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June 17, 2021

Five dislikes from the Sixers' Game 5 meltdown vs. the Hawks

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You already know why we are here. The Sixers completed a historic collapse in their Game 5 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, and you're looking for someone to say the things you want to hear about why they sucked and why their season is on the brink.

If Thursday morning's Ben Simmons appetizer wasn't enough, let's sink our teeth into the rest.

Dislike: Ben Simmons getting sautéed on defense, too

The offensive side of Simmons' disaster class was covered in Thursday morning's initial follow-up column. If you are looking for a discussion of Simmons' free throws and disappearing act on offense, you will find your salvation there.

All season, many have had the thesis that Simmons' all-around contributions — but especially his defense — were enough to make up for what he lacked on the offensive end. Thirty-nine points from Trae Young later, it's a little difficult to make that same case. The man who believed he was Defensive Player of the Year was completely irrelevant in a game where they needed him more than ever.

In fairness to Simmons, some of this came down to the scheme Philadelphia has settled on to defend Young. With Atlanta continuing to send screen after screen in Young's direction, the Sixers have settled on switching more, wanting to stop Young from getting downhill after the first action. The product is fewer possessions with Simmons on Young, which is not exactly how Philadelphia wants the game to go.

But even when Simmons had his chances to guard Young, he had his issues just trying to keep Young in front of him. In fact, it was Joel Embiid who did most of the heavy lifting slowing down Young in the first half, walking the tightrope as Young got into the painted area seemingly whenever he wanted. When he would eventually get his chances late in the game, Simmons looked no different than the average role player attempting to stay in front of a high-level guard:

Embiid being unable and unwilling to contest this shot was a major subplot in their collapse and is worth noting here, but only in the sense that as soon as the big man ran out of gas, the Sixers were finished. If Danny Green had that exact same possession, there would be Sixers fans trying to have him sent to the bench and eventually to the Guangdong Southern Tigers. Once Embiid lost his legs (and thus his ability to save him), Simmons was burnt toast. It was the cherry on top of his offensive diarrhea sundae.

Dislike: Tobias Harris, the four-point man

Focusing as much energy as I have on Simmons over the last 12 hours has led to a lot of exasperated replies along these lines: "What about Tobias Harris?" And I'm not here to argue with anyone who is saving their venom for Philadelphia's $180 million forward, who was a no-show in every possible way in Game 5.

One of the perplexing things about Harris, a Swiss army knife scorer at his best, is that he can go through maddening stretches where he seems to forget why he is on the floor in the first place. Ostensibly, Harris is their No. 2 option, the scoring punch that Joel Embiid needs as he tires over the course of 48 minutes. Forget Harris' misses, what about the shots he never takes? The open threes Philadelphia labors to create, in part because they lack an actual point guard, often end up in the hands of a guy who is too gun-shy to let it go when it matters.

Harris deserves as much scorn for the shots he didn't take as Simmons, and I would hear the argument for piling on him more for that specific issue. At least with Simmons, you go into a game not expecting him to be a scorer. That is Harris' most important (and arguably only) task for this Sixers team, and he couldn't even crack double digits. Hell, he couldn't even get halfway to double digits!

What was most striking during Harris' stinker was his inability to punish Atlanta for playing suspect defenders together throughout the night. Contrary to what you might think, Lou Williams has been a playoff liability for most of his career, with teams hunting him on defense and finding ways to slow him down in the playoff meat grinder. The Sixers are letting him have what is arguably the most effective series of his career (albeit in a smaller role) because they have no ability to punish him on the other end.

That is supposed to be Harris' job. And Harris didn't just "fall short" there on Wednesday, he even managed to make Williams look competent on defense at times. Harris had him on a few switches, possessing all the size and strength advantages you could ask for, and was unable to seal off Williams to catch an entry pass.

Is that a great entry pass from Shake Milton? Absolutely not. But Harris is hardly even trying to make sure he is going to catch this cleanly, and he gets punished for the early work he hasn't done. Even against bad and small defenders, the details matter.

You would hardly think this is the same player as the guy who was blowing Rui Hachimura off of his spot in round one. Unlike with Simmons, it's harder to pinpoint an exact reason for Harris swinging wildly between the two extremes. Is there something wrong with him physically? Is the pressure of delivering that much more intense one round later, with the Sixers playing games of critical importance against a good team? Was this simply who Harris was all along? He wouldn't be the only guy on the roster for whom the regular season is fool's gold. But given his relatively steady play in the 2021 playoffs, I think he deserves some slack, even if it's very little. 

