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June 18, 2021

What Sixers must do to keep playoff hopes alive, force Game 7 vs. Hawks

The Sixers completed one of the biggest collapses in NBA playoff history in Game 5, only days removed from melting down in a similar fashion during their Game 4 loss in Atlanta. Much of the last 48 hours have been spent skewering their core pieces, concocting fake trades to make this offseason, and insisting to anyone who will listen that you won't bother to tune in for Game 6.

So, under that backdrop, we ask a simple question — how do the Sixers rebound and bring this series back to Philly?

The mental component

Philadelphia's willingness to fight is the No. 1 story coming into Game 6. If they have it, they remain the more talented team and have the capability to win this series. If they don't, you can form a huddle in front of your TV with loved ones on Friday and yell, "1, 2, 3, Cancun!" Nothing else will matter if the Sixers can't recover from a soul-crushing loss on Wednesday night.

Broadly speaking, the Sixers have been a resilient bunch all season. Like many teams around the league, they had to manage several injury and health crises throughout the season, still ending up at the top of the standings as the No. 1 seed when it was all said and done. Their head coach, who admittedly can't publicly say anything else, said after their Game 5 loss that they would be back in Philly for a dramatic Game 7 on Sunday night.

“We’ll get back up,” Rivers said Wednesday night. “We’ll be back here for Game 7. I believe that...this is part of sports. You have some awful moments. There is no guaranteed path to get to your goal. We have made this hard on ourselves. We have to own up to that, all of us. And then we have to get up and be ready for the next game. It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere — good. We’ll be ready for it.”

Fortunately or unfortunately, this is not Rivers' first time at the rodeo. One moment, which Rivers brought up on Thursday, stands out as a positive example: the Clippers' first-round victory over the Spurs in 2015. L.A. went on the road to win Game 6 and would clinch in dramatic fashion late in Game 7, with Chris Paul banking in a game-winner while effectively playing on one leg. 

(Do yourself a favor and try not to read anything about what happened to the Clippers in the series immediately following that victory over the Spurs.)

Predicting what happens in Game 6 hinges on a lot of guesswork. What mood is Joel Embiid in? Difficult to say after he skipped media availability on Wednesday. Which Tobias Harris will the Sixers get? Hopefully not the one who showed up for Game 5. And most critically, how will Simmons respond to playing two of his worst games of the playoffs back-to-back, his free-throw issues spiraling out of control?

This is where the X's and O's have to intersect in some way with what the head coach knows/believes about his guys. Simmons' lack of involvement in the offense late in games has been well-documented. Is it riskier to stay away from him given how badly the offense has stagnated the last couple of games, or is there more danger force-feeding him scoring reps while he's in a funk? If you're asking me, the Sixers can't get this right if Simmons is just a passenger in the offense, and they need to find some way to make sure he gets involved and stays involved. If that's some early post touches or an emphasis on running and gunning, you do that.

The man in the middle is the guy really worth keeping an eye on. By the time Philadelphia reached Game 4 of the bubble playoffs last season, Embiid was completely checked out on defense, resigned to his team's fate at the end of a nightmare season. He came out with a purpose in Wednesday's loss, but his defensive slippage was as noteworthy as his missed shots in the second half of Game 5. If Philadelphia goes down early, is Embiid going to dig deep and lead, or will their tired and hurt star look at his surroundings and pack it in? These guys will speak with their actions one way or another.

Changing up the rotation 

Here's a hot take: I think scrutinizing rotations has been the most overrated subplot in Sixers world over the last few seasons. Doc Rivers has actually shifted things around relatively quickly in these playoffs, toggling between Milton and Maxey in the backcourt, starting a small-ball group out of the gate in Game 5 against Washington, and abandoning the all-bench look to get Tobias Harris on the floor along with the second unit. There have been some terrible individual choices, like leaving Seth Curry and Furkan Korkmaz to get skewered by Lou Williams, but that's a different story.

On some level, though, the rotation needs a re-work for Game 6. Harris and the bench mob aren't working. Simmons and Howard are perhaps the most toxic two-man combination on the team. Do the Sixers need to make a dramatic change, or are there simple tweaks to make in a do-or-die game?

One option that remains available to Rivers — going small and abandoning Dwight Howard as a rotation player. The Sixers have been outscored by over 10 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the floor in the playoffs, the worst mark of any member of the rotation. Atlanta has spent a healthy chunk of the series going small, but the Sixers haven't made an attempt to counter with their own offense-heavy groups on the bench. Lineups with Simmons at center are hemorrhaging points on the defensive end, but the question is simply whether they can perform better than the current bench group. It is harder for the Sixers to assemble a good two-way group without Danny Green, who gives you a little something on both ends, but it's a bit easier to use Simmons as a roll man/short-roll passer without another big on the floor. 

We saw how this might work in Game 5 against Washington, even if the opportunities weren't always cashed in: 

That's remarkably easy offense. The Hawks are a better and more disciplined defensive team than the Wizards, but Philadelphia can absolutely create advantages in this sort of look.

Perhaps an even more dramatic switch could be made, either in conjunction with that small-ball look or all on its own. Under Brett Brown, Embiid was typically the first player subbed out for Philadelphia, allowing Embiid to feast on second units when he subbed back in for the first time. Going away from that strategy has been fruitful for Philadelphia and Embiid all season, with Embiid thriving as he gets into a rhythm over longer chunks of minutes. And it's not as though Embiid is struggling to get his against Capela, who he has thrown around like a ragdoll at times.

But if you're looking for a way to help out the second unit, sticking Embiid on the floor when Atlanta is most vulnerable (and when the Sixers have the most bench guys on the floor) is one way to get there. The creation issues of guys like Shake Milton don't matter as much when you're just building a post-up ecosystem around Embiid. Get to your spots, stay there, and stay ready.

(Another point worth raising here — if the Sixers go that route, you could make the case to either anchor Seth Curry to Embiid's minutes so they have their dynamic duo of this series joined at the hip, or to leave Curry with the other group so there's an elite shooter helping out lineups in more need of his talents.)

Frankly, I suspect we will see few changes to lineups in Game 6, and certainly don't expect them to tinker with the MVP runner-up's minutes in the most important game of the year. Given that it took two insane collapses to end up here, the Sixers may feel they can win this series without making any tweaks. They may not be wrong there, either. But they certainly have moves to make if they want.

Give the big man some help

Embiid's culpability for their losses in Games 4 and 5 is something we have already discussed at length. Nobody is going to feel sorry for him if the Sixers lose again and he can't find a way to make it happen when it counts in the second half. So it goes.

But with apologies for playing Captain Obvious, the Sixers need more than two guys to make shots from the field in the second half of Game 6. Hell, they need the rest of the starters outside of Embiid and Curry to combine for more than four second-half points. If the Simmons-Harris-Korkmaz trio could have even reached double digits in the second half, the Sixers would be playing for a chance to go to the Conference Finals on Friday night.

The Sixers need more movement, more pace, more everything against Atlanta. And while it sounds nice to say, "We should be able to tell early if they're ready!" the truth is that this team has shattered a lot of trust this week. I doubt anyone will be able to relax until the clock hits zero.

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