, as mentioned above). Shake Milton has worked his way back into the rotation on merit, but he is visibly out of his depth as a table-setter, refusing to throw entry passes when they are there and getting caught picking up his dribble at inopportune times.
That being said, Harris is feeding into the slow, directionless offense of the unit by playing plodding offense. Rivers has done an excellent job with Harris this season as he did in L.A., imploring him to play decisively on and off the ball. That version of Harris was nowhere to be found on Wednesday — his jumper wasn't falling, he couldn't create much separation in the post, and he just simply wasn't involved in the offense all that much. That's okay with the starting group, who had two guys absolutely cooking, but the bench needs a life raft and he is supposed to be it.
Here's the thing: Harris wasn't good with the starters on Wednesday, either. His decision-making was all over the place, throwing risky and/or outright stupid passes, failing to make up for it on either end of the floor. The worst part? Harris was gun-shy for almost all four quarters, sidestepping out of open shots and choking away the good looks the Sixers were able to create.
• Atlanta's big comeback that stole them a win on the road didn't feel like the product of any one thing, and was a lot closer to death by 1000 cuts. The bench being absolutely unplayable was a big part of it, sure, but as starters crept back into the game, the lead kept dwindling.
Mainly, the Sixers could not figure out how to get a stop. Desperate for answers, Nate McMillan opted to go with a Trae Young/Lou Williams backcourt early in the fourth quarter. Williams got rolling something fierce against a bench-heavy lineup, and even if you concede that he can do that at any time against anybody, you should be able to light those two up at will. Philadelphia got some good shotmaking out of Curry, as they did for the rest of the night, but that masked what was otherwise a drab and uninspired effort to attack the weak links.
And after keeping Young in check for the first half of the game, he got rolling and never stopped in the second half, keeping the Sixers off-kilter for most of the final two quarters. It didn't exactly matter who Philadelphia stuck on him, because Young was going by his man with little resistance, and Embiid sitting back in drop far more than he had during his best stretches early in the game.
Doc Rivers is going to catch a boatload of shit after this game is over, and he's going to deserve it. Philadelphia could not come up with answers on either end of the floor, defaulting to dumping the ball to Embiid on offense and praying that he would save them when Young got to the second level on defense. We will dive deeper into the how and why, but this is an all-time choke job led by a coach who has been a participant in several of the NBA's most notable collapses in recent history. He will not be absolved here.
• It is absolutely fair to point out that the Atlanta Hawks actually lost ground during the extended stretch of the first half where they intentionally fouled Ben Simmons. But that had very little to do with what Simmons did at the line or in general, and his free-throw issues only seem to be getting worse as the playoffs wear on.
It's not as though Simmons lacks support from the home crowd — he's being cheered like a Make-a-Wish kid every time he steps to the free-throw line, make or miss, as if the fans believe they can will him into making a few more. Nothing seems to make a difference, and it feeds into the belief that he isn't attacking more because he is scared of going to the line.
In other games, you could at least make the case that Simmons was making up the difference at the defensive end of the floor. Even when Philly was slowing down Young early in the game, the Sixers were auto-switching on a large majority of Atlanta's actions, with other defenders (and certainly Joel Embiid) doing a lot of the work to slow down Young. Simmons certainly had his moments, including a great block of Young early in the third quarter, but he was not the star of the show the way he has been at times on D this season.
Listen man, at a certain point, enough is enough with this guy. The head coach has changed, he has dealt with tough love and been welcomed by open arms from his coaches, his center has morphed into an MVP talent, and he remains who he was four years ago, a talented but flawed player who lacks the ability to steer the ship away from rocks when the Sixers find themselves in danger. There is a reason they searched for an upgrade at primary playmaker during the season, and he is wearing No. 25.
Can you solve a player regressing from the free-throw line this badly in the middle of a playoff run? It feels like the answer is no, but it hasn't stopped the Sixers from winning up to this point.
• Jo, I say this to you with full respect for your commitment to winning — please look out for your body, my guy. The poster dunk attempts in the fourth quarter are not necessary, and only put you at risk for further damage to the lower body.
There was a moment late in the fourth where Embiid fell to the ground and grimaced in pain that nearly brought a raucous arena to a hush. Let's hope it's just Embiid being dramatic because the alternative is a lot scarier.
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