Dislike: Joel Embiid fading down the stretch

It is absolutely true that Joel Embiid carried the Sixers to their big lead and looked spectacular doing so. Without Embiid and Seth Curry, the Sixers would quite literally have had no offense in the second half of Game 5. And yet...

One need look no further than Brooklyn's Game 5 victory over Milwaukee for the two sides of MVP-level expectations. Kevin Durant fired every last bullet in the chamber to get the Nets a victory, turning in a classic, all-time performance while playing every single second of the game. Giannis Antetokounmpo went a long way toward meeting him there, pouring in 34-12-4 on 64 percent from the field in 42 minutes of action. All most people cared about after the game was his inability to get it done, and the team's refusal to use the Greek Freak to slow down Durant's barrage.

Clint Capela was on the verge of being the scapegoat for Atlanta's Game 5 defeat, right up until his postgame comments from two nights earlier were proven sort of correct. Embiid did slow down in the second half, allowing Atlanta to slowly but surely work their way back into the game. His 13 points after halftime were more than three starters combined for in the same period of time, but we aren't judging Embiid by the same standards as Simmons, Harris, and Furkan freaking Korkmaz. If we are to posit that the Sixers are limited by their choice to build a team with Ben Simmons as a point guard, it is only fair to acknowledge that their more important choice is banking on Joel Embiid as the team's No. 1 option. 

The great ones understand what it means to carry that mantle, navigating four quarters with the knowledge that they have to leave something in the tank for when the game slows down and their role-playing teammates don't have what it takes to create shots. Embiid does not exactly wilt in the second halves of games (at least generally speaking), but he is certainly a better first-half player.

A team ultimately takes the shape of their best player, and Embiid's sloppiness after halftime in Game 5 was not excusable regardless of what his two worse teammates offered up. These are turnovers that reflect weakness in Embiid many thought remained in the past: 

Asking for more from him seems impossible right now, given the pain you can see on his face when he crashes to the ground, and his inability to soar through the air to dunk as he barrels toward the rim. Embiid would probably not wear down like this, it stands to reason, if he had an actual guard leading the team and making his life easier on offense.

But no one is going to cut him slack if he's on the floor and healthy enough to put up 37 points. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. 

Dislike: Doc Rivers, sticking to his guns

The book on Rivers was pretty straightforward coming into the year: good coach overall who excels at setting a hierarchy for his team, is well-liked around the league, and has failed in spectacular fashion in some of the NBA's greatest playoff collapses. Stubbornness has been a feature of his time running teams with expectations, and while Rivers has adapted more than I thought he would during this playoff run, he remains the man he has always been, content to go down with the players and plan who got him here.

I am perhaps the foremost skeptic of playing small ball around Simmons on the internet. Everything about the data and the eye test says it does not work, specifically because they can't stop anything at the rim when they go that route. But the Sixers have also rarely tried to do anything differently when putting that lineup on the floor. Why not try a 2-3 zone with Simmons and Thybulle at the top of it? Why not aggressively blitz a few pick-and-rolls to see if you can rattle Atlanta's playmakers? Full-court pressure unraveled the Hawks in the final minutes of Game 1, and the Sixers have not so much as attempted to go back to it in the games since. Isn't that something more easily executable if you go small and put quicker players on the floor?

Mind you, these are theories that should have been tested more in the regular season so that Philadelphia wouldn't have to test them in real time during the playoffs. It's the sort of thing other coaches have done against them for years — In an early December 2019 game against the Raptors, for example, Toronto unleashed a full-court press that cut what should have been a blowout victory down to a six-point win for Philly, unsettling the Sixers in the process. Outside of Philly's zone success against the Pacers earlier this season, rarely have we seen them throw curveballs or try new lineups for the sake of short-term gains and long-term experience. And admittedly, sticking to one thing is part of why they emerged with the No. 1 seed. Consistency was key.

But consistency can only take you so far, and consistency for consistency's sake isn't worth much. Harris and four bench players is not working, and it was bad enough Wednesday to allow the Hawks to turn a 25-point deficit into a more manageable game before Rivers finally did something about it. It would be kind to Rivers to even suggest he is coaching reactively instead of proactively — there are stretches in this series where he doesn't seem to be recognizing the game situation as it is playing out in front of all our eyes.

Personally, I am not as sour on Rivers as I am on other portions of this Sixers machine after Game 5. But how could you not question his involvement in another historic collapse? 

Dislike: Seriously, what is George Hill here for?

I don't have much left to offer here, honestly. But it's hard to believe Hill is the same guy who has helped an assortment of playoff teams in the past. He is floating through time and space like a wayward satellite, drifting beyond the planet's gravitational pull. The other bench guards haven't been much (if any) better, but they don't carry the expectations of an experienced vet.

